35mm Kodak 400TX @ 12800

  2016 April 11    Film   Miscellaneous


If you like night photography, you probably know there are ways to get sharp, low-noise images. 

This article is for those who don't mind some film grain.  We know that if we wanted to, we could use slow film and a tripod.  Instead we're setting the dial on our film cameras to 3200, 6400, maybe even higher.  We do this because we like the portability, and we especially like the concept.

It's about the atmosphere, the composition, the lighting, and of course the challenge. 

Now let's shoot some film at night! 

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In This Article

Actual Speeds

Metering With Your Camera

Low-Tech Solutions

Better Gear


Actual Speeds

If your camera doesn't have a leaf shutter and a fast, wide-angle lens, you'll have to use shutter speeds like 1/30th and 1/60th.  That means at night, you'll want to be using somewhere above EI 3200.

When you push film, you're not really getting that film speed.  Kodak Tri-X at EI 6400 is not going to become a true 6400-speed film.  Different films have different characteristic curves, but generally, when they receive very low amounts of light, their light response gets very non-linear and you start to get really thin negatives with little or no shadow detail. 

EI 6400 doesn't really make it into ISO 6400 film, but you still have to meter as if it were 6400 film.

Let's say you meter for the shadows in a well-lit scene.  Your camera is set for ISO/ASA 6400, and it says to use f/8 at 1/60th of a second.  You take the picture, and later when you develop it, the picture is nice and bright.  It's fine, except the shadows appear faded:  again, too bright or something.

If you metered on something darker than "18% grey" in the scene, the picture will be overexposed.  Thus, even if you develop as 6400, you're not really seeing what film pushed to 6400 would look like.  Instead you're seeing film that's rated at more like 1600 or 3200, then over-developed from there by one or two stops.

To get a real push to 6400, you have to meter correctly for EI 6400, as well as developing for 6400.

Question is, how to do that?

Metering With Your Camera

Most modern film SLR cameras have some type of whole-scene metering.  It might not be every point in the scene, but it's more than just some narrow zone.  Canon has "Evaluative" and Nikon has "Matrix" metering.  Some other cameras have "whole-scene" metering that also works fairly well, although it's not as sophisticated as the Canon EOS or the later Nikon film SLR's.

That's okay, because at night, all these kinds of light meters can become useless anyway.  It's not just that the light is dim.  It's that the light sources are often in the picture. That throws off the averaging systems, so you get pictures that are way too dark.  The bright lights look OK, though...

Another type of metering is "Center-Weighted".  If you use a Nikon 50mm Series E, Center-Weighted is the only one that works on some Nikon film cameras. 

Center-weighted metering makes it easier to exclude light sources from the metering.  There are at least two problems with this.  One, it can be tough to find a big enough region that matches the middle-tone of the photo.  Two, the light meters on many cameras will display "Lo" or something equivalent.  There's just not enough light to give any kind of suggestion at all.  Sometimes if you move around you can get a reading of "1/30th", but who knows?

Spot metering at night can have the same drawbacks as center-weighted.  On poorly-lit surfaces at night, the camera might not even be able to suggest a shutter speed. 

If you do get a reading, it could still be wrong.  It could be off by a couple of stops or more.  I've observed this more than once.

I was in a store picking up some light bulbs, and I decided to take a picture of the light bulb section.  Actually there was plenty of light in that place, so I didn't even expect the meter to be useless here.  Pushing film to EI 3200 or above, a scene like that should be easy;  and yet, the negative was so thin, and the picture so grainy and low-contrast, that it must have been two or three stops under.  Why?  I even deliberately metered on the dimmest areas of shelving, where it definitely wasn't a light tone;  it still didn't do any good. 

It wasn't the film or the developing.  (Well, actually it was the developing too;  see the updates to this article.)  Some scenes yielded much better negatives, even when they were definitely a stop under.

That suggests the in-camera light meter was getting fooled, at least to some extent.  I should have just used the type of "metering" that I usually do for these scenes:  experience.  When the camera was saying f/11 @ 250th on that one scene, I kept thinking "there's no way...".  Something told me it should be more like f/8 @ 125th... two stops brighter.  Guess who was right.  I knew this from experience, shooting with a scale-focus camera that has no meter.

Low-Tech Solutions

Often you can get good results by using the Kodak Professional Photoguide.  There's a wheel-type calculator in there;  it tells you different lighting conditions, you pick the right one (hopefully), and you match up your film speed (or EI).  Look on the far edge of the wheel, and you'll see the correct shutter speed and aperture for those conditions.

I just wanted to digress for a moment to mention "EV vs. LV".  These can be confusing.  If a source lists only one number next to a particular type of scene, with no context of film speed or anything else, then it's probably LV.  EV depends on the camera setting.  LV is an absolute amount of light.  "Floodlit buildings" or "10 minutes after sunset" is referring to the scene, not the camera;  floodlit buildings would be LV 4.  At ISO 100 that's EV 4 (f/8 @ 4 sec.), but at ISO 12800 that's EV 11, or f/8 @ 1/30th.  (Must have typed that one while half-asleep; at 12800 you would use f/8 @ 30th, yes, but it would not be EV 11.)

LV or EV?  Good news:  the Kodak Photoguide calculator doesn't use either;  they use letter codes.  I think "K" is floodlighted buildings.  They don't have 12800 on the calculator, but you can easily convert from 6400 to that.  There are sources on the Internet that have their own conversion tables (this one is great), but I still can't do without my Kodak Photoguide.

I don't know if the 1977 edition lists EI 6400, but the later ones do.  Get one here and find out; any edition is going to have useful info if you shoot film. 

The calculator works great for floodlighted buildings;  that's one of the exact types of scenes they list.  So, at EI 6400 you can be fairly confident that f/4 @ 60th will give you a usable picture.  However, there are more lighting situations where you have to guess.  Or, learn which ones they are ("H", "I", "J", "K", whatever), write that down, and keep it with your Photoguide.

The Kodak Photoguide is very good.  I've found it's often more accurate than trusting the light meter, for the reasons mentioned above. 

If you do want to meter, a grey card might help.  (Kodak Photoguide includes a grey card.  Handy!)  On a distant building, you'd just about have to walk over to the building and meter on the card before you take the picture, but that's better than getting a transparent negative. 

I should use the grey card, I guess, although it's one extra thing to carry.  You may find it's easy to select a middle-tone in a scene, but some of them-- like reflective metal-- are tough.  Also, places where everything is white or very light-grey, or they have tons of bright ceiling lights that get in the picture, are tricky.  There was one photo I took in a variety store where I thought it was metering correctly, but the ceiling lights messed up the reading so much that the picture was not even usable.

And then there was a scene where I metered very carefully, away from the bright lights, and the picture was still underexposed.  The meter just couldn't get it right.

Like a Forties Diner Metered Wrong In The Desert Night

35mm Kodak 400TX @ 12800
N6006 camera with Nikon 50mm Series E lens
f/11 @ 1/125th

This really should have been 1 1/2 or 2 stops brighter.  The camera's TTL light meter wasn't made for night scenes like this;  even on the pavement some distance from the store, it kept saying f/11 @ 125.  What's really amazing, though, is that you could get any picture at all shooting film at night with f/11 and 1/125th of a second.

I'm also thinking the develop times were much too short for these EI's.  See this article

With an incident light meter, this scene metered at LV 6, so f/11 at 1/125th would be a stop underexposed at EI 12800.  (Before metering this, I called it at EV 6.)  EV 6, f/8 and 1/60th corresponds to EI 6400.  EV6 with f/8 and 1/125th would be EI 12800.

Here's the same scene on Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 12800:

Like a Forties Diner At 12800 In The Desert Night

(Cropped HP5+ Version)

Ilford HP5+ 120 film @ 12800
TLR camera (6x6)
cropped to 35mm aspect ratio

f/8 @ 1/125th

See the good Kodak Tri-X version, shot at f/8 and 1/125th.  There the development time was much longer, but the point is, this scene is LV 6.  By the time I'd shot the second picture (the Ilford HP5 one), I'd already correctly guessed LV 6 without even having metered the scene.

Now that I know the Tri-X develop times were originally too short, I think the HP5+ dev time for 12800 should be increased, as well.  f/8 and 1/125th is correct for LV 6, but the film could have stood to be developed longer.

Better Gear

Today's dedicated light meters are more accurate and more capable than the ones built into a camera, especially a 1970's or 80's camera.  Modern DSLR light-meters are also fairly accurate, usually.  (With digital, you have to meter even more accurately than slide film, because digital clips highlights so easily.)

So, two possibilities here:

1.)  Use a digital camera to get the settings right, then use those on your film camera.  If you really want easy, don't even meter;  just take several pictures with different settings, chimp through 'em, and find the best one.  Apply those settings on the film camera. At night this is actually a semi-reliable method;  in the daytime, the bright sun throws off your perception.

When you're shooting film, carrying a DSLR adds quite a bit of extra weight, though. 

2.)  Bring a handheld light meter.  If you want to meter for direct settings, I would get one that goes to at least ISO 12800, or better yet 25600.  Or, forget the ISO/EI settings and set the meter to show "EV". 

This light meter might be way more than you would need, but it has something that many other light meters don't.  That is, it's able to go well above ISO 12800; in fact, it goes way up over any ISO setting or EI value that you're likely to use with film, or probably even digital, ever.  The drawback for some people is that it uses a touch-screen instead of real buttons.

This one is more traditional, has a needle instead of an LCD, and offers up to ISO 12,000.  This would be OK for shooting film at EI 12800;  a small fraction-of-a-stop error would be better than two or three stops.  The one drawback of this meter is that it can't read LV3 or darker.  Analog-type meters generally have this limitation.

Perhaps the most cost-effective solution would be to get yourself a used Minolta Autometer 4.  (I'll write more about this meter in a future article.)  Or, get the currently-made equivalent;  also excellent.

Now, how to use one of these at night?  First, disregard the brightest areas directly underneath a lamp.  Don't even meter there.  Take your incident light meter and go stand somewhere in the scene where a "medium" amount of light is falling on it.  Take note of what it says.  If you want to meter for the middle tones, use that reading to set your camera.  (You're right that a "medium amount of light" is imprecise, but you'll learn what's correct by shooting a lot of night scenes.) 

Next, go and stand farther away, where the light is dim but you can still see details on the pavement or the side of a building without your eyes having to adjust.  The sidewalk across the street from a dim streetlight might be a good place to start.  Take note of that reading.  If you want to "meter for the shadows", that's the reading you should use.  Normally in a daylight scene you would stop down two stops from there, but with pushed films at night, I'd just go with that reading and set the camera according to it. 

A third method would be to meter from the pavement directly under a bright streetlight;  then set the camera three stops brighter than that.  Suppose the meter says to use f/11 at 1/60th; therefore you would set the camera at f/4 @ 1/60th or f/5.6 at a 30th and photograph the scene.  This is a starting point;  you might want to bracket two stops in either direction just to be sure.

With incident light meters at night, you can't really meter from far off;  you have to place your meter where the light is that you want to photograph. 


Incident-light metering doesn't get fooled by bright or dark regions, as a reflected-light meter would.  That means an incident-light meter is potentially useful for night photography, if you don't mind the extra work.  By the way, the white plastic dome makes it so that a bright source won't skew the reading too much.  Otherwise it might have the same problem as an in-camera meter.  (However, if you want to meter for the shadows, you have to put the meter in a shadow.)

Need A Faster Lens And a Better Meter

35mm Kodak 400TX @ 12800
N6006 camera with Nikon 50mm Series E lens
f/2.8 @ 30th

Some scenes are just too dim for a 30th of a second, unless perhaps you can get that extra stop by using f/2 or wider apertures.  This is a lighting situation that's very common at night, so I think it's time for a leaf shutter and no mirror (a.k.a. time for Leica film camera), and a a fast lens for it.  Then, using 1/8th or 1/15th of a second, you'd be able to photograph some very dim urban landscapes without a tripod.


Of all the elements of night photography, correct metering may well be the most challenging.  The light sources are often within the pictures, which throws the metering way off.  Night scenes can also have extreme contrast, yielding shadows that already have very little detail.  Using highly-pushed films can decrease that detail even more.

Pushed films can be grainy, and Tri-X is really not meant to go above 3200.  However, I think a lot of the scenes I've been shooting are just plain a-couple-of-stops-under.  In fact I know they are.  There are two reasons, I think.  One, I was relying on the in-camera light meter, and two, the develop times were too short.  (Usually it's obvious when you have to increase dev times, but I had assumed the published times for 3200 and 6400 were correct.  They weren't.)

Once you learn what works in which lighting, you could become your own "walking light meter".  It wasn't long ago that I could do that;  then I started messing around with digital cameras again, and I got lazy.  Now I'm re-learning the skill.

It helps to have a good hand-held light meter, though, especially if you don't want to waste a lot of pictures trying to figure out what's what.  Either way, you will find some night scenes where f/2 isn't fast enough and 1/30th isn't slow enough for a good picture.  You will find other scenes where you'd like to use f/5.6 or f/8, but the shutter speed would be too slow for an SLR with its mirror-slap.  If you're thinking of getting serious about night photography, consider one of these cameras and perhaps  a lens such as this one, because the leaf shutter allows for slower shutter speeds. 

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