Night photography: Digital and/or film

Mojave Airplane Boneyard #94 -- by Joe Reifer

Mojave Airplane Boneyard #94 — by Joe Reifer

Is there any escape from noise?

Digital night photography with Canon digital SLRs is constrained by exposure times of approximately 6-8 minutes without noise reduction. For most cameras, turning on noise reduction in the camera effectively cuts your productivity in half, because noise reduction takes the same amount of time to run as your exposure (i.e., a 15 minute exposure necessitates an additional 15 minutes for noise reduction to run, for a total time of 30 minutes). There are a few notable exceptions to the 1:1 exposure time to noise reduction ratio. Noise reduction can be performed in post-processing, but I’ve found in-camera dark frame subtraction to be superior.

Medium Format

Before the recent rise of the digital SLR, medium format film cameras were often the tool of choice for night photography. For many night photographers this still holds true. Due to longer focal lengths, and film reciprocity, a standard full moon exposure for medium format film can often run in the 15-20 minute range at f/8. With clear skies, a 15-20 minute exposure produces a star trail length that hits a personal sweet spot for me. I will often push the Canon 5D into the 10-12 minute range to get longer star trails. With noise reduction this ties up the camera for 20-25 minutes per shot, giving you shorter star trails than film, and less productivity.

Dual Setups

One tactic that has always seemed like a great idea is to bring two kits into the field — a digital SLR and a medium format film camera. A digital SLR allows quick exposure testing, and the instant feedback on shots with light painting. A medium format film camera can be setup for 20 minute or longer exposures on shots where longer star trails would be aesthetically pleasing.

The only problem with this idea is you better have a great chiropractor. Carrying 2 camera kits into the field with 2 tripods can get ridiculous. If you’re working close to the car, and have reasonably light camera kits and tripods, it’s certainly doable. This was my plan last week in the Mojave, but cloudy conditions with mixed lighting meant that 20 minute exposures were unnecessary — for the most part, there were no stars to make trails.

A Cloudy Night

I brought both camera kits and one tripod into the field. The 5D with a 24-70/2.8L lens was carried on the tripod, and a Mamiya 7II with a 50mm lens in my backpack. After exposure, composition, and lighting were nailed on the 5D’s LCD screen, I’d shoot from a similar camera position with the Mamiya. Digital exposures were 2-3 minutes at f/6.7 ISO 200, and film about 6 minutes at f/8 with Kodak E100VS film.

Exposure times of 1-3 minutes are often a good range for capturing cloud movement at night. Longer exposures will often just blur out the sky and look flat. Had the sky been clear, I would have shot at 6 minutes f/6.7 or 8 minutes f/8 at ISO 100 with digital for star trails.

Digital Night Photography: Camera Settings

Exposure testing is extremely fast and convenient with the 5D. The camera is preset in “M” mode for an exposure time of 6 seconds at f/2.8. I bump the ISO to 1600, take a test shot, and assess the histogram. This exposure time equates to 4 minutes at f/6.7 ISO 200, or 6 minutes at f/8 ISO 200. If the histogram looks right, change the ISO back to 200, and switch to “B” mode — which will still be set at f/6.7 from your last shot — and make your next exposure.

Here are a few tips:

  • Setting your camera to half stop exposure increments makes exposure calculations much easier.
  • A Canon TC-80N3 timer remote (or equivalent) is a must. You’ll wonder how you lived without it.
  • With the 5D, I preset my camera in “B” mode to f/6.7, and in “M” mode to 6 seconds at f/2.8. I’m ready to shoot in “B” mode, and ready for exposure testing in “M” mode. All I need to do is change the ISO, and then start the timer remote when I want to open the shutter.
  • Set your LCD brightness to the darkest setting. A bright LCD will screw up your night vision.

Medium Format Film

Night photography exposures with a film camera require getting to know different lighting conditions and film emulsions. Kodak E100VS and Fuji RTP Tungsten are my favorites for night photography. Black and white shooters need look no further than Fuji Acros, the king of reciprocity and fine grain for night shooting.

The Mamiya 7II has a clear, bright viewfinder, and extremely sharp wide angle lenses. While there are some complaints about the depth of field scales being overly optimistic, I’ve found the scale on the 50mm lens to be reasonably accurate. This lens equates to about 25mm focal length in 35mm terms, which is my personal preference over the also stunning 43mm lens, which equates to 21mm. If you are used to SLR zoom lenses, the optical performance of the Mamiya wides are bitingly sharp in comparison.

Unlike fully mechanical cameras like the Hasselblad or Mamiya RB67, the Mamiya 7 is battery dependant. No battery = no photos. A lithium battery is supposed to give you 8-9 hours of operation, and costs about $9. Bring a spare.

While I’ve shot extensively in the 6×6 format, and also a bit in 6×9, i’ve never owned a 6×7 camera. I’m finding the aspect ratio to be extremely pleasing for both night and day photography. The 2:3 aspect ration of 35mm works well for me in landscape format, but has always seemed too narrow for verticals. Perhaps 6×7 really is the “ideal format.” Of course 35mm shots can be cropped — I’m not a purist about cropping, but I don’t tend to crop very often.

Below is the 6×7 film version of the same shot posted above (both in landscape format). I’ve pushed the digital RAW file a bit to bring out the blue and orange mix/saturation. The film version is pretty true to how it looks on the light table. Which one do you like better?

Mojave Airplane Boneyard (M7 #4) -- by Joe Reifer

Mojave Airplane Boneyard (M7 #4) — by Joe Reifer

12 thoughts on “Night photography: Digital and/or film”

  1. ps: however, thank you very much for doing this comparison and sharing it. I certainly have learned from it and it is something I have wondered about for quite some time.


  2. The digital shot has much more shadow detail. I like the tone and color in the sky on the digital image more as well.

    The ability to shift your RAW file’s white balance in post to suit the needs of the location simply kicks film’s ass.

    Steve, if you’re on a budget you can buy a 20D for about $500 now . . . No noise reduction, but you can just shoot shorter at 5.6.

  3. Hi Steve -

    I’m planning a follow up post about medium format camera equipment costs in the digital age. Digital can be more or less expensive than film depending on camera system choice, scanning, and other workflow issues.



  4. Thanks for the comparison. How was composing with the small viewing window of the Mamiya 7 rangfinder? I used to have a heck of a time when I used old Argus C3′s and FED rangefinders. I have used Rolleiflex TLR 6×6 cameras for years now. I like the fact that while my shutter is open I still can view the scene throught the 6x6cm viewfinder. I have found this handy when I want to not have any airplane trails in my image. My only gripe is that I am stuck with the 80mm lens on the camera. My camera cost $200 off Ebay and my Epson 4990 scanner cost $700 so I wonder how much of a digital camera I could get for $900. That is not taking into concideration my cost in film but I do not have to buy batteries. I develope most of my B&W film myself so I just buy chemicals.


  5. Hi B -

    The Mamiya 7 has one of the best and brightest viewfinders I’ve used on any camera. I’ve enjoyed shooting with twin lens cameras in the past, and the Rollei cameras have great optics. A used digital SLR, sharp wide angle lens, spare battery, memory card, and cable release will run about $1200. It’s really just a matter of personal preference – each toolset has some ups and downs.



  6. Hey Joe

    The is a great seal of difference between the two pictures – the digital one looks … well … it looks ‘digital’. The film picture is so lacking in shadow detail – or perhaps the shadow info is too ‘muddy’ – that it kind of fails to hold my interest (I really like detail).

    So, of the two, I like the digital better. But … here’s my issue with it (and some other night photography). For me, the night is about mystery and what’s hiding in those dark shadows – the ‘unknown’ or ‘imagined’, if you will. So for me, the digital picture is too clean , too open, too revealing.

    It does have a slightly ‘off’ quality that I do like and which tells me that it is not a dark, cloudy day picture or even a sunset picture with the shadows opened up. The shadows from the moonlight are what that trick seems to be about.

    In any event, I would love to read an artist statement from you about your night photography.

  7. Hi Mark,

    I think a good drum scan would pull out more shadow detail. Viewing night images online is tough — I put the shadow detail exactly where I want it for my monitor and print output, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll look good on the internets.

    And yes, night is about mystery. Joe McNally said that a secret to great lighting is not to light everything. This applies quite well to night photography. Glad the image reads as clearly being a night image — digital shooters need to be careful in the processing to achieve a night vibe.

    My artist statement from 2 years ago is sadly out of date and has been pulled from my website. I’m actually working on a new one – so thanks for asking!



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