The Phoblographer Explains: Why Does Color Film Look So Terrible in the Dark

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Kodak Ektachrome (11 of 15)

For the film photographers amongst us, you may have shot color film in very low lighting or in very dark situations, gotten the roll back and realized that it looked terrible. Indeed, it looks nothing like the images that you produce when there is ample light available in the scene. For this reason, digital photography can be far superior when it comes to shooting in dark situations. We put emphasis on the word can there for a reason for. Digital photography is far simpler to do in the low light situations than color film photography–but that’s also for a very good reason.

We explore why after the jump.

Tungsten film used indoors with a flash

Tungsten film used indoors with a flash

Your digital camera has the blessing of being able to manually white balance the scene and the sensor. Want daylight? Sure thing! How about Tungsten or Incandescent? No problems! That’s where film and digital are inherently different. Film, well, most color film is color balanced to daylight so it works very well outside on a bright sunny day  But as soon as the lights start to go down and there isn’t very much available light in the scene, it can start to suffer. The same problem applies to going inside of a building.

So what’s the solution? Tungsten film is designed to be shot indoors and with a flash. Taking Tungsten film outside during a bright Sunny day will give you some weird colors that you may otherwise think is a result of cross-processing if you didn’t know any better. However, Tungsten film looks great on a cloudy and very overcast day where the sun isn’t peeking out at all. Once you start to see rays of sunshine though, the Tungsten party is all over.

If you’re using daylight balanced film, one solution that you can do is adding a flash or monolight to the scene. If you’re using a light modifier of some sort, make sure that it’s white or silver. This will make sure that the flash output and color isn’t tampered with too much. Oh yeah, and don’t bounce the flash output off of a red brick wall.

Model: Melissa Perry. Daylight film shot during an overcast

Model: Melissa Perry. Daylight film shot during an overcast

Similarly, this is why daylight film doesn’t look so incredibly good when shot during an overcast day. The solution sometimes is to shoot with colored filters, but that means that you need to bring said filters with you at all times in order to adapt to the scenes. Film photography is like a curious chemistry in this way.

Now, we’re not saying that you should go out and just shoot digital–indeed we’d never say that. Instead, you just need to be more conscious about the types of film that you’re shooting and you need to start asking more questions besides “What subject matter are you shooting?” and “What ISO do I need?”

It gets much more complicated–and this is also one of the reasons why so many photographers just like shooting in black and white. Besides the fact that you don’t need to deal with any of this nonsense, you can create beautiful black and white images at any time of the day or night and all you need to figure out is how well your film handles the highlights or the shadows.

That’s much easier, right?