Rating + Processing for Available Light Portraits – EI 1600 ISO

International Center of Photography shooter James Mignogna once told me that a good photographer matches their light, lens, film and developer.

Nowhere do I think these decisions are more critical than portraits in dim lighting.

With all of us spending so much time at home lately, I have gotten a number of emails asking for my recommendations on taking better available light portraits. Pre-pandemic, I shot weddings and concerts using fast b&w films and lenses. For personal work, I enjoy taking candid/informal portraits of friends which is what I’ll use as examples throughout this two-part blog. I currently process my own b&w but I’ll provide some recommendations for color and lab processing because I used to do that too also. This blog will be about how to work in 1600 ISO. And I’ll follow up with a blog on 3200 ISO to clear up the confusion surrounding Delta and TMAX 3200 ISO films.

Start WITH 1600

It’s often recommended to use 400 ISO as one’s general use film, but if you do this with any regularity, I think you’ll find that shooting in many indoor settings this can be problematic. On cloudy days when there’s little window light, the limitations of 400 as your go-to ISO will become apparent. Many people will employ that fast 50mm 1.whatever lens which I’m all about too, but I don’t always like to lean on them. Shooting at full aperture, particularly at the closer distances one tends to find oneself shooting at indoors, can result in missed focus due to the shallow depth of field and moving subject matter. Stopping down allows me to shoot someone, or a couple “someones” who is/are laughing, gesticulating, etc and get the important bits in focus. Additionally, while there are some lenses that perform well at full aperture, the vast majority sharpen up as one stops down.

The solution? Bump up to 1600.

Lipstick Lamarr|Kodak Portra 400 rated at 1600 processed normal at EI 400 (by a lab)

But what 1600 ISO films are on the market? None. There used to be Fuji Neopan 1600; a b&w stock in the Acros family that was discontinued in 2009 and Fuji Superia 1600; a color stock in the Superia/Fujicolor family that was discontinued in 2018. I think you can still buy fresh Fuji Natura 1600, a version of Superia that was/is only available in Japan but it was/is very expensive to export.

Color films are also difficult to shoot at higher ISO’s. Every major brand of still photo print film currently on the market is daylight, not tungsten balanced. This results in shifts to orange that have to be tamed with editing and filters. The shift is more dramatic as one works in dimmer light. Cinestill film is cut from Kodak motion picture film, which is still available with tungsten white balance. So if you’re dead set on shooting color film in dim, artificial light, check out 800T and learn to push it as necessary. Even still, I find that color is challenging for unstaged, non-deliberately lit work due to all the variables it introduces. Many shooters will end up removing the color in some really dim scenes anyway.

Natalie| Kodak Portra 800 rated at 800 processed normal at EI 800 (by a lab)

Some time ago, after experimenting with the aforementioned, I chose to move to an all black and white workflow. Shooting in b&w not only alleviates this complication but there are still two, wide production, fast b&w films on the market that I enjoy; Kodak TMAX P3200 and Ilford Delta 3200. But more on those later.

While it sucks that there are no 1600 ISO films available anymore, I think the reason for this is that we don’t really need them. You see, modern 400 ISO films push or over rate to EI 1600 beautifully. By pushing or over-rating a 400 ISO film to 1600 instead of using a 1600 ISO film, you get images that have finer grain and richer contrast. As you’ll see below, I don’t advocate fine grain and rich contrast as universal goals, but I will say that for me, the quality of light that I choose EI 1600 for is usually flatter so it’s nice to counteract that.

My personal favorite 400 ISO film to rate at 1600 is Kodak Tri-X 400. If you enjoy finer grain, TMAX 400 is a great substitute. When I took my work to labs and used more C41, I also used Ilford XP2 400 and Portra 400. In order to get these films to 1600, you can do a couple things.

HOW TO RATE AND PROCESS FOR 1600

Start by setting your camera/light meter to 1600 ISO. I recommend marking the film canister at the speed you’re shooting and potentially also, the speed you want to process for. This ensures that you won’t mix up your film. However, as I’m about to discuss, that may not necessarily matter!

Next, take your photos. Notice that 1600 ISO gives you a big two stops more apertures to use than 400 ISO. It’s pretty nice be be able to shoot at f4 and make f1.whatever a creative decision instead of a necessity. In most indoor situations with a little window light, 1600 at f4 is a good combo for me. It gives me enough depth of field to hit focus accurately and easily as well as higher resolution from the lens. Because distance to subject is often shorter indoors than outdoors, I can still get decently out of focus background also. The f2 or wider aperture can be chosen when you want that dreamier, even more shallow DoF. By shooting at 1600 instead of 400, you have a choice in aperture range rather than just bottoming out all your settings.

Christa| Kodak Tri-X 400 rated at 1600 ISO and processed in Kodak HC110b for EI 1600
Christa| Kodak Tri-X 400 rated at 1600 ISO and processed in Kodak HC110b for EI 1600

Now this is where things can go two different ways.

Conventional wisdom is that if you rate your film 2 stops over box speed, you need to push process by 2 stops. Doing so preserves some tonality and tames the inevitable increase in contrast. If you process your own film, consult your development time and temperature to push two stops. If you use a lab, mark your film and order form for the film to be pushed two stops. Be sure that your lab is able and willing to push process BEFORE shooting. Some cannot push. And just a warning, those that do, charge a couple bucks for each stop that they push. So be prepared for a higher bill.

Now, your other choice is this lesser known thing that I call over-rating.

Christi | Ilford XP2 Super 400 rated at 1600 ISO and processed normal at EI 400
Devon| Kodak Portra 400 rated at 1600 ISO and processed normal at EI 400

So let’s say you’ve got your rolls of Tri-X 400, TMAX 400, XP2 400 or Portra 400 that you exposed at 1600, now hand them to your lab, or process them yourself and IGNORE the whole 1600 thing all together. These films and some others, will look JUST FINE when processed “normal” at their box speed, despite being two stops underexposed. I refer to this as over-rating. It is different from push processing your film because there is no push in the processing!

Tricia| Ilford XP2 Super 400 rated at 1600 ISO and processed normal at EI 400

Why would I recommend this? Well, when I was shooting C41 film at weddings and having pro labs do all my processing and scanning, I didn’t want to pay the extra $2 per stop to push my films since I didn’t charge as much back then as I do now! It was also one extra issue to have to mark the film while shooting many rolls of film during fast-paced events in order to separate it for different processing.

I stumbled upon this because I’d forgotten to mark a couple rolls at 1600 and they got processed normal but came out beautifully. So I started experimenting with doing it deliberately. I found that I could over-rate XP2 400 and Portra 400 as high as 6400 without pushing. But going higher than 1600 results in somewhat dangerously thin negatives, increased grain and very specific lighting needs. 1600 is solid though. Negs are a little thinner but very useable. Some may like the greyer look of unedited scans of thinner film but I like to bring the black point in on mine (which I do with all my film scans to varying degrees.)

Steph| Ilford XP2 Super 400 rated at 1600 ISO and processed normal at EI 400

If you don’t believe me, try it. Or just keep pushing. Whatever you want! Because I process all my own b&w work now, I just push instead of over-rating as I don’t have to pay extra to do so and generally prefer to start with a more tonal image when possible. But over-rating was an arrow in my quiver for several years of weddings, concerts and night time candid portraits.

When over-rating 400 ISO films, I look for scenes with a good deal of contrast. I find that more evenly lit scenes, can appear flat and potentially muddy if over-rated. These are scenes that would work better with pushing. But if you have a decent contrast ratio in your scene and want to save yourself a couple bucks or use a lab that does not push process, over-rating should prove useful.

Lipstick Lamarr | Ilford XP2 Super 400 rated at 1600 ISO and processed normal at EI 400

Personally, Tri-X 400 which I’m rating and processing at EI 1600, is my go-to. It’s not such a great idea to use outside in daylight unless you love contrast and for everything to be in focus! But I think you’ll find that this approach and the others described here will work well indoors.

For those of you who enjoy more grain and tonality, or are just shooting well after the sun goes down, there’s no escaping the light gathering abilities of Kodak TMAX P3200 and Ilford Delta 3200. More shots of the ladies above in my next entry; Rating + Processing for Available Light Portraits – EI 3200 ISO.

Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

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5 thoughts on “Rating + Processing for Available Light Portraits – EI 1600 ISO

  1. Great insights Johnny.

    So counterintuitive though for film shooters to underexpose and thus block up shadows. That said, there’s no denying your under-rated shots are amazing. Not a lot of shadow detail, but none the worse for it. I’m going to be giving it a go… I pretty much only shot Tri-X, albeit outdoors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Nik. That’s a good thought to unpack. People over-expose print film because print film has more exposure in highlights than shadows. One does the opposite if shooting slide film. But some films have enough exposure latitude to go multiple stops the other direction. Additionally, I think we all need to get out of the habit of shooting every scene the same way. I see people ask “how should I rate this film?” on forums all the time and there are lots of recommendations but little about WHAT is being photographed.

      Different qualities of light handle on film differently. This is why nobody will ever fully replicate film digitally, because film responds logarithmically to light, not algorithmically like digital. The same film can take on a completely different look when shot in different qualities of light. So I recommend that as one underexposes/over-rates print film, look for contrasty light. The more contrasty it is, the more you can extend the exposure index without the image becoming muddy. If you shoot say, Tri-X 400 at 1600 in flat light, and you don’t push, your negatives will be thin and murky.

      It’s taken me some time to articulate how I have learned to shoot in low available light but hopefully this is making some sense!

      Like

  2. Excellent writing, images and work as usual. I think the term “over-rating” is unneeded and ads more clutter and confusion to film photography, which is already a mess, but you defined it well enough to be clear in this article. 10 articles removed from now on another blog post, it’s going to be a wild mess.

    Liked by 1 person

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