Boneyard bonus round: Film scans

Sitting Pretty -- by Joe Reifer

Sitting Pretty — by Joe Reifer

I have been using Canon digital SLRs for night photography since 2003, starting with the 10D, 20D, and now 5D. The Canon CMOS sensor produces clean files for typical full moon exposures of 6-8 minutes at ISO 100 or 200. The instant feedback and lack of reciprocity failure makes digital a great tool for judging your exposures and nailing your light painting. But sometimes I want longer star trails. While it’s possible to push the 5D into the 15 minute exposure range, I find I’m more productive using the digital camera for shorter exposures, while using an inexpensive film camera for the 20-30 minute long star trail shots.

On last month’s trip to an airplane boneyard in the Mojave desert I brought along a Voigtlander Bessa L that I purchased for $79 brand new, with a Voigtlander 21mm lens. I only shot one of the 3 nights in the desert with the film camera, and it took me another month to finish the roll and get it back and forth to the lab. There were a couple of stunning images that made me want to shoot more film at night. Comparing the look of digital and film at night can also help serve as a guide for post-processing the digital images.

Night photography with digital can often give you a “day for night” type of look straight out of the camera, with light blue skies. Sometimes quite a bit of post processing is necessary to give the images a real night time feel. Film can often render a darker sky with a long gradation between tones that is more pleasing than digital. In a future post I will go over how to post-process digital images to give them more of that film look and night vibe.

5 thoughts on “Boneyard bonus round: Film scans”

  1. I agree that a film camera is a great way to capture those uber-long startrails. It’s also easy to shoot with both a film and digital camera at the same time. Since the film camera can take such long exposures, I’ve had good luck setting up a film camera for 30-minute, or 1-hour exposures, and then gone off shooting my DSLR somewhere else. Then every hour or so, you can go off trying to figure out where you left the film camera. At that point, exposing the film shot for five or ten minutes is not critical, so you just go find the camera whenever it’s convenient.

    Having said all that, I admit I don’t do this very often. But now that the weather is clearing up along the coast, I’m planning on shooting at night along the beaches soon. Beaches are a great opportunity for super-long exposures.

  2. Joe, while I agree that film in a mechanical camera is great for really long exposures (I’m currently playing with Provia in a Rolleiflex TLR), the main difference in look is in gamma. A quick tweak at your Bodie digital shot gets a very similar look to film with Levels midpoint at 0.6 and +20 Saturation. No need for anthing fancier.
    That said, film saves on batteries for the 5D!
    Keep up the good work.

  3. Hi Colin,

    The difficult part of post-processing some night images is the relationship between the sky and the rest of the image. To get a dark looking sky with digital, I will often do two RAW conversions — one for the sky, and one for everything else. Then layer the two exposures together in Photoshop. This image is a good example – in the print version I darkened the sky quite a bit, and added more contrast to the sky than the foreground. Took some fiddling, but I finally got it right after a few tries. :D

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