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Shooting Film in Low Light Environment

A guest blog post by Kheng Loon

Mutesite, Live Fact, Kuala Lumpur.

Agfa Vista 400 with Canon AE1P - Canon FD 50mm f1.4


To me, night time photography truly has its own merits on film. There is a different kind of magic in finding just the right amount of light amongst the darkness — and shooting with film cameras has made me appreciate it even more as I realise the limitations of low light conditions, especially in comparison to using digital systems, where pushing the ISO/ASA setting can help the camera better adapt. What can initially be a challenge in analog photography can easily turn into an interesting series of experimentation that will allow you to explore different techniques of capturing light, even in difficult conditions.


When I first started film photography back in late 2018, I mainly carried my film camera to music gigs (pre-COVID), making low light conditions a norm. To make the most of these environments, I opted to use a Canon F1N, and AE1P SLR camera as it gives me full control of the settings (more on point and shoot/flash later). To better understand the various camera settings and its effects on photography, here are several segments of technicality that should be considered:



Choosing the right shutter speed

I like using my film camera handheld during gigs or night street photography as it adapts better to my style of shooting. Tripods and long exposure may be fun and great for scenery, but not so much when moving about at gigs, especially while trying to catch candid expressions of musicians. In order to have shots that are not shaky, I follow the 1/focal length and above rule of thumb to get a sharp image. (Eg. If your lens has a 50mm focal length, the slowest shutter speed you should use handheld is 1/50 second and above)


soha Asia Tour 2019, Live Fact, Kuala Lumpur.

Kentmere 400 with Canon AE1P - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4





In still photos, movements can be suggested in various ways. For one, blurriness in certain aspects of a picture gives it a sense of action as it matches the eye’s impression of movement. This can include a hand shake, a vibrating instrument or even a flick of wispy hair. The faster the shutter speed, the less blurry the image of the movement. That being said, some blurred movements can sometimes bring more emotions and a different layer to a scene. Just be careful on how much of it exists in comparison to the overall sharpness of the photo.


Mutesite, soha Asia Tour 2019, Live Fact, Kuala Lumpur.

Kentmere 400 with Canon AE1P - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4



For me, as musicians are constantly moving during a gig, using a fast shutter speed is essential in capturing the image as sharply as possible. In venues like Live Fact, the shutter speed based on your metering may suggest otherwise due to low lighting conditions and the inconsistent glimpse of light from the stage. Most of the time, the metering on my camera would require me to shoot at a very slow shutter speed or at a wider aperture, which makes capturing a sharp image in low light almost impossible. That’s when lens and the choice of film comes into play.



A fast lens makes a difference

Using a fast lens like the Canon nFD 50mm f1.4, allows me to capture a considerably dark environment using only an ISO/ASA 400 film. You can go as slow as 1/60 or even 1/30 if you have steady hands, a good grip on your camera, and keen observation of the subject so that it appears to “stop in time” for you. Afterall, all we really need is less than a second.


Do note, however, while having a wide aperture on the lens (in my case f1.4) allows more light to go into the film (hence the usability of a faster shutter speed), the depth of field becomes very narrow. Which is why I normally frame a candid portrait of a single subject in situations like these below:


Mutesite, Live Fact, Kuala Lumpur.

Kodak Portra 400 with Canon AE1P - Canon FD 50mm f1.4



Simply by deciding to use a lens with a wider focal length also allows you to shoot at a slower shutter speed (with less blurred images) and gives you an extra stop of exposure by following the shutter speed guide (eg. for 21mm focal length, the slowest shutter you should shoot handheld is 1/21 second compared to a 50mm focal length at 1/50 second).


Mutesite, Live Fact, Kuala Lumpur.

Kodak Portra 400 with Canon AE1P - Canon FD 50mm f1.4



Films to use

For film photography, we tend to resort to high ISO/ASA films (eg. Fuji Natura 1600, Fuji Superia 1600, Kodak Portra 800, Cinestill 800T) in low light conditions, but this is oftentimes costly and the film is usually rare. It is also hard to find a roll that has yet to expire since most of them have been discontinued.


When I first started experimenting with film photography at gigs, I used the highest ISO/ASA film I could find. This allowed me to use faster shutter speeds that come with a fast lens. In the set of photos below, I used a Kodak TMAX 3200P and an ILFORD Delta 3200 film and managed to get reasonably good results with more noticeable grain compared to slower speed films.


Enno Cheng, 2019 Taiwanese & Malaysian Musician Exchange, KL PAC, Kuala Lumpur.

ILFORD Delta 3200 with Canon AE1P - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4



Pastel Lite, 2019 Taiwanese & Malaysian Musician Exchange, KL PAC, Kuala Lumpur.

ILFORD Delta 3200 with Canon AE1P - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4



Chon Live in Malaysia 2019, Bentley Music Auditorium, Kuala Lumpur.

KODAK TMAX P3200 with Canon AE1P - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4



Chon Live in Malaysia 2019, Bentley Music Auditorium, Kuala Lumpur.

KODAK TMAX P3200 with Canon AE1P - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4



Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, it’s now almost impossible to find a fresh roll of ISO/ASA 1600 colour film. As colour film has always been my personal preference, I eventually started experimenting with slower speed colour films such as the LOMO 800, Cinestills 800T, and various motion picture films like the Kodak Vision 3 500T and Fuji Eterna Vivid 500T in low light environments.


Colour films, especially motion picture films, have a wide dynamic (range of how much light and dark areas can be captured without losing detail), which allows the capture of high quality images even in low light environments.


Yuna Moment House Live 2020, Aquaria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur.

Fuji Eterna Vivid 500T with Canon F1N - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4



In the end, I found myself drawn mostly to motion picture films - which thankfully, is easily available in the market. It is also a good alternative as the price point for these films are much more affordable! But the main reason I love shooting with motion picture films is due to its beauty in producing colour tones that mimic the mood of a cinematic film reminiscent of old movies that we all watched, and loved growing up. As these films have a lower contrast intended for post production colour grading, I tend to prefer overexposing my shots when using them.


Yuna Moment House Live 2020, Aquaria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur.

Fuji Eterna Vivid 500T with Canon F1N - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4



Yuna, Moment House Live 2020, Aquaria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur.

Fuji Eterna Vivid 500T with Canon F1N - Canon nFD 28mm f2.8 on tripod / long exposure



Long Exposure, Flash (Point & Shoot)

While I may not be particularly familiar with these elements of photography, they have still provided quite a fair bit of results in my film journey, which is why I have categorised them together in the same segment.


So, when do you use flash and how do you avoid that unwanted over exposed image on a point & shoot? If your point & shoot camera does not have a manual shutter speed setting, check your provided manuals. It will usually tell you what shutter speed your camera will fire at in low light conditions, with most cameras set to fire at 1/60 or 1/40. In these cases, you would then need to turn on the flash or use a tripod to avoid getting an overly blurred image.


I personally like using point & shoot with a pre flash, flash, and long exposure mode to do a quick pan over strangers in the street. While not guaranteed, I just hope for the best and with luck (and some skills 😉), the subject will be in focus and I'll even get a cool effect!


Flash on Film, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.

Ektar 100 with Leica Z2X Vario Elmar 35-70mm Point & Shoot Camera



Flash on Film, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.

Ektar 100 with Leica Z2X Vario Elmar 35-70mm Point & Shoot Camera



Next, by using a tripod and shutter release cable, you can achieve long exposure shots without having to worry about using high speed films. This is because this setting allows enough time for the light to hit the film on a slow shutter. With this setting, any movement in the photo will have an interestingly blurred effect while everything else stays crisp and stagnant, creating an almost surreal image. This is commonly useful for subjects such as city lights, dance or athletics.


Zuhnun Ismail, LRT Taman Damai, Kuala Lumpur.

Fuji Pro400H with Canon F1N - Canon nFD 28mm f2.8 on tripod / long exposure



Bukit Bintang - Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur.

CineStill 800T with Canon AE1P - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4 on tripod / long exposure



Understanding your camera

These days, as I get more familiar with my camera, I’ve discovered how to squeeze more stops of exposure using a slower shutter speed to get my intended shot. I’m currently very happy with my Canon F1-N and I can finally understand why its precision and build made it an outstanding workhorse in its time. As soon as I moved from the Canon AE1P to the F1-N, I became confident that I could fire a slower shutter to nail an exposure level that I wouldn't even try on the AE1P.


PS150, Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Kodak Vision3 500T with Canon F1N - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4



I also believe that the heavier the camera, the steadier the shot when the shutter is fired. Of course there are other factors that come into play, such as the shutter mechanism of a professional high end camera (eg. Canon F1-N) built in comparison with that of a more commercial camera for entry level consumers like the Canon AE1— but in the end, a lot of it really is dependent on the user and their experience with a particular camera.


The truth is, every camera is different (especially point and shoot) and there’s nothing quite like understanding your own camera. There are a multitude of other functions that you can try out, even on point & shoot cameras depending on your model. This includes slow shutter mode and flash mode, and other various flash settings that can help you effectively capture a scene that is otherwise too dark. So experiment, experiment, and experiment!


I hope that these findings and its examples were able to help you improve your understanding of shooting film photography in low light conditions. If you have any ideas, feedback or questions regarding the topic of night photography (or any kind of photography), please feel free to drop me a text on Instagram!



Kheng Loon, Fung

instagram.com/a.noolog



Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.

Kodak Vision3 500T with Canon F1N - Canon nFD 50mm f1.4






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