by Johnny Martyr
Shooting 3200 ISO film may seem like little more than putting a faster film in your camera and setting the ISO dial accordingly. But it’s not that simple.
There are a lot of differences in how film handles in very low light, and indeed, how to handle film that has been shot in low light.
And yes, I am talking about actually taking photos in low light. I am not talking about giving an influencer a roll of 3200 speed film only for them to rate it at 1600, shoot in normal light stopped down and process at box speed for easy, crowd-pleasing results, social media applause and widespread regurgitation of often irrelevant recommendations.
I am a working film photographer and use Kodak TMAX P3200 and Ilford Delta 3200 for paid shoots where the results determine my income.
I don’t make this comparison because I think I’m a better photographer than anyone, but just to illustrate that I do not shoot this film for the sake of shooting it. I shoot it out of utility and my preferred aesthetics.
And I should emphasize that what follows is partly just my personal preferred aesthetics. I sometimes post my 3200 work and the results are criticized as being “too grainy” by digital shooters and vets whose mind is narrowly pointed in the direction of “grain” is a dirty word. I like pronounced grain and that’s why I’ve adopted the methods and workflows that I have. You don’t have to like it but the fact of the matter is that I know what I’m doing. So if you want to learn, I can share some of the information and you can put your personal spin on it. That’s what photography is all about, right? It shouldn’t be a popularity-based dictatorship.
On the topic of democratization and acceptance of wide spectrums of photography, one of the main things I like to remind people about 3200 speed film is that these are designed to be “multi-speed films.” There is not just one single “best” way to expose and process them, as I feel that far too many tutorials lead people to believe.
An alternative to the trendy narrative is to use 3200 speed films to shoot in dark situations that no other film can handle.
Below I’m going to concentrate on shooting and developing Delta at EI 6400 because that is how I personally, frequently shoot and I want to illustrate some considerations with these films that differ from run-of-the-mill 400’s. But please check out this other 3200 blog for my alternate rating/processing recommendations.
Last week I was editing wedding rehearsal dinner photos that I took at one of my favorite downtown Frederick restaurants – Hootch & Banter.
I was hired by the bride, whose wedding I shot the following day, to take candids of her friends and family hanging out the night before her big day.
The rehearsal dinner was a couple hours after sunset in a dimly lit restaurant. It’s so dim there, in fact, that when I go to Hootch & Banter to meet up with friends for dinner and drinks, I seldom produce any publishable photos. I knew I’d be in for a challenge.
Fortunately, the rehearsal dinner was in the upstairs portion of the restaurant, where the public aren’t usually allowed and I’d have more control over lighting for this private event. I spoke to a representative early about lights and was told they were on dimmers so I could adjust them as needed.
If photographers had our way, we’d probably flip all the lights up to 100% and make our lives easy. I’m sure the aforementioned influencers would conduct a shoot like this at EI 1600 and piss off all the guests. But nobody wants to enjoy dinner like that. People want the mood that comes with dim light, and the shallow depth of field is pretty cool too. So I took readings of shadows and mid tones around the room before the guests arrived. I set the lights as low as they could possibly go if I shot for shadows at EI 6400 at 1/60th of a second at full aperture. Then I ticked the lights up just a bit so that I might get the opportunity to stop down once in a while as I metered for mid tones.
I shot all four hours with my Leica M6 TTL and Voigtlander 40mm 1.4 MC lens with Ilford Delta 3200 rated at EI 6400. I processed the twelve rolls of 36 exposure 35mm film a little faster than EI 6400 in Kodak HC110b (22 minutes at 68°f) and scanned them in my ancient Epson V500. More on each of these elements soon!
Below are some sample photos as well as the topics of concern that one can expect to encounter during such a shoot.
For 3200 speed 35mm films, there are only two choices; Ilford Delta 3200 and Kodak TMAX P3200. It wasn’t long ago that we could only shoot Delta because TMAX had been discontinued. So thankfully that is no longer the case! (For 120 shooters, your only option remains Delta though.)
Both of these films are awesome but they have some different characteristics – at least in the developers that I’ve used them in. Generally speaking, I find that Ilford Delta 3200 is a bit sharper and more contrasty than Kodak TMAX P3200, which is softer and more tonal. Like Coke and Pepsi and every other similar product with a direct rival, people will often tell you that they prefer one or the other. And for slower films, I have my single preferences also. But for low light photography where your choices are very critical to your outcome, I choose which of these two films is most appropriate for the quality (not the quantity) of light that I’m working in.
For Hootch and Banter and most bars/restaurants, I find that lighting is lower contrast and somewhat muddy/murky. So I chose Delta for this shoot so as to better separate my tones and make subjects pop more. If I shot with TMAX, I would have more tonal negatives and to increase contrast, I’d either have to use an optical filter (not a great option since you can lose light with them) or add contrast in Photoshop. But I’d rather just use my film choice to do this because flatter light also results in perceptibly less sharp photos and I don’t see this as being changed when just boosting contrast digitally.
Now, for Libby’s wedding the next day, I shot TMAX because the reception was in a barn with a mix of both natural light and a lot of little string lights. The scene was more contrasty and so the TMAX kept the tones from being overly harsh, resulting in too much detail loss (for my taste).
That’s Libby at the bar in the photo below, she’s the bride, the email queen and a great bride to work with.
ISO UP, Aperture Down
Many casual available light photographers will tell you to shoot Delta at EI 1600 and process normal. In actual low light situations, this setting will nearly always require you to then shoot at full aperture and minimal or even a dragged shutter.
I think this is stupid if recommended as blanket advice because, let’s be honest, are you really so good at shooting moving subjects wide open in dim light that 100%, or even 90% of your photos will be in focus and without motion blur? I am using one of the best cameras ever made for this purpose, the Leica M6 TTL 0.85 and have been doing this for a living for over a decade. Even I don’t trust myself to deliver a full compliment of in-focus photos under these conditions if I could only shoot at full aperture with a slow shutter.
I highly advise getting the most out of your film speed, when appropriate, and shooting at EI 6400. Even if you have some brightness to work with. Maxing out your exposure index will allow you to stop your lens down or speed up your shutter for a given scene. I would rather have grainy photos that are sharp and in focus than slightly less grainy photos with a lot of missed focus and motion blur.
If you are more interested in grainy dreamy images rather than getting people in focus etc, you can certainly do that too. Samantha Stortecky does a great write-up on that style for Shoot It With Film. But all I’m saying is that the over-prescribed advice about 1600 is probably more of an artistic rather than a utilitarian decision.
Change Your Settings!
Another common bit of advice that I have to laugh at is that you don’t need to change your settings in low light. Some guys will tell you that they take photos of their friends at bars all at all the same settings – usually the widest aperture and slowest handheld shutter – f1.4 at 1/60th as previously mentioned but it could be others. The Nikon F3 shooters who can’t see their damn light meter like to say things like this. But Leica M6 photographers who bought a camera with a usable built-in light meter, enjoy properly exposed negatives.
If your lighting conditions are perfectly even or your subjects don’t move, sure, you can certainly just shoot everything with the same settings and ignore your light meter. But let’s not kid ourselves. I’ve personally never been to a bar where people didn’t move in and out of lit and unlit areas. They’re seldom lit like office buildings, right? So what these shooters are really doing is allowing the dynamic range of their film as well as any editing, compensate for incorrect exposures. They might be able to get away with this because there is a smaller contrast ratio in most night time indoor lighting situations.
And that’s fine if that’s what you want to do, but let’s not pretend that metering becomes obsolete at night.
Personally, I want my exposures to reflect the moment and the scene. I want to take advantage of times when a person’s face might be lit well (low light does not always mean bad light) and I can get more than just their eyes in focus and their facial features fully detailed. And equally, when the light is rough, I want to be able to smooth a face by opening my aperture and softening things. You lose control over all of this by sitting on the same exposure settings for everything.
Some will tell you to meter off shadows in low light in order to maintain detail in the shadows. This is similar advice to shooting at EI 1600 even though it’s at the toe of your exposure settings. In order to meter off the shadows in something like a dark bar, you’re going to have to raise your ISO even more or settle for flat levels in scanning/editing. That is just a different look that I personally don’t like. But you’re a different person with different goals and can meter off shadows if your goal is to get those results.
I typically meter from mid tones as I would in brighter conditions. When light is very low, metering from mid tones admittedly results in murky blacks. So you will need to watch out for blacks merging and making subject matter less distinct. Find moments and compositions that reduce shadow merging. I prefer using mid tones as my middle because, again, you make the most of your film speed and it will give you the opportunity to stop down or speed up your shutter. I also prefer contrasty low light images myself. I want my whites to pop off of rich blacks.
What I would not advise is metering off the highlights unless your light is super contrasty, such as when shooting concert, a neon sign or the Eiffel Tower at night (for example). Metering off highlights in a dark bar will probably crush your mid tones and bury your shadows. Doing this might be ones first inclination because while shooting, it will make you feel like you have more light than you actually do. But I prefer to let my highlights get blown out than risk losing my middle details.
This shot below is a great example of preserving the delicate mid tone details within a high contrast ratio scene. If I’d exposed for the shadows, the woman’s face would have lost all that tonality. Sure, I would have retained the details in her black leather biker jacket, but is that what is important in this moment? Not to me.
Shoot Tighter Scenes
Something that I think photographers often forget about is scale. By scale I mean the relationship between the size of our format and the size of our subject. This applies to grain too.
For lower resolution formats, we typically want to use more of the frame for our subjects by photographing them closer. For higher resolution formats, we are able to let our subjects breathe and take up less of the frame. The reason for this is that lower resolution formats, by definition, offer less detail. Generally speaking, if you want to enjoy all the nuances of a landscape, you probably don’t want to view it on Fuji Instax Mini. You would probably prefer viewing a landscape taken on large format that makes you feel like you could walk right into a breathtaking vista. Likewise, when I shoot very grainy 35mm film, I don’t attempt to render huge detailed scenes because the resolution just isn’t there. I attempt to convey a tighter scene containing fewer and simple shapes, that does not require highly defined details in order to understand what is going on.
The smaller the object is within the frame, the larger the grain is that makes up that object and the less definition it will exhibit.
The large grain of 3200 35mm film (how I process and scan it anyway) can totally annihilate facial features if the face is not close to the lens and dominate in the frame. So I want peoples’ faces to fill the frame enough that there’s a balance between the amount of detail I can render as well as the feel of the scene and the moment. I don’t need drivers license headshots. But I typically don’t want these tiny featureless heads within a big featureless scene either.
Taking a big group shot of ten people smiling at the camera in bar light is going to result in spotty, uneven exposure, heads made up of big chunks of grain and little useful details throughout the image. Sure you can see who was present that night, but there is nothing artful about such an image in my opinion.
Taking a tighter shot of just two or three people will allow you to control who the light is falling on and who you’re exposing, as well as to allow each of the faces to occupy more of the frame and offer a balance between capturing subtly and obscuring irrelevant details.
Finding spot-lit single faces and leaving the others in shadow is a technique that I really enjoy for low light photography. The shot below is a good example of why you should continue to use your meter and change your settings. If I metered off the shadows here, the bride (in polka dots) who is correctly exposed (though a little high key) would have been blown out and the girl on frame right would have been properly exposed but the ladies would then compete for subject of this photo. If I exposed for highlights (or even just boosted my contrast in editing more), the bride’s friends would be too dark to see well. Since I metered off the middles and focused on the bride, those surrounding her fell into a shadow gradient. Focus and exposure work together to guide the eye and define the scene/tell the story. This is stuff that one often needed be concerned with in bright situations. The trio here would have likely all been of similar exposure value. To me, images like this are precisely what make available light photography so much more visually engaging than daylight or flash work.
Process And Scan It Yourself
If you don’t already process and scan your own film that’s fine, but you might prefer to with 3200. When I started shooting high speed color and b&w film in the early 2000’s this was where I hit my first real wall with lab processing. Of all the local labs that I used to take my work to, there was only one that push processed my EI 3200-12800 consistently at a satisfactory level. And even then, my exposures had to be dead-on in order for their scanning to work, else I just had to rescan everything myself.
When you process your own film, the issues I’m about to discuss can be addressed more directly by you, based on your specific shooting techniques, than they can be addressed by a lab where customers are just giving them 100 and 400 speed work 90% of the time.
During a recent trip to Paris, I considered getting my film processed locally to avoid issues with x-rays. But I was terrified of the idea of handing my pushed work over to someone else. Not even so much because I didn’t trust that I could find a good lab to do it, but just that I’ve been doing my own work for so long that I wonder how many little nuances might add up and contribute to photos with a completely different look than I want.
All that being said, my good buddy, local film and digital portrait photographer Tim Rifenberg still uses a lab. And he has taken some amazing 3200 shots with his Leica R’s. It’s entirely possible that he, and quite possibly you, are just better photographers than me!
Understanding Film Speed
What the film is rated for by the manufacturer is ISO, or International Organization for Standardization. What you rate and process the film for is EI, or Exposure Index. If you’d like, you can read more about that here. You might hear the confused/ing influencers tell you that Delta’s “native ISO” is “really” 1600. This is completely irrelevant, incorrect verbiage and used as justification for people to tell you how you should and shouldn’t be shooting.
If you hand your 3200 film to a lab, they will go by the DX code and box speed, which is 3200 ISO. They will ask you if you want it processed “normal” aka 3200 ISO or if you want to pull or push and by how many stops. For their purposes, they do not care what EI the film was shot at and so you won’t typically encounter this term with them. But there is a difference. When processing oneself, it’s important to make the distinction between what ISO or EI you shoot at and what EI you process for. Your ISO and EI do not have to be equal. In these rehearsal dinner photos, the film was 3200 ISO and was rated and processed at EI 6400. Check out this other blog where I go over other combinations of rating and processing 3200 films.
High speed films are more sensitive to light than slow films, of course. Because of this they expire faster and are more susceptible to heat and background radiation. So it’s important to avoid base fog gathering on your fast film by developing it promptly like you’re supposed to. Once you shoot TMAX P3200 or Delta 3200, don’t wait weeks or months to process it. The longer you wait, the more likely you will notice that the film base (clear part of the film) is less than perfectly clear.
A friend once gave me a roll of P3200 from the 1990’s that he wanted me to develop. I knew it would need more time in the developer than a fresh roll but nothing could have prepared me for negatives whose clear part was nearly as grey as the emulsion!
Admittedly, I’m not the guy to give expired film to, but the point remains, develop promptly if you want well-separated tones in your images. Stop relying on your refrigerator!
Surge is this issue where developer rushes into the sprocket holes of your film as a result of over-aggressive agitation or very lengthy amounts of agitation. The likelihood of surging increases as one processes for the longer periods of time required by processing films at higher speeds.
So the style of agitation that you might be used to for processing your favorite 400 speed film might results in surge marks on your 3200 speed films. I’ve even seen pro labs return some of my thinner, higher EI attempts with surge marks.
I usually process Delta 3200 for 20 minutes at 68°F but ran these photos for and additional 2 minutes since I knew the venue was extra dark. I don’t know if that really changes the exposure index or not but adding time is something that I have gotten a feel for doing in situations like this and goes back to the whole processing yourself thing.
Knowing that developer surge is a problem at these long developing times, I agitated more gently and often than I normally would for my 20 minutes standard processing time. 20 minutes. Yes, there are film/developer combinations that would allow for less time and there is always stand developing. Frankly, I don’t trust stand developing for paid/important work because I don’t have a dedicated darkroom space and I fear that any number of things could happen to disrupt processing in that long amount of time. As for other developers with slower times, that’s totally up to you. I use Kodak HC110b for all of my film because I process multiple jobs worth of work together in the same tanks for safety and consistency. So my exact methods as a working shooter may differ from what you can do on a smaller scale and more focus. But know that the faster a film is rated and processed for, the longer it must be processed, so surge is going to be a concern at some point.
Sure, all negatives can get dusty but fast film does this curious thing. In the mid tones, the large grain covers dust more than slower film, but the shadows can show dust more than thicker negatives.
So if I shoot a 3200 film at 1600 in fairly normal light, I get the dust covering benefits of the large grain. But if I shoot a 3200 film in candlelight at 6400, the clear parts of the negative are likely to get riddled with dust specs. Particularly in winter months with drier, static-laden air.
The solution is to dry your film in a humid environment such as a shower after running hot water for a bit. I also just mentally prepare to spend alot of quality time with the clone tool in Photoshop!
A little dust in an image reminds us of the analog nature of our medium though.
Because your high speed negatives get thinner and thinner the faster you go, they are also very delicate and prone to damage. If you squeegee your film dry, be extra careful not to scratch fast film with your squeegee blade by keeping it slightly off the surface of the film, as you should be doing anyway. You probably handle all your film with gloves but maybe get a new, clean pair out for your high speed film. Be extra careful not to drop your thin negatives on the floor etc. Basically, take the same precautions you take when handling any film and turn it up a notch!
Searching for Frame Spaces
The space between the images on your negatives will be difficult to see. This demands closer attention when cutting your negatives and can cause issues when scanning too.
You may have to rely on finding the first frame edge and measuring to find the surrounding frames. Parts of my images are often 100% black (clear when examining the negative) – the exact same tone as the space between frames on 35mm film.
Scanners set to automatically detect frames will hopelessly create mashed up versions of your photographs. And if you’re camera scanning or similar, you may also have trouble differentiating shots.
When using my Epson flatbed, I have to deselect “show thumbnails” and use my 35mm marquee to scan each frame one at a time. I usually let the scanner have a try and then manually re-scan the shots it misses.
This baked-in issue with shooting in low light used to frustrated my old lab techs. They spend all day auto scanning hundreds of rolls and then they got to mine and had to babysit each shot.
I promise, the Voigtlander 40/1.4 is a reasonably sharp lens and these copies of my photos aren’t doing it justice.
I scan my film to tiff files at 6400 dpi. This allows for nuanced digital editing and beautiful prints to be made from the files. But when posting my work online, I of course have to first knock them down to jpg which is a compressed format. Then, the jpg gets compressed again by whatever website I upload to.
Compression isn’t very film friendly – particularly for film with large grain. Things have gotten better but the early days of Facebook and that awful now-dead photography site 500px, used to crunch the hell out of the grain in my high speed black and white’s. Even here on WordPress, after my shots have been uploaded to compression-free Flickr, resized to make them web-optimal and then re-uploaded to my blog, they look less than crisp. Due to some combinations of scanning and compressing grainy, high speed film, you’ll sometimes even see grid lines appear within images posted to social media or other low resolution renders. My advice is to start with as high a resolution scan as possible and always save a smaller web-size version for posting online. If you say, upload your high resolution jpg to Facebook, it will compress the image more than a lower resolution copy and also make it look like hell.
These are issues you won’t even notice with slower, finer grain film. I think there is so little high speed film posted online that people judge it by the same merits as slow speed film as they’re unaware of these issues. I sometimes get criticism for my work looking like digital that has a fake film look. Maybe I could scan or edit it, or compress it differently to avoid this but my allegiance is to my total workflow and final prints, not a few critics.
Despite my headstrong opinions about rating and shooting high speed film, on the subject of online sharing, I will admit that I am not an expert and defer to anyone else with practical advice! Please feel free to help me out in the comments section below.
But please be patient with viewing the high speed film work of others. It’s just a different ballgame than slower film.
Okay! That’s about all that I’ve got for now about special considerations when shooting 3200 speed 35mm film. I hope that these concerns do not deter you from shooting TMAX P3200 or Ilford Delta 3200 but rather they give you an edge in strengthening your work and perhaps putting to rest some of the popular misconceptions.
And as a reminder, even though I’ve concentrated on Delta rated and processed at 6400 (ish) for this blog, you can rate and process 3200 speed films however you want or need, within reason. Don’t just follow my example, or anyone else’s. Use these recommendations as a spring board to come up with your own style and methods. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.
Thanks so much to Hootch and Banter for making yummy cocktails and being such gracious hosts. Congrats to Libby and Paddy on their marriage and fun event it.
Buy your own Voigt 40/1.4 from this link and help support this site! You can buy Ilford Delta 3200 here and support me also but it’s overpriced, so only buy with this link if you really love this post!
Thanks to everyone else for reading and happy shooting!
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Thanks for the article. I may never shoot 3200 film, whether box speed, pushed or pulled, but I learned about photography. This is always the case with your posts…Always informative, even if I never apply the information.
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That’s really kind and useful feedback, thank you. Glad you enjoy the site!
There’s a lot of good information here. I’ll add an additional note, however, that might help people avoid another common problem. You mentioned the issue of surge marks, but another, related issue people need to be very aware of with high speed films in particular is bromide drag. I’m sure you’ve encountered this at some point yourself. While too aggressive agitation can lead to the former, too little/not-aggresive-enough agitation can readily cause the latter. It’s a balance.
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Oh Christ, bromide drag! I KNEW I would forget SOMETHING! Thank you for the comment! I may try to go back and put that in. Thank you!