Film is not dead, but it’s not for the faint of heart either. Compared to digital, it’s not an easy medium to work with and it can be especially unforgiving in low light. That’s why you have to plan ahead if you want to do night photography on film. Before you hit the streets, we suggest watching this quick video by Analog Insights for some tips on how to get the best results. In one of their old videos, Max and Jules of the Analog Insights channel set out to find out how to make long exposures at night using film. Turns out it’s not as simple as using high ISO films or wide apertures and slower shutter speeds. They also had to take the Schwarzschild Effect (Reciprocity Failure) into consideration. We’ll get into the details of that later, but first, let’s watch how their shoot went.
For this shoot, Max and Jules used a Hasselblad 501 CM with 50mm Carl Zeiss Distagon loaded with Kodak Portra 400. They mounted it on an FLM cp-26 tripod with a Sirui K30X head and also used a cable release to make sure their shots didn’t blurry from the slight camera shake that occurs when pressing the shutter. To make sure they get their exposures right, they brought along a Gossen Starlite 2 light meter to serve as a spot meter when necessary.
They did some research before shooting, and one of the concepts they came across was the Schwarzschild Effect, or Reciprocity Failure. Essentially, this refers to the breakdown of the reciprocity of light intensity and exposure time from controlling aperture and shutter speed, respectively. When you’re shooting with a larger aperture, you compensate with faster shutter speed. If you need to soot with a smaller aperture to increase the depth of field, you need to shoot with slower shutter speed. When this reciprocity breaks down due to longer exposure times required — as often happens with low light photos that require more than one second of exposure time — this is called the Schwarzschild Effect. This requires you to shoot at longer shutter speeds to achieve a result similar to those shot at conditions where reciprocity still applies.
The Schwarzschild Effect is a topic we should cover in detail another time. Going back to Max and Jules’ shoot, they used a cheat sheet to determine the best exposure times for Kodak Portra 400 to address reciprocity failure. They suggest checking out the data sheet of your chosen film for this.
In the end, they got some pretty good results, some with surreal color shifts. We hope their experience has given you some ideas on how to make the most out of your night photography shoot!
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Screenshot image from the video