About the Author: Ignacio Alvarez is a photography instructor at City Colleges of Chicago.
The histogram is bunched up to the left (darker values), with no values recorded to the right (lighter values). As a result, the picture is too dark for what I wanted. I wanted the lights on the lamp post to blow-out, and to get some of the detail of the clouds in the sky.
Also keep the ISO as low as possible, 200 or less, as the noise on many digital cameras increases rapidly about 400 and up. In my experience, Canon make the best cameras for dealing with noise. With Canon cameras you can shoot at quite high ISOs but keep the level of noise down to an acceptable level.
Reciprocity also breaks down at extremely high levels of illumination with very short exposures. This is a concern for scientific and technical photography, but rarely to general photographers, as exposures significantly shorter than a millisecond are only required for subjects such as explosions and particle physics experiments, or when taking high-speed motion pictures with very high shutter speeds (1/10,000 of a second or faster).
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So the camera is set, the film is in, everything is working correctly. You are ready to go and expose film. But, when shooting film at night it actually loses speed and the actual film speed or ASA is not valid. So, you must take that into account and compensate for Reciprocity Failure or ‘reciprocity law’ (what happens to film at night, or indoors with artificial light and very long exposure).
Black and White Photography TechniquesNight Photography Tips Recommended Reading (for Kindle)
Much better! The values are more evenly distributed in the histogram, and this ‘negative’ has recorderd all of the information in the scene that I want. I now have the details in the clouds I wanted, and a pleasing flare in the blown-out light sources.
Although you can significantly decrease your shutter speeds by increasing the ISO on your camera (or using higher ISO film), the cleanest results are obtained by shooting at low ISO settings. Higher ISOs in both film and digital photography result in higher grain/noise. While this is not necessarily a bad thing (I am a big fan of grain myself), in this tutorial I am focusing on long exposures at low ISO settings for the sharpest, most detailed, results.
I wrote this article for my darkroom photography students and for others who want to shoot photos at night using film but have no idea how to do it. I know that few people these days are creating images with film and the ones that are, are either very savvy or are totally lost. Taking pictures with film is very different than using a digital camera. With film, you want to expose properly so you end up with very good negatives to print.
After examining the histogram on the scene, I then took the second exposure (right) at 30 seconds, resulting in a ‘digital negative’ that recorded all of the information that I wanted to preserve.
A digital camera helps you to create an image with an extended range by creating multiple images using HDR photography, and then stitching them together in Photoshop. This means that you have to take many steps to obtain the same range of tones than you can obtain in one well exposed negative. With the number of apps and editing programs out there, your options are unlimited! I appreciate that. But, even with all these advantages, many people with very expensive cameras are unfamiliar with the fundamentals of photography and will have just “nice” images on their Facebook wall. Film gives you a deeper understanding of the multiple processes that go into making a solid print suitable for framing. These instructions are designed to help you render consistent high quality negatives.
Your in-camera meter may give a good reading to use as a starting point. If your subject is too dark and your camera refuses to provide a reading, try selecting a higher ISO and/or a wider aperture to get the meter to read, then translate the reading to your desired ISO setting. If mental mathematical calculations give you a headache and you are shooting digital, just choose a shutter speed and make the shot (another great product of the digital age is the delete button, for really bad exposures). By examining the resulting histogram, you can adjust your exposure up or down from your test exposure, making shots until you get a good over-all exposure. This is fine, and doesn’t take too long when the scene being photographed requires an exposure of between 1 and 10 seconds, but can be a pain in extreme situations that require much longer exposure times.
I strongly recommend Ilford films. I use Ilford HP5 most of the time as it has very little grain (if you expose it correctly). The second film that I recommend is Kodak Tri-X; this is a legendary film. A little too grainy for my taste, but a great film nevertheless.
The information included here is what I normally do when I expose film at night or indoors with very little light. I do this to capture enough light and end up with very good negatives. Nowadays not many people know that film has a greater capability to capture light than digital sensors. What I mean by that is that the range of tones is greater in film when exposed properly. So, to capture enough light on film and have the range you are looking for, you have to do it well.
If you’re interested in knowing more about panchromatic film, here is a link with more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panchromatic_film
Find any subject that you think looks interesting. Set up your tripod so that it is very stable, and compose your photograph in the viewfinder. The key here is experimentation — not everything you photograph will turn out as you expected, especially in very low light photography. It’s part of the fun (and the frustration). One suggestion is to remove any lens filters from your lens — in my experience they cause ugly glare when strong light sources are inside (or just outside) of your frame.
Can you imagine an exposure of 256 seconds? And this is without compensating for reciprocity failure.
Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 1/20 sec, f/1.8, ISO 1600, lens focal length 50 mm
Above: A Performer at 2007 Buskerfest in Toronto, Canada by Darren Tse
Mesopic vision means a combination of both photopic and scotopic and predominates at dawn and dusk or in urban areas that are dimly lit. The combination of the higher total sensitivity of the rods in the eye for the blue range with the color perception of the cones results in a very strong appearance of bluish colours around dawn or other low levels of light. Mesopic vision is what most of us use at night as there is so much ‘light pollution’ nowadays.
Finally, here is an additional chart where I use 100 ASA film at a very small aperture of the lens and compensate for reciprocity accordingly. Remember, the longer you expose film the more it loses speed, this is why I compensate to such percentages.
The next step, of course, is the post-processing, which for this image involved a conversion to black and white, and local contrast and levels adjustments in my photo-processing software. The completed image is at the top of this page. Unfortunately, reproduced here at such a small size and, depending upon your monitor settings*, you may not be able to see the clouds at all. But the point is that the result of having properly exposed the shot for the details I wanted to preserve ensured that they were there for me to work with in the post-processing phase. Had I stuck with my initial 20-second exposure and moved on to another shot, I would have been forced to live with a completely black sky.
This tutorial is moderately advanced, and really will be of most benefit to those photographers with an understanding of exposure, and who have a film or digital camera that enables manual selection of aperture and shutter speed. It’s far from the final word on long-exposure photography, just a short introduction and some tips, so please share your own experiences and knowledge on night and low-light photography by leaving your comments.
A 4-second exposure is much better than a 16-second exposure but then you will have to choose a wider aperture so depth of field will be smaller and more of the background will be out of focus. This could be a plus of course, depending on your intentions.
The term reciprocity failure means that with long exposures, the film becomes less sensitive to light and results become unpredictable. This particularly occurs with long exposures such as those needed in the low-level light conditions that you usually have to work with in black and white night photography. Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 and FP4 films work well at night but Ilford films in general have a greater tendency towards reciprocity failure.
Since they did not want people in the picture (below) and this lobby is busy 24 hours a day, I ended up using a small aperture on a Linhoff medium format camera and shot the picture exposing it for 32 minutes after reciprocity correction.
So, with the film that you have in the camera your exposure is 16 seconds but, this is before compensating for reciprocity failure or a different aperture of the lens. I know that using the lens fully open is a good idea but maybe you want to use a smaller aperture, let’s say f/8. The chart is correct for the film with the ASA you have in the camera, but not for an aperture of f/8. For that aperture, keep adjusting. Please notice that now that we found the correct exposure for 200 ASA film, we keep that ASA and change the aperture of the lens only! Since we are cutting the amount of light in half every time we close the aperture of the lens, we double the exposure time to compensate. ALL these combinations will give us exactly the same amount of light in the film; this is called reciprocal exposures.
As if dealing with mesopic vision wasn’t enough, there is another problem that awaits you in black and white night photography and that is a thing called ‘reciprocity failure’. This only occurs with film and it is more pronounced with black and white film than colour film.
Seeing in the Dark: A Guide to Night Photography Seeing the Unseen – How to Photograph Landscapes at Night
(2) A camera capable of long exposures (over 1 second). On most film SLR cameras there is a “B” setting (which stands for Bulb), that keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter release is depressed. My digital camera has the Bulb setting just after the 30 second mark when shooting mode is set to Manual. Some digital cameras may have the Bulb setting buried in a menu — consult your camera manual if you are unsure.
Of course you are not going to have the same aperture and shutter speeds as in this sample, this chart is simply a calculation reference. Start cutting the ASA in half, each time you cut the ASA in half that corresponds to one full stop of exposure, so just double the shutter speed and the exposure time will be correct.
Black and White Night Photography -Tips for Digital & Film Photographers
This is potentially a problem if you are shooting in colour and converting to black and white afterwards in Photoshop. More about this further down the page.
Night vision is called scotopic vision which means the human eye uses rods to sense light. Scotopic vision cannot perceive colours and records light in terms of black, white and grey. But importantly, the sensitivity range of the rods makes the eye more sensitive to blue light at night.
Although the colour temperature for night shots is actually the same as for daylight, the difficulty in believing this is because objects at night usually look blueish to the human eye.
(5) A small flashlight is often extremely helpful. Accessing various settings on your camera in very low light can be next to impossible. I often set the mirror lockup function and ISO before leaving home when I am going out to shoot night photographs.
For a properly exposed shot, the histogram should show little or no clipping in the highlights or shadows. The examples on the right show the histograms for two separate exposures of the Film Noire shot above, along with the corresponding photo. The first shot was taken with an exposure time of 20 seconds, resulting in a shot that was too dark — there were details that I wanted to preserve (primarily the clouds) that were lost.
First of all, film does not respond to artificial light the same way as digital camera sensors. I suggest that if you want a type of film that responds to all types of light, you use panchromatic film. What is panchromatic you ask? Panchromatic film is a normal black-and-white film sensitive to light of all visible colors (electromagnetic wavelengths between 400 nm and 700 nm). There are other types of film, for example, orthochromatic film, which is not sensitive to all waves (colors) of light.
“Arcade” — A long exposure (approximately 90 seconds) shot on medium-format film.
(1) A tripod or, at the very least, a sturdy surface where you can place the camera while making the exposure, is a necessity.
Before you have the film in the camera, make sure everything is in working order: Apertures, shutter speeds and light meter. Since we are trying to expose film correctly, do not set the ASA in the camera to 400, which is what the film is rated. This number will give you okay negatives but not very good negatives. So, set your ASA to 200 and follow the light meter! What I mean by this, is to make sure that you do not over or under expose each shot. Of course, you do not have to do this all the time, only when you want very good negatives! Some students overexposed their negatives on top of the ASA sensitivity compensation and then want to under develop the roll based on something they read on the internet! Wrong! Develop the film normally, at the correct time. You want one stop of over exposure in your negatives, otherwise, if you under-develop, you undo this compensation and will screw up the rest of the images in the roll which were properly exposed.
At very low light levels, film is less responsive. Light can be considered to be a stream of discrete photons, and a light-sensitive emulsion is composed of discrete light-sensitive grains, usually silver halide crystals. Each grain must absorb a certain number of photons in order for the light-driven reaction to occur and the latent image to form. In particular, if the surface of the silver halide crystal has a cluster of approximately four or more reduced silver atoms, resulting from absorption of a sufficient number of photons (usually a few dozen photons are required), it is rendered developable. At low light levels, i.e. few photons per unit time, photons impinge upon each grain relatively infrequently; if the four photons required arrive over a long enough interval, the partial change due to the first one or two is not stable enough to survive before enough photons arrive to make a permanent latent image center.
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, 1/5 sec, f/5, ISO 800, lens focal length 38 mm
Back in the old days of film photography, proper exposure was much tougher to determine than it is in the digital age. With exposures exceeding 1 second, film suffered from what is known as reciprocity failure. What that means is that, up to a one-second exposure, film had a pretty linear response to light. After one second, this response slowed, so that it was difficult to figure out the proper exposure for a scene. With digital photography, it’s easier because you can see the resulting histogram of the shot you have just taken, and make adjustments to your exposure time until you get what you want.
Film photography is a lot more than just a push a button and hope for the best. Can you get beautiful images with digital? Of course! Can you use your digital camera and do the same extra-long exposures? Absolutely! But compare digital to film; nothing will beat the thrill of seeing your first print that you carefully composed, developed, tested, and exposed as it slowly appears in a developer tray.
One of the difficulties for many photographers who use film is exposing it correctly at night. Shutters are different in every camera, so you have to do your own testing to get good results. You have to expose the film correctly and make sure that you expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights. This has been the motto of many great photographers for many years. Film can capture great detail in the shadows and highlights, but if you do not control the developing process, the highlights will end up as white patches with no detail. By controlling the developing process you control the highlights. This will give you images with great tonality.
If you do decide to record in colour and convert afterwards, don’t make the mistake of converting your images using the desaturate option under the image/adjustments menu as results will be much better using the channel mixer. Just check the ‘monochrome’ box and play about with the sliders. Provided you make sure that the values add up to 100, the lightness won’t alter – unless you like a particular effect of course.
So it’s important to realise that in black and white night photography, what you are seeing is not exactly what the camera will record. You have to learn ‘black and white thinking’ to allow you to make informed choices as that beautiful blue night scene will look different in the final black and white shot.
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Now that you have your camera mounted on a sturdy tripod, with everything locked firmly into place, and your shot framed, it’s time to click the shutter. In the best-case scenario, you will have mirror lock-up enabled, and will be firing the shutter with a cable release, but as I mentioned previously, this is not absolutely necessary. It becomes more of an issue when printing the resulting photograph to large sizes, as deficiencies in sharpness caused by camera shake will begin to become obvious. For shorter exposures, you may be able to use your camera’s self-timer instead of a shutter release.
If you set your digital camera to record in black and white, it ignores these possibilities and just records the strength of the light on a scale from 0 to 255. Pure black is 0 and pure white is 255 and everything else is shades of grey. In other words, by setting the camera to black and white rather than colour, you have just thrown away most of the 16 million possibilities and opted for 256 possibilities.
Some unique and stunning photographs can be taken in the dark of night. While there are many possibilities for night photography, including fireworks photography and high-speed (high ISO) hand-held photography, this tutorial focuses on examples of long exposures (over one second) of stationary objects, at low ISO settings.
If you are shooting digital, your camera will record light of three different colours, red, green and blue, on a scale of 0 up to 255. The three readings combine to give a single reading for each dot on your sensor. Since each colour has a possibility of 256 readings, the total number of possibilities in a single pixel is 256 x 256 x 256 which is more than 16 million possibilities – so many colours!
Above: Black and White Photo of a Bench in Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut, at Night by Sage Ross
(4) A shutter release. Again, not an absolute necessity, but it will save you from having to stand with your finger depressing the shutter during the long exposure times and, more importantly, since you are not physically touching the camera during the exposure, there is no chance that you will cause the camera to move (wind is a whole other story). For exposures under 30 seconds, you may be able to use your camera’s self-timer instead of a shutter release.
Focusing can be a major dificulty in low light. Auto-focus, if you have it, is often rendered useless. In order to compensate for potential inaccuracy in my focusing, I often shoot at smaller apertures in order to gain a greater depth of field.
Still, the values in the concrete, as well as the moon, are far too bright for my taste, but at the point of capture the intent is to ensure that all the data in the scene is recorded, not that everything is perfect. That is, highlights that are blown-out in the negative are lost forever, and the same goes for shadow details that are blocked-up. This is why the histogram is such a useful tool — we can tell immediately after capture whether we have over-exposed or under-exposed too much and forever lost important shadow or highlight detail.
Go to a dark (and safe) area of your street, it doesn’t matter what you photograph; your concern right now is on learning before creating. Set your camera in the tripod, screw in the cable release, and set the ASA in the dial as high as it will go. Older cameras can go to 1600 or 3200 ASA; set it there. Now set your lens to the biggest aperture—let’s say f/2.8. Look at your light meter and read the shutter speed. What is it? If you are in a very dark place, your light meter will probably give you a long exposure even with the ASA at 1600. Let’s assume that the correct time that you read in the light meter is 2 seconds. If you had 1600 ASA film in the camera this will be half okay, but you don’t have that. Remember, we are shooting with Ilford HP5 400 at 200 ASA. Copy this sample chart in your notebook so you remember it for next time:
If you enjoyed this article on black and white night photography, consider taking some shots of the moon next time you are out at night. Click the following link if you would like to read photography tips for making moon photographs.
“Film Noire” — Taken in Ottawa at around midnight (Digital capture; Canon EOS 20D, 30 seconds, f/18, ISO 100)
Hilton Towers lobby Hotel on Michigan Ave. Kodak Film 25 ASA shot at 12 ASA
* Incidentally, never rely upon your camera’s preview of a photograph to determine whether it is properly exposed. A camera’s display is just like a computer monitor — if you have it set to a high brightness, what looks properly exposed on your camera’s display will, in reality, be horribly underexposed. The histogram is the only reliable way to determine the range of values that you actually captured.
Another example: For a given film, if a light meter indicates a required EV of 5 and the photographer sets the aperture to f/11, then ordinarily a 4-second exposure would be required; a reciprocity correction factor of 1.5 would require the exposure to be extended to 6 seconds for the same result. Reciprocity failure generally becomes significant at exposures of longer than about 1 second for film, and above 30 seconds for paper.
For most photographic materials, reciprocity is valid with good accuracy over a range of values of exposure duration, but becomes increasingly inaccurate as we depart from this range. As the light level decreases out of range, the increase in duration, and hence of total exposure, required to produce an equivalent response becomes higher than the formula states. For example, at half the light required for a normal exposure, the duration must be more than doubled for the same result. Multipliers used to correct for this effect are called reciprocity factors.
Since film cameras will not record everything you do in the field, bring a notebook to document everything you do in the camera. Also, bring a tripod, cable release, flashlight and lots and lots of patience. Patience is probably the most important part in the process of using film. Also, don’t just shoot willy nilly; be selective of what you photograph. Remember that a roll of film is only 24 or 36 exposures; make everyone count as if it was the last photo you were ever going to create. This will make you a very good, or better yet, a great photographer.
Normal vision is called photopic vision which means the human eye uses cones to sense light. The eye is working in photopic mode during daylight. During photopic vision three types of cone receptors in the eye are used to sense light as three colours, red, green and blue.
Reciprocity failure doesn’t happen with digital cameras but there is another problem then which is that digital noise increases with the longer exposures. The answer is to use a tripod and keep the exposure as short as possible.
This breakdown in the usual tradeoff between aperture and shutter speed is known as reciprocity failure. Each different film type has a different response at low light levels. Some films are very susceptible to reciprocity failure, and others much less so. Some films that are very light sensitive at normal illumination levels and normal exposure times lose much of their sensitivity at low light levels, becoming effectively “slow” films for long exposures. Conversely some films that are “slow” under normal exposure duration retain their light sensitivity better at low light levels.
Anyway, post-processing is a whole other can of worms — maybe a subject for a future tutorial!
So, what is reciprocity? Why is it necessary to compensate the exposure on film? Before we continue with the chart, let me tell you about the Reciprocity Law or the Schwarzschild Effect.
Above: The Eiffel Tower at Night During the 1900 Exposition by William Herman Rau (American, 1855-1920)
(3) If your camera has a mirror lock-up feature, consult your camera manual on how to use it. Though not a necessity, mirror lock-up is very effective in decreasing camera-shake during long exposures. Even professional-grade dSLR’s often have this setting buried in a menu, so check your camera’s manual.
If, on the other hand, you shoot in colour, you can convert to grey-scale later in Photoshop with a huge range of subtlety available due to the camera having captured all that ‘extra’ information.
For black and white night photography to be successful, it helps to think in black and white because the eye perceives things differently at night to during the day and you need to be able to compensate.