I am continuously finding myself amazed at certain films ability to adapt to essentially any situation I throw at it. Up until this week my two golden boys have been Kodak’s iconic black and white 400tx, and their legendary color film portra 400. Both of these film stocks are insanely versatile, and have been staples in both my personal and professional photography workflow over the last couple years.
One of the joys of shooting black and white film, is the low light capability of it. There used to be a few different 3200 speed films available, my favorite being Kodak’s Tmax 3200. However, with Kodak ceasing production of this particular speed in 2012, the film has become difficult to come by these days. I have a small stockpile of it in my freezer, but I choose to save its grainy goodness for photographing my beautiful wife Emily and my adorable niece’s Ellie, Harlow & Ella.
With that being said, all is not lost with low light film photography. Ilford still makes a 3200 high speed film in its Delta line up, which gives great results and a classic but gentle grain structure. I’ve used this film on various occasions and it definitely performs well, and offers plenty for the photographer who is looking for a straight forward high speed black and white film.
Earlier this year, I started pushing Tri-x to 3200 with some very pleasing results. In fact it has given a super clean and sharp scan with minimal noise, and (if metered properly) still retains a decent amount of detail in the shadows.
For this very reason Tri-x has stood the test of time and remains the film of choice for many iconic photographers still alive today, not to mention legendary photographers of yesteryear.
What Is Pushing Film?
To push in analog photography is to take a film stock that is rated for a certain speed and “push” it to a higher speed. So in this case I have been taking Kodak’s Tri-x which is a 400 iso/asa film and pushed it to 3200 iso/asa. Essentially what this does is underexposes the film by 3 stops, which then gets balanced out by bringing the exposure back later with a stronger dilution and/or longer development time when developing the film. One of the most noted advantages to this process is it allows you to shoot in lower lighting conditions, without sacrificing image quality due to shutter speeds that are less than ideal for hand holding situations.
There are plenty of film stocks that do very well when pushed, but there are strict limits on many as to how far the pushing can go. With Portra 400 Ive had excellent results pushing to 800 (+1 stop), and have seen some great results where it was pushed to 1600 (+2 stops) and in some cases 3200 (+3 stops). However my own personal experience with pushing so far fell short; not so much due to the films limitations, but more of the color temperature of the lighting I had to work with at the time. Black & white film on the other hand doesn’t run into the color balance issues that the typically daylight balance color films do, so it can be pushed indoors with excellent results.
Limitations To Consider
One thing to take into consideration, with both color and b&w, is that when pushing film you’re going to be introducing even more grain and contrast. Being the films were designed for the iso/asa speeds they are labeled at, you are “tricking” the system so to speak, and in doing so overexerting the emulsion of the film. But grain and contrast aren’t always a terrible thing, and when the additional speed for low light photography is needed, often the trade off is well worth it.
Personally I am a bit of a grain and contrast junkie. The more the merrier in most cases, but at the same time there is definitely a tipping point where it can become a distraction instead of a pleasing aesthetic. In order to avoid hitting the unpleasant side of the pushing spectrum I do two things.
1. Meter For The Shadows
This applies to both pushing your black and white film, as well as shooting it at box speed. In order to retain the latitude available on your film you are going to want to meter for the shadows. If your using an incident meter a good rule of thumb is to point your meters bulb away from the light source or even down towards the ground in order to put it in shadow. If your using a reflective meter like the one that’s in your camera, simply point it towards the shadows of the scene, set your exposure settings then recompose to include the rest of the image and shoot from there. This will ensure you maintain the detail within the shadows and give you a nice open negative to work with.
2. When In Doubt Overexpose
The issue with increasing contrast on film is you begin to crush your blacks, especially when pushing as far as 3 stops and beyond. So after metering for the shadows I still like to overexpose the negative anywhere between a quarter to half stop of exposure. The way I do this is I set my light meter to iso 2500 when shooting for 3200, which is roughly a half stop of over exposure, to bump the shadows even more, and ensure I have plenty of detail to work with. Thanks to films incredible latitude, I’ve never really had to worry about blown highlights, and in turn get to add my choice of contrast in post after scanning the negatives in. Its easy to add contrast to an overexposed negative, but near impossible to remove contrast from an underexposed negative (See image below).
Not Just An Inside Voice
I’ve spent a decent amount of time talking about low light indoor uses for pushing, but by no means are you limited to where you can push your film. I also use this process in my street photography to add in extra grain and contrast to a scene. By closing your lens down to F8 or F11 you could easily manage to shoot at even iso 1600 in bright sunlight. When shooting on the street I almost always add a full stop of overexposure because of how drastic shadows can get in some scenes throughout the day.
I by no means claim to be the authority on this topic, and have only been experimenting with pushing my films over the past couple years. But, through the process I have picked up some tricks and personal processes for how I’ve come to do things. I am pleased to share my experiences and learnings, and encourage you to experiment yourself. If you come to another conclusion, or do things different then I do thats perfectly fine. The beautiful thing about the art form of photography is there is plenty of room for interpretation.
If you have any questions, or would like to share your own personal results or ideas please share them in the comments below. And feel free to check out my instagram feed for more examples of pushed photos as well as some of my other personal projects.