Fans of Game of Thrones should feel right at home after reading the quote above. Taking pictures at night has always been an area of interest for me, especially in black and white. So many great shots showing incredible atmosphere were taken at night. So far, I have mostly explored astrophotgraphy under the night sky, but I would like to venture into night cityscapes and street photography to capture a different side of the city. In general, photography could be viewed as the physics of capturing light, and the darkness of the night is understandably an impediment for taking pictures. I have spent the last little while taking the night shots that you see in this blog entry. It's definitely an easy transition into night photography as the winter day shortens. The rainfall record certainly made things more difficult as you move around town while dodging rain drops. Even with the risk of melting, I was determined to get some night shots. As I press forward into the dark of night, I started to realize that perhaps the night was indeed full of terrors for a film photographer.
Film is more limited in its light sensitivity when compared to modern digital sensors. Sensor or film light sensitivity is generally assigned an "ISO" number (although film sensitivity was referred to as ASA originally). The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film or sensor is to light. With a higher light sensitivity, you would have more leadway in your shutter speed or aperture adjustment for the desired result. A roll of film is usually (but not required to be) used under a single ISO sensitivity for all the exposures, whereas digital camera is able to change its ISO on every single shot if you wish to do so. This is a rather simplistic way of explaining digital sensor ISO. In reality, digital sensor has only one native ISO sensitivity, but the camera is able to boost or push sensor sensitivity on your command. This boost does come with the penalty of digital noise on higher ISO shots, and this noise is unlike the consistent film grain one would expect with higher ISO film. Digital noise could add all sort of undesirable and inconsistent artifacts to your images. Although not all sensors are created equal, on average, most modern digital sensors are able to handle high ISO shots admirably. I can shoot at ISO 3200 to 6400 on my (now sold) digital camera without worrying about the final result at all, and in a pinch, 12800 could be manageable.
When I am required to use a higher film sensitivity due to low light, I generally push process my film. I normally shoot my film at its box speed of ISO 400 during daylight. When needed, I would shoot the exact same film at ISO 1600 or 3200. I will simply process the film differently, which generally involves longer processing time. Pushing film does create its own visual characteristics. Your shots would be more grainy, and they will also have more contrast. The darker part will be darker and the lighter part will be lighter. You may lose details in your shots as a result of push processing. It's a trade off that you will have to consider before pushing your shots. All shots in this post were pushed to ISO 1600 or 3200 from their box speed of ISO 400.
Ultimately, I believe that digital camera is much more flexible under most circumstances. Overall, prosumer digital cameras produce sharper results with more recoverable dynamic range when compared to the hybrid film workflow (of shooting film with digital scan and inkjet printer) that I use. While film photography is experiencing a bit of renaissance lately, all those interested in film should consider all the pro's and con's of each medium. While I firmly believe that meaningful images are not dependent on equipment, if you solely shoot at night, there are potentially better choices than shooting film due to ambient light restrictions. Choosing film photography is not simply choosing choosing the analogue film appearance, but rather the film development process/cost as well as the medium itself. After making the informed decision, you are able to march out into the night confidently even if the night is dark and full of terrors.
As it stands currently, I am unsure of the direction of my night photography. I believe that I pushed my film workflow to the limit of my ability. I foresee the technical difficulties that I experienced so far to repeat itself in the future. There was simply not enough light without using flash or tripod in some circumstances at night. I would much prefer to do without strobes or tripod. I have been pushing my black and white film up to 3 stops and color film up to 2 stops. Any further push would degrade the image too much for my liking. I would have to move to different types of film that would allow push process with a higher native ISO than 400. From the little information I gathered, pushing color film is a bit of a question mark. Many people believe that the trade off of pushing color film is not worth the extra speed you gain. I will either have to continue moving forward with a color film process at its limit for night street photography or considering moving to the "dirty D" process! Do I trade my soul for better night photography in a digital world? All kidding aside, this is something that I would definitely need to consider since I have been losing a lot of shots lately while doing night street photography. I would much prefer to get the shot regardless of my attachment to analogue photography. It does make me wonder about how photographers undertake nighttime, color street photography in the past, or perhaps it wasn't even a thing back then.