I visited Paris, France in 2022 and recently again in 2023. For night time and indoor photography I shot Kodak Tri-X at 1600. To continue my theme of “don’t just shoot film the way influencers tell you to,” I figured I’d go over the different ways I used Tri-X on my trips and some other advice as well.
I like to rate Tri-X at either 400 or 1600 only. Shooting it slower than 400 and pull processing seems somewhat pointless when 100 speed film is available, finer grained and usually more tonal. Shooting Tri-X at 800 just doesn’t give enough of a change in properties to warrant the different processing time. And shooting faster than 1600, I find that with HC110 Dilution B, tonality is diminished to the point of being unusable for my style of work and range of subjects. Your mileage my vary of course but I just wanted to lay out my reasoning.
Tri-X at 1600 in HC110b keeps grain levels fairly restrained and increases contrast to, what is for me, punchy and interesting but with enough tonal range to get ample context around my subject in most qualities of light.
Not to get too basic here, but marking your over rated/push processed film so as not to mix it in with box speed film is important. I try to mark film that I’m going to rate differently than box speed BEFORE I load it into my camera. This way, there is never a question when I unload it. I find that it can be very easy to get film that was intended to be pushed, mixed in with film that was not. Sometimes when I’m changing ISO’s frequently, I’ll even mark my box speed film too so that there is no potential for mistake. And making use of film cases can further keep your film separated and organized.
To process Tri-X at EI 1600, I follow the recommendations published in The Kodak B&W Darkroom Dataguide – 68°F for 16 minutes.
When it comes to Tri-X in HC110b specifically though, I do find that if I rate for 1600 but accidently process normal, the film has enough latitude to still produce usable images when scanned in many cases. But the negatives are thinner and therefore there’s even more contrast, or at least darker shadows, than if I had pushed. I think this is worth keeping in the back of ones mind though, so you don’t flip out if you do happen to make a mistake!
Don’t let me make you feel as though my way is the only way. Tri-x at 1600 can look fabulous in any number of different developers and dilutions. TMAX 400 will yield grain that is smoother and less gravel-like while preserving shadow detail better. Rodinal will do the same as TMAX but to a greater degree, however, acutance is reduced. Please explore and find out what is best for your style and statement. This is mine for you to leap from.
I metered these and most photos with my cameras’ built-in meter. The built-in meters of most classic cameras is a center-weighted averaging type. This means that in the case of my Leica M6 TTL 23% of the frame, at the center of the scene is what is metered. A typical Nikon 35mm SLR will use about 60%. It’s good to consult your owners manual to get an of how big an area in your particular camera this metering spot is.
If you’re using an accessory shoe meter like the TTArtisans, DOOMO or Voigtlander, your metering pattern is a bit tighter (smaller degree of measurement) but it’s not through the lens so be aware of what you’re pointing it at. Same goes for a handheld incident meter like the Gossen DigiPro.
It’s important to understand that whatever is at the center of your viewfinder (or meter) while you’re setting exposure is what you are metering light off of. However, the reading is also averaging the entire scene if using a built-in meter. You’re not taking a spot reading off just that single center object. What these means is that if your subject is significantly brighter than your background, as it often will be in dim lighting, your meter is going to put the subject at middle grey and cause you to underexpose it. Underexposure in already low light can be a death sentence to your negatives.
So you have either have some awareness of your contrast ratio (the difference between the highlight and shadows in your scene) or you need to error for over exposure by metering off shadows or mid tones. Seldom do you want to meter from highlights in dark scenes but we’ll see some examples when that works too.
I shot all the photos included here with a Leica M6 TTL 0.85 and 50mm Summicron lens.
I should also note that I do a considerable amount of contrast and levels adjustment as well as dodging and burning to all of my photos. So what you are seeing are finalized images but I am not posting anything here where I totally screwed up the exposure and pulled something out of the gutter. All the examples below, I think, reflect my methods and recommendations accurately.
Exposing for Shadows & Middle Grey Inside The Louvre & Café des 2 Moulins
The Louvre Museum is of course an iconic and important place for any artist to visit when in Paris, a reason by itself to plan a trip to the City of Lights. I exposed scenes there in much the same way that I exposed scenes inside a little café in Montemarte that is less famous but similarly lit in the daytime. Have you seen the film Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain? The movie’s main character, Amélie works as a waitress at Café des 2 Moulins so I got a kick out of eating breakfast there.
I shot at 1600 instead of 400 at both locations, though 400 would have been acceptable. I did this in order to stop down where possible/desired. I wanted the greater resolution and depth of field that stopping down affords. Because there was plenty of light, one could choose to expose for shadows or middle grey.
Personally, I like to crush my blacks when I edit so there’s not a lot of need for me to expose for shadows in most cases. I usually let the whites on my histogram fall where they may and don’t change them from the scanner’s auto levels, if only to burn them in a little here and there. Highlights naturally tend to blow out with Tri-X at 1600 in HC110b simply due to the increased contrast/decreased dynamic range of pushing an already contrasty film.
One might also choose to open up a bit while shooting, and expose for shadows inside the Louvre or Café des 2 Moulins. Doing so would bring out more detail in the shadows and make highlights brighter on the negative. For me, I don’t like more shadow detail, I want to guide the viewers’ attention directly to my subject and not to linger around the context (usually the subject will be brighter). But this is totally a creative decision and something I will sometimes change up depending on my subject and the quality of light in the scene.
The Louvre Museum is huge and contains many different lighting situations that might inspire you to change your exposure style from one room to the next.
La Mort de Marat by Jacques-Louis David is in a room with numerous other large paintings and I believe there was a skylight or at least a cluster of centrally located lights that kept the entire room very bright. I think I was able to stop down to f4 or even 5.6 at 1/60th when I shot a woman examining the painting with my 50mm Summicron. This allowed for plenty of crisp detail and tonality to pop out of the painting. It’s a great example of how it was probably a better decision to push to 1600 instead of shoot at full aperture at 400. What I would have gained in tonality, I would have lost in overall sharpness. Anyway, check out the way this guy painted light. Just stunning, right? He could have shot Tri-X at 1600 and taught us all a thing or two!
Exposing for Middle Grey at Sacré Coeur & the Catacombs
The Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre was also featured in Amélie. It was built in the late 1800’s to counteract the Catholic Church’s perceived decline in morality of France.
In dim, higher contrast ratio indoor settings such as Sacré Coeur or the Catacombs, it’s so dark that you really can’t expose for shadows because they are pitch black. Additionally, there was no choice in these locations between EI 400 or 1600. I had to shoot at 1600 but could really have used faster film in many locations within these sites. Mid-tones are also a very low value but in some areas there are nearly no highlights! So what you’re really doing is making your own highlights out of what would be considered middle greys in a brighter setting. You have no choice but to expose for mids or highlights if they exist. And if you expose for highlights, you’re going to crush your blacks the way that I prefer to do in editing, but you’re also going to crush your mids, which is a little too far for me because I want enough of a tonal gradient to evidence the quality of the light and texture of my subject.
Exposing for Highlights at
The Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe & Moulin Rouge
It turns out that there is a bit of a copyright concern with photographing the Eiffel Tower at night. The lamps and projectors that light it are arranged in specific patterns that are protected by copyright. Therefore it’s illegal to sell images of the the Eiffel Tower at night without consent. I feel like I could get away with educational use here but I’m not interested in testing it! I’m still waiting to hear back what I need to do so everything’s copesetic. In the meantime, feel free to check out my non-monetized social media posts of the famous Parisian landmark!
At night, without 3200 speed film loaded, I’m still trying to expose for mids but you kind of have to let the rest fall where it falls. This is less of an aesthetic approach and more of a practical one. The typical rule of thumb is to expose for shadows in darkness. This puts your mids around normal and your highlights high. But when I was photographing the Eiffel Tower, for example, the shadows were just solid black and a good four stops below what I could hit at 1600 at 1/15th at f4.5 with my 15mm Voigtlander Heliar or 1/60th at f2 with my Summicron. There was light from the tower and the surrounding darkness.
The Arc de Triomphe and the Moulin Rouge were lit by the headlights of cars passing in traffic as well as their own dedicated light sources. Though it was very late at night in both of these locations, the subjects were light nearly bright as day. It just doesn’t read this way in the images because of the contrast. I think I was at like f4 or probably 5.6 at the Moulin Rouge. Because there is such a high contrast ratio in these scenes and that the highlights dominated my frame, I could safely expose for highlights and let the mids and blacks fall away.
Does that make sense? So if the lights on the Arc and Moulin Rouge were dimmer but the surrounding light level the same, thus creating a lower contrast scene, I’d be working more in a situation like the Catacombs and Sacré Coeur and would need to expose for mid-tones in order to get anything in the shadows.
I hope that I’m explaining all this correctly. I honestly don’t even know what the hell I’m doing with exposure half the time. I have just gotten to the point of recognizing not only the quantity but also the quality of light I’m working in and knowing what I need to do. And that is what I’d like to close with.
I’ve talked alot here about metering; what to meter off of and roughly what your meter is doing. But don’t forget, these are just suggestions from your tools. I would never take important images without a meter to verify my thoughts on a scene. But at the same time, you don’t want to become so dependent on your light meter that you don’t understand the light. A big part of shooting in low light situations is understanding the light. How much of it falls on what and how to express that for the results you want.
Best of luck with your low light photography with Kodak Tri-X at 1600! And if you know anyone who works at the Eiffel Tower, can you get them to respond to my email? I’d really like to share my photos here with you guys!
Happy shooting and thanks for reading!
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