With Cinestill 800t popping up all over Instagram, it’s no wonder many photographers are looking to jump into shooting film at night. There’s something ethereal and almost creepy about late night photography on film. Whether it’s the high contrast, the off-colors in the shadows, or the exaggerated grains, film captures mood like no other.
Film is difficult to shoot at night for three key reasons. 1. there are no available color films with an ISO higher than 800, and no B&W films higher than 3200. 2. the further film is pushed, the less detail it captures. And 3. film suffers from reciprocity failure when exposing for longer than one second.
But with a little knowledge, you’ll be able to produce incredible results, even when pushing film. Here’s how I take photos at night.
Choosing 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 likely leave you with extra grain, and potentially some off colors in the shadows. But if you’re able to use flash for portraits, or a tripod for landscapes, it’s easy to overcome the limitations of low-ISO film at night.
The best black and white films for shooting hand held after dark are Ilford Delta 3200 and Kodak T-Max 3200. 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.
These films can be pushed to ISO 12,800, although they tend to start losing shadow details and producing large grains quickly.
The best color film available for low light is Cinestill 800t, which pushes to ISO 3200 surprisingly well. Other films, like Portra 400 or Portra 800 only push well to ISO 1600 before they start becoming too contrasty and exhibit color shifts.
There used to be more color films available at higher ISO speeds, like Fuji Natura 1600. But all of these stocks have since gone away.
Wedding and event photographers will typically use high ISO black and white film later into the evening. The main reason why is because wedding and event photographers need to be able to use faster shutter speeds to capture emotion. And there’s no way to do that without pushing color film.
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.
How to meter film exposures at night
Metering film at night requires more attention to detail than exposing dueing the day. Many camera light meters also do not work as well at night, and may overexpose your images.
As a general rule, exposing for the shadows at night will result in the best images on film. That means shooting the image with a slower shutter speed than you would on digital cameras, because film captures immensely more detail in the highlights than the shadows.
Especially when you have a tripod, it’s possible to capture more detail in the highlights than even a single image on a digital camera can capture. In this article I show how much more detail I was able to get out of my negatives when using a DSLR scan than on single-image scan.
At night, the extra overexposure latitude on film is incredibly useful. Since the difference between the highlights and shadows can be extreme at night, it’s possible to completely overexpose the highlights and still bring back all of the detail. But if the shadows are underexposed, it will not be possible to bring them back.
That’s why night requires careful metering. The best method is to use a spot meter to read the exposure in the shadows. There is a free app that I love using for Android and iPhone users, however, called Light Meter by WBPhoto. This app is the one I personally use, because it has a spot meter function that shows you how the exposure changes when exposing for the highlights or shadows.
Of course, when printing film in the darkroom, having blocked highlights can create more of a challenge, as they will require more exposure than the shadow sections to produce an image. However, there are many techniques, like dodging and burning, or split-grade printing that can ensure a full tonal range in the resulting print.
How to get a fast shutter speed at night or at concerts
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 at night:
- 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: 800 or faster.
Pushed film, and shots metered for the highlights will exhibit higher contrast than film metered for the shadows. 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.
But you’ll also need the right gear to expose the images properly. Luckily, nearly every 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.
Look for high contrast scenes around cities and towns where the streetlights illuminate subjects. You may have to wait or search for a good composition to capture people at night. But that effort is well worth it for the results you’ll capture.
Pay attention to technical data sheets
Most film is designed to be shot in daylight and will require an exposure adjustment under street lamps and other tungsten light sources. This was a big adjustment for me, and one that I had to learn the hard way. Before considering how the light affects the film sensitivity, many of my nighttime color negatives would always come out thin or underexposed.
For example, Kodak Portra 400 can be shot at ISO 400 in daylight. But when you’re shooting this film under the tungsten street lamps, you’ll have to expose it as if it were an ISO 100 film. If you plan to do this type of photography with an automatic point-and-shoot camera, be sure that you’re able to adjust the ISO or use exposure compensation before going out.
Most black and white films, like Ilford HP5 and Delta 3200, can be used without adjustment at night (so long as the exposure is quicker than 1-second — more on that below), since their spectral sensitivity is the same across the light spectrum. Orthochromatic B&W film, however, will require additional exposure, and some films may even be unusable at night because of their limited red spectral sensitivity.
For best results, always check the technical data sheets before using your film at night. These sheets provided by the manufacturers contain a treasure trove of information, and should always be referenced.
What is Reciprocity Failure?
When you plan to make exposures that are longer than 1-second, you will need to factor in reciprocity failure. Reciprocity failure is when film becomes less sensitive when there is only low-intensity light available, such as at night, or when using a neutral density filter.
Reciprocity is the idea that exposure is a linear progression, meaning opening the aperture by one stop will increase the exposure by 1 stops throughout the entire range. When exposing film for longer than one second that linear progression where one-stop equals one-stop breaks down,
Reciprocity failure happens because there is less energy carried per unit of low-intensity light, making it fail to excite the electrons to make the film grains developable. So when you take exposures longer than one second, you’ll need to calculate a longer exposure than the one your light meter suggests.
The simple formula for calculating reciprocity failure
Every film has a different sensitivity and will require a slightly different exposure adjustment, which can be found on its technical data sheet. But most film falls in the same approximate range, which makes it possible to use a single calculation for nearly any film without seeing a noticeable difference.
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 and a 120-second (2-minute) exposure becomes 530 seconds (8.8 minutes).
Alternatively, the Light Meter app by WB photo mentioned above also contains a built-in reciprocity failure calculator.
Reciprocity failure happens because there isn’t enough energy in the low-intensity light to properly excite the electrons in the film grains, which is what makes them developable.
Especially when the light is coming from pinpoint sources like stars or small lights. The light needs to excite 3 electrons on the film grain to make that grain developable. So if they’re hitting the film emulsion from a small source without much energy it will take longer to excite those electrons — if they can find them in the first place.
But using this reciprocity recipe, you’ll be able to ensure perfect exposures every time.
Use manual focus
If you’re using an autofocus camera, chances are it’s going to struggle in low light. Human eyes are way better at seeing in the dark than the old camera autofocus sensors. So you’re going to get far more photos in focus by using manual focus when possible.
If you’re trying to take photos of the stars, or landscapes in the distance, then the best way to get proper focus using autofocus will be to find the moon, and get your camera to focus on that. If it’s a large moon, then your camera will have no problem focusing there. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck trying to line up the focus with the infinity marker, which can be a dubious task.
Many of the old school lenses can be turned all the way in one direction to hit infinity focus. But newer lenses made for Nikon and Canon can actually move past the infinity point.
The reason they go past infinity is to account for tiny 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.
Camera functions for long exposures
When you’re looking to do long exposures, there are some camera settings that will make your job far easier. The issue is that most cameras built with electronic functions often were designed to make photography easier, by making the exposure choices automatically for the photographer. When that happened, the manufacturers often left out some of these important functions from the camera, as the extra settings could be confusing, or not important for everyday shooting.
So many of these modes are found in the more professional versions of the cameras. But most fully manual cameras, like those made in the ‘70s or earlier, will have at least two of these functions.
Bulb mode: this is the mode where the photographer either holds down the shutter button, or presses it twice (once to open the shutter, once to release it), and calculates the exposure time themselves. Usually marked on your shutter speed dial by the capital B. Useful for making any exposure longer than 1 second. For exposures longer than a minute, you’ll want to use a remote shutter release with a locking mechanism.
Mirror Lockup: mirror lockup is usually only found on the pro cameras, but this mode ensures that there is no camera shake introduced by the mirror moving up and down in the cameras. Because this function has to happen so quickly for sports, wildlife, street, and reportage photography, it will often jolt the camera just enough to reduce the sharpness of a long exposure.
When you use mirror lockup, you’ll have to make all of your adjustments before using this feature, as you’ll no longer be able to see through the viewfinder when the mirror is open.
Alternatively, you can use a rangefinder camera, which has no mirror to move. These cameras typically have no motion, and make very little sound when the shutter is released because of the lack of a mirror.
10-second timer, or a space for a remote shutter release: Most modern cameras built in a self timer, where older cameras had a remote release cable port built in. These were essential for anyone wanting to take a self portrait. So even the entry-level cameras will have this function in one form or another.
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.