In previous posts, I rambled about the combinations of film and developer I like: one for all-round bomb-proof performance, one for plenty light and plenty sharpness and one for plenty light and a more old-fashioned look.
The next recipe is one I use a lot less, frankly very very rare. Yet, it’s a tool I like to have in the shed.
It’s the recipe for little to no light. It’s time for the fast films, and pushing it to the extreme. Pushing it in the sense of underexposing, and lengthen the development to cover for it. Also pushing it in trying to make hand-held photos when there is not enough light around.
The possible ingredients for this are few: Ilford Delta 3200, and Kodak T-Max P3200. In terms of developers, you need one that does well with pushing. In fact, HC110 (which I’ll stock anyway) isn’t bad at it at all, but there are more choices around. Ilford Microphen is very suitable for it, but its shelf life isn’t great, and it’s not terribly economic. That said, it’s a prime candidate for pushing hard.
Between Delta and T-Max, my preference is Kodak’s emulsion. I’ve used Delta 3200, but somehow didn’t get out of it what I hoped for. Could be me, but in terms of contrast, it just didn’t do it for me. It’s definitely not bad, but T-Max just renders me the look I hope for.
As developer, T-Max developer – it’s liquid, it has good shelf life and it copes well with the push development. So, there it is: an all-Kodak line-up this time.
The combination isn’t particularly cheap; the price for the developer is definitely reasonable, but the prices for Kodak films in Europe unfortunately not so much. Ilford Delta 3200 isn’t very cheap either, though.
It’s not that important: the use-case for this combination is a very specific, and it’s not something I’ll use in high volumes.
With DYI developers like Beutler and Caffenol, the preparation may be a bit of a thing. With an off-the-shelf developer, it’s a lot easier. Mix one part developer with 4 parts water. Ready.
The development times depend on how far the film is pushed. It ends up somewhere between 14 and 18 minutes, depending on the push, at 20 degrees Celsius.
The film is rated ISO 3200, which by any measure is already quite speedy. If you read up on fast films, you will typically find that the real sensitivity of these films is quite a bit lower (ISO 1000-1250 thereabouts), but their relatively low contrast makes them very suitable for pushing. So the 3200 value seems to be more a recommendation.
None of which interests me. This is film for very low light and hand-held photos to me. Challenging conditions, and with that, one needs to adjust expectations.
The issue may be that with good modern digital cameras, we’ve been spoiled rotten with what is possible. Getting images that look sharp, free of noise/grain and decent tonality at ISO6400 is pretty normal. Going beyond that will show some degradation, but nothing very worrying. Yes, you can do night photography without major penalities.
Not so with film. Pushing will increase contrast and decrease tonality, and increase grain. Fast films are generally grainy anyway. Sharpness gets a hit too. You end up with images that are fatally flawed (according to many photo forums anyway): grain, not overly sharp, poor tonality and harsh contrast, with little to no shadow detail.
And that is exactly the point of it all.
The magic of the night
Low light photography is working against the bets. Photography is writing with light. So take away the light, you take away a key necessity for photography.
Normally, you would aim to keep details in the shadows. In really low light, that idea has to go out of the window, as you already struggle to get any kind of highlight area. There will be deep blacks, and frankly, that’s what sets the tone for these photos. They will be dark and very low-key, and with that easily become “moody”. The harsh, grainy look actually goes really well with that, for a lot of subjects.
A lot, but surely not all. This above sample is for me a clear case where it doesn’t work. It should have been a tripod-mounted camera, with a slower film and a long exposure, etc. Not a hand-held on-the-limit shot with film pushed to something around ISO12800 (and still end up slightly underexposed).
The other shots in this article, I think an industrial setting with this gritty look is a solid match. Street photos is another thing where it delivers. Shots where the fact that it’s night is more or less the subject. Photos that don’t need the sharpness much, because they’re more about the atmosphere than they are about the objects visible in the image.
I like how well strong lights are managed, like in this above image (or the first one); you can have a strong light source in the image, and it’ll be rendered in a way that doesn’t overpower.
This recipe is a very, very specific use case: it’s all about the look it produces, and the scenery and situation need to be judged on the ability to “carry” that look.
Scanning and printing
Having printed some of these images, I can say they print quite well. Not the easiest, as negatives tend to be rather thin, but once you found the right exposure, dark room prints of these images can be incredibly satisfying.
The issue is far more scanning: it underlines the grain, the high contrast and the clogged up shadows. Prints look a whole lot better, in fact.
Which is a double advantage, as printing any of these photos on an inktjet is a very quick way of running out of black ink.
Well, that was actually already covered above: the only other option is Delta 3200. For developer, I’d stick with Microphen, HC110 or T-Max developer. Apparently Ilford DD-X is also very suitable; I’ve never tried it.
The other real alternative is digital; as said above, you can do this kind of low light photography without penalties, and editing a file to make it look like this isn’t all that difficult. In most cases, it would be the route I’d choose, but in some scenarios, having a light, small, cheap film camera is nicer than a digital one. There is a reason why the Werra 3 is listed for a number of these shots – a camera I’ll come to discuss sooner rather than later.
As the Rolling Stones sang: you can’t always get what you want. For night-time photos with film, this is most definitely true. You either accept the limitations and make the best out of it, or skip the photos alltogether.
It’s a limited use case, and it’s relatively costly film. But it brings something specific to the table, and that is its sole justification. Whether that is something you need, or not – that’s personal. As I like the night-time shots from the hip, I’m happy the option exists. As I like the results, I’ll keep some of it on stock, even if I use it very very sparingly.