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Monday, July 28

Night Photography

A row of bins waiting to be emptied the following morning.

One of the reasons I bought a full frame DSLR (Nikon D700) about four years ago was because I love night photography. The bigger digital sensor can be set to 3200 ISO and, with a lens of f2 or faster, the D700 can be used hand-held after the sun has slipped below the horizon with little in the way of noise at normal print sizes.

As much as I love film, that's really not possible with anything approaching the quality of the D700. Yes, you can push a film to 3200 ISO but be prepared for big grain, little shadow detail and high contrast. So, when it comes to "analogue", a slower film and a tripod are just about indispensable. It's for that reason that I haven't done much low light shooting since returning to film.

Lugging a tripod at night around the small town of Carnoustie where I stay tends to make you a bit conspicuous. However, with the sun setting well into the evening this far north, I thought it was about time to have another go since the streets are usually very quiet then. At 10 p.m. there's still just a faint glow in the sky which is much nicer than a jet black inkiness.

Above and more above: Maule Street junction.

I got a considerable boost from the Haar, the mist that rolls in off the North sea at this time of year. The perfect conditions for night photography, from my point of view, are mist and rain. The Haar made it one out of two so that wasn't bad. I did think of taking a squeezy bottle full of water with me so I could add my own puddles but thought that might attract even more quizzical looks.

One of the issues that has to be considered is the choice of camera. I'd love to have a go at night photography with the 5x4 or even the Rolleiflex SL66 but focusing can be a real problem. I decided to use 35mm so bolted the OM2 and standard lens to the tripod, hoisted it onto my shoulder and set off.

Another couple of views of Maule Street.

With a nice bright focusing screen, I thought the OM2 would have been just fine in the dim light but, as it turned out, I had to guesstimate the distance on probably half of the frames I exposed. That's not always easy or accurate when the subject is perhaps six feet away and the operating aperture is f2.8 but I seemed to get away with it.

Another reason for the OM2 was convenience - yes, the very thing I hate about digital photography and often criticise. What can I say? The camera meters to about -5.5 EV (don't quote me on that: I'm working from memory) and that's very dark. In fact, Olympus used to claim that the OM2 can take pictures by moonlight using its auto exposure function.

So my thinking was that I'd load the camera up with Adox CHS 100 II rated at 100 ISO for development in Spur's HRX, pick an aperture around f4, set the camera to auto exposure and use the self timer to trip the shutter. Then I'd use the exposure compensation dial to give it an extra two stops and repeat.

Although the OM2's meter at shorter shutter speeds is quite heavily centre weighted, when you're talking about exposures of a second or more then the camera reads directly off the film surface during the actual exposure resulting in a very average exposure reading of the scene. If you think about the typical night scene with deep shadows and a few pools of light then it seems sensible to try to average the exposure.


The results? In all but two shots, the plus-two exposure was the right one. The two failures required more exposure than that, probably another two stops but they were difficult scenes with one half in almost total darkness and the other half featuring street lights. An average exposure still left the shadows too dark and featureless.

Overall, I'm quite happy with the OM2 and this way of shooting as even careful use of a handheld meter is unlikely to get a much better strike rate but is a lot less convenient. In keeping with this simple philosophy, I had just one other lens with me, the 24mm f2.8 Zuiko which I used in a couple of shots.

Some photographers recommend curtailing the development a little to control the highlights in night photography but HRX seems to do a good job of that so I just gave the film the recommended time.

What I'd really like to do, though, is go out with the SL66 and the standard 80mm Planar. Will I be able to focus? I'm not sure. The image snaps in and out of focus quite well with the Rollei but I haven't really used it at night and focusing accuracy is more critical with the bigger negative.

Kalart rangefinders are supposed to be quite usable. Maybe it's time I gave
this one a try.

The same thing applies to the 5x4 but I KNOW I wouldn't be able to focus with it on the ground glass. The answer could be to check the accuracy of the side-mounted Kalart rangefinder on the Speed Graphic and use that. I've never even looked through the rangefinder and don't know how feasible this would be but there's no reason it wouldn't work provided it's accurate. And I'm sure there's a wee tutorial somewhere on the web for tweaking it if it's off.

Or I could just attach a side-mounted flashgun to it and blast away Weegie style…

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Jim Martin said...

Hi Bruce -
Regarding the Kalart Rangefinder, the Camera Eccentric web site has the original adjustment and use manual posted at . This made it very easy to adjust and clean the RF on my Crown Graphic, and it's very nice to use now.
Good luck, and thanks for all the great information in your site!
Jim Martin

Bruce Robbins said...

Brilliant, Jim. That's saved me a lot of searching. Thank you!

B said...

Hi Bruce,

It is Ashfaque again. I enjoy reading about your photographic trips in around Scotland. This time the fog made it even better.

Could you, if possible, do some Pyro developing with photos these places. Those mist, and fog of your city should look absolutely gorgeous in Pyro.

BTW, I got my chemicals and films. Thanks for your advice. :)