Film vs. Digital Night Photography: Interview with Troy Paiva of Lost America

Recently I had the opportunity to view some amazing long exposure film images by my friend and fellow night photography workshop instructor Troy Paiva. The film images are 45 minute exposures at f/11 using Kodak E100VS film in a 35mm camera. I noted that Troy made both film and digital exposures from a similar vantage point for a few of these images, and asked if I could show some comparisons -- he graciously agreed. Below are 3 sets of images with my thoughts on the look and relative strengths of each format, followed by commentary from Troy. I look forward to hearing your comments on how the film and digital versions compare!

Film vs. Digital Night Photography Set #1 -- Business Coupe

Business Coupe 45 -- by Troy Paiva
Business Coupe 45 -- by Troy Paiva
Business Coupe 2 -- by Troy Paiva
Business Coupe 2 -- by Troy Paiva

Joe: The long lines of the car are really accentuated by the huge star trails in the film version. The slightly lower and closer camera position, and light falloff on the back of the car really create dimensionality. I love the texture on the side of the car, the brightly lit rear wheel, and headliner details in the film version. Looks like the front part of the car had some fill light?

The digital version has the fantastic color blending, which is really set off by the subtle purples and oranges in the sky. The short star trails work extremely well in this case because the Big Dipper is so identifiable. The hard angle used for the green light painting really brings out the shape and texture in the car, and the positioning of the windows against the line of the mountains adds wonderful complexity to the middle of the composition. The shadows in the digital version seem more open, and the digital version feels much cleaner overall. Tell me about your strategy for the lighting in the digital version. Also, what was the color temperature to get the sky that color? Both images are very successful, but I'm partial to the film version.

Troy: The film image is lit by a natural xenon Stinger Streamlight from off camera-right, the same basic angle that I did the green flashlight in the digital version.  I was looking to pull out the form in the front fender and how it transitions into the body of the car.  The white balance on the digital image is 7500º, quite hot, but I wanted that warm sunset-y purple sky to compliment the predominant greens of the lighting.

These were shot right after sunset on the day after the full moon, when the moon-rise happened about an hour after sunset.  The digital image was done first and has no moonlight in it and just a slight touch of daylight (seen lighting the distant vehicles), so I knew that to get any light here, I would have to add it myself.   I light painted the hell out of it, from several angles, so none of the car's form would be lost in silhouette.  The film version was set up next and was also started before the moonrise.  Over the course of the 45 minute exposure, however, the moon rose, but the angle of moonlight is still extremely low, creating long shadows and interesting highlights.

I like the digital version better, personally.  I think the color and sharpness rule the day.  I also like the '70s Dodge Dart popping into the frame on the right, it balances the composition.  This is a copy of a similar set up done by one of our students, Tim Little, during the workshop, the night before.  When I happened upon him shooting this, I knew I wanted to do my own take on it.

Film vs. Digital Night Photography Set #2 -- 1972 Ford Galaxie 500

Freebie -- by Troy Paiva
Freebie -- by Troy Paiva
The Bean -- by Troy Paiva
The Bean -- by Troy Paiva

Joe: Unlike the first comparison, the compositions here are radically different. With a 45 minute exposure, you want a lot of sky. The film shot is more a "vehicle in context," and the digital version is tight and textural. The digital version really sings for me in this set -- the juxtaposition of the dense lines on the front grill against the moving plant is superb. The lighting on the grill and under the hood have a lot of texture and snap. Tell me about you lighting strategy for this image, and also the color palette choice -- which is hugely important to making this image work so well.

Troy: When doing these extremely long film exposures I want a lot of star movement, so I tend to frame with a lot of sky to help make it the dominant subject.  The digital image is more about the car and creosote, and my lighting treatment on them, so I tightened up on those.

The film image has a little xenon flashlight on on the grille from camera-left.  The digital has lime-gelled LED light from the same location, but I also hit the underside of the hood and just got more light on the car in general.  I also used a green-gelled and snooted light on the headlights.  Is the green too similar to the lime?  Perhaps, but I really wanted the headlights to only be slightly different and not pop too much because I wanted the other areas like the hood and plant to not be lost while people are oogling the headlights.  It's a fine line.  I also lit the driver-side fender with a natural LED flashlight to pull out some shadow details on that side of the car in an effort to give that deep shadow area some detail and give some pop to the creosote bush.Like you, I think the digital image is far more interesting and absorbing.  Truth be told, I wanted that much light on the film version too, but I simply didn't hit it enough. Light painting on film is extremely difficult because you can't preview the image to make sure you got what you need.  The digital version took 3 tries before I was happy enough with it to move on to something else.  Because of this, I keep my film light painting to a minimum.

Film vs. Digital Night Photography Set #3 -- Southbound Winnie

Southbound Winnie 45 -- by Troy Paiva
Southbound Winnie 45 -- by Troy Paiva
Southbound Winnie 2 -- by Troy Paiva
Southbound Winnie 2 -- by Troy Paiva

Joe: The film Winnebago image has the classic circular star trails achieved by pointing the camera towards Polaris (the North Star). Film is great for this classic compositional technique because you don't have to worry about battery life or noise reduction. The color palette of the E100VS really works the deep dark cyans of the sky against the warm yellows of the desert sand. The film version has a lot of snap. The digital version has a quieter, more clean and subtle look in this set. The interior is lit with just enough light to add color and texture, and the headlight painting gives the front grill some personality. Can you talk about how much light was used on the interior. I'm also interested in any thoughts on compositional strategies with digital when composing in a northward direction?

Troy: I did the digital shot first here and saw that the North Star was lined up on the center of the vehicle, so I knew that it was a good candidate for a killer star spiral on a long film exposure.  I was really drawn to the blocky, chiseled symmetrical look of the RV here, so I composed to accentuate that.  I love that you can see the lights of Ridgecrest reflected in the windshield too.

In both cases, the interior  is lit with a red LED flashlight from both sides, basically doing my best to make sure the interior got filled with light.  The volume of light is much less on the film version.  Some of that is from the aperture of the film version being f11 (vs. f5.6 for the digital), but I just don't think I put as much light in there.  It is, unfortunately, a very inexact science.  Both images also have snooted LED light on the headlights as well.  Note also that I burned down the chunk of white insulation in the lower left corner on the digital version, but left it on the film.  It was terribly distracting.

I'm partial to the digital version here too.  It's just smoother and cleaner and the lighting pops more.  Yeah, I know, I've chosen the digital versions unanimously.  What can I say?  When I moved to digital in 2005 I said I'd never shoot film at night again and it took me 4 years to decide to tinker with it again.  I really wanted to see how I'd react to it.  While there's nothing that can compare with these crazy-long star trails and that surreal softness to the shadows and overall quality of light, I just think the excessive contrast and grain, a byproduct of reciprocity failure in film exposures this length, renders the images less clear and tight.  Someday (soon) you're going to be able to do 45 minute long digital exposures, retaining the best traits of both mediums.  I'm looking forward to that.

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