Over the last two years, I’ve spent most of my time perfecting night photography on film. Film presents some unique challenges over shooting digital, but the results are clearly worth it. There’s a reason why we’re all loving the look of CineStill 800t at night — and it’s not just for the halations.
Shooing film at night is easy, but requires three key considerations to create a proper exposure: 1. using the right type of film and ISO, 2. adjusting for reciprocity failure, and 3. adjusting the ISO to work under tungsten light sources.
Most of my favorite shots lately have happened after dark — especially when there’s just a little bit of light left in the sky, but all the interior lights are still on. There’s such a cool mood to these photographs, and it’s that time of day when I’m continually inspired to go out and capture some of the best shots possible.
Here’s how I’ve taken some my favorite photos to date.
1. Choose the right film stock
Using the right film stock for low light photography is essential. Using film stocks with an ISO lower than 400 will require a tripod or an extreme push in the development process that will leave you with grainy and contrasty photos. But if you’re able to use flash for portraits on film or a tripod for landscapes, you will have no problem overcoming the limitations of low ISO film at night.
The best B&W films for taking photos at night are Ilford Delta 3200 and Kodak T-Max 3200 (find them on Amazon here). Both of these films are actually ISO 1000 films, but they have excellent pushing potential, and create exceptional image quality even pushed to ISO 6400.
The best color film available for low light is CineStill 800t, which pushes to ISO 3200 surprisingly well, and doesn’t need an exposure adjustment under tungsten light. Find CineStill film on Adorama, or Amazon here.
Of course, if you have a tripod and are able to do long exposures, the ISO value won’t matter as much as being able to meter and expose the image properly, including accounting for reciprocity failure.
2. Metering film for perfect exposures at night
Metering film at night requires more attention to detail than exposing during the day.
As a general rule, exposing for the shadows at night will result in the best images on film. Film captures far more detail in the highlights than it does in the shadows, so it is always safer to use a longer exposure time to ensure you have good shadow details.
It’s possible to overexpose the highlights significantly and still bring back all of the detail (especially if you use an HDR scan). But if the shadows are underexposed, it will not be possible to bring them back.
The best way to get a perfect exposure on film at night is to use a spot meter to read the exposure in the shadows. The cheapest spot meter option is a phone app called Light Meter by WBPhoto. I personally use this app for all my metering because of its spot meter and exposure preview functions.
3. Look for information in technical data sheets
Most film is designed to be shot in daylight and will require an exposure adjustment under tungsten light sources like streetlamps. This was a big adjustment for me, and one that I had to learn the hard way.
For example, Kodak Portra 400 can be shot at ISO 400 in daylight. But you’ll have to expose it as an ISO 100 film under tungsten street lamps. The only color film that is the exception to this rule is CineStill 800t, which is the reason why this is the best color film for taking photos at night.
Most black and white films can be used without an ISO adjustment under tungsten light, (but will need an adjustment with exposures longer than 1 second — more on that below), since they are sensitive to a wider band of light than color film.
The one exception to this rule is orthochromatic film, like Ilford Ortho 80, which is not sensitive to red light, so it will need an exposure adjustment to create a perfect exposure. Always check the technical data sheets before using your film at night. These sheets provided by the manufacturers contain a treasure trove of information.
4. Calculate for reciprocity failure
Reciprocity is the concept where opening the aperture by one click will let in as much light as using a one-click shower shutter speed. For example, if you’re shooting at 1/125 and f/5.6, you will get the exact same exposure using f/8 and 1/60th, or f/4 and 1/250th. But with film, reciprocity breaks down when exposure times are longer than one second.
Reciprocity failure happens because there is less energy carried per unit of low-intensity light. So the film grains require more of the low-intensity light to become developable — at least in most film stocks. After 1 second, almost every film will need a simple exposure adjustment to create a perfect exposure.
The only exception to this rule is Fuji Acros II, which uses a patented film sensitization technique that allows the film to not need a reciprocity failure adjust until needing to expose for longer than 2 minutes.
The simple formula for calculating reciprocity failure
Every film has a different spectral sensitivity in low light and will require a slightly different exposure adjustment, which can be found on its technical data sheet with a simple Google seach. But most film falls in the same approximate range, which makes it possible to use a single calculation for nearly any film.
The simple calculation is to multiply your metered exposure time (in seconds) to the power of 1.31. For those who have tried staying as far away from math as possible, that calculation can be done using the ^ or xy symbol on your phone’s calculator.
Using the (metered shutter speed in seconds)^1.31 equation, a 2-second exposure becomes 2.5 seconds to account for reciprocity failure, while a 15-second exposure becomes 34.7 seconds. Using the same formula, a 120-second (2-minute) exposure becomes 530 seconds (8.8 minutes).
Using this reciprocity recipe you’ll be able to ensure perfect exposures every time.
5. Use manual focus
Auto focus will struggle at night on any film camera.
If you’re trying to take photos of the stars, or landscapes in the distance, then the best way to get proper focus using auto focus will be to focus on the moon or another bright object in the frame. Open your aperture all the way, or use a prime lens with a large maximum aperture. Smaller apertures, like f/4 will be dim at night and difficult to find focus.
I do not suggest getting to infinity focus by turning the focusing ring all the way to the infinity side. While older lenses can be turned all the way in one direction to hit infinity focus, newer lenses made for Nikon and Canon can actually move past the infinity point.
The reason they go past infinity is to account for changes in the size of the lens when its exposed to the heat. When you go past that infinity mark on a cool night, everything is going to be out of focus. So newer lenses require more care when focusing on infinity after dark.
6. Use a remote shutter release and a tripod
Using a remote shutter release and a tripod will allow you to capture better film photographs at night.
It’s nearly impossible to keep a camera steady for even 1/30th of a second. And even when your camera is on a tripod, you will add some shake to the image just by pressing the shutter button. I’ve taken hundreds of photos on a tripod, and no matter how careful I am or how steady the tripod is, it’s impossible not to move the camera when pressing the shutter button.
If your camera has a remote timer, and mirror lockup functions, they will be incredibly helpful. But if you want to time the images, like for example when taking photos of fireworks, or capturing the decisive moment when a cyclist passes by, you’ll need to use a remote shutter release for best results.
Remote shutter releases (like this one I use on Amazon) are universal, so a cable release will work on nearly any manual film camera. The only time when they may not work is on modern point and shoots, or toy cameras with fixed exposure settings. I also personally recommend the Peak Design Travel Tripod, which is lightweight, and packs up so small that it has become an incredibly helpful tool that hasn’t once left my bag since. You can read my full review of the Peak Design travel tripod, or find the best deal on the Peak Design website.
7. Push film, or wait for the right light
What if you don’t want to use a tripod at night? It’s definitely possible to get night photos with shutter speeds that are fast enough to hand hold. When you need a faster shutter speed to hand hold your images, you’ll need to either sacrifice the shadow details and meter for the highlights, or push your film.
The ideal settings for shooting handheld:
- Shutter speed: faster than your focal length (shoot faster than 1/50th when using a 50mm).
- Aperture: as low as possible. Using the 50mm lens that comes with most film cameras is ideal.
- ISO: Choose a film that’s ISO 800 or faster, and if possible, tungsten balanced.
Look for lenses with large maximum apertures. Most film camera comes with a prime lens that has a large aperture — typically the 50mm f/1.8 on 35mm cameras, or 80mm f/2.8 on medium format. The kit lenses from these cameras are tack sharp, and can allow you to easily get a fast enough shutter speed for shooting at night.
Pushing film is another great way to boost the ISO so you can use a faster shutter speed at a cost of a bit more contrast. but there are methods (such as stand development) and film developers (like DD-X) that create really good, dense negatives when pushing.
At concerts, metering for the highlights can create a cool effect, since the stage lights are usually enough to fully illuminate the artist while keeping the rest of the stage invisible. When shooting on the street, find a section of the street that has good light, and wait for someone to walk through before pressing the shutter. It takes more time, but the results with the good light on film are well worth it.
This article could easily extend another 1,000 words and still not fully cover the topic of getting perfect exposures on film at night. If you have any other questions, or tips that you’ve learned about shooting film at night, let me know down in the comments below! I always love hearing feedback, and your questions will help this article reach more people.
Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.