Ships and Trains at Night, and Film Reciprocity Failure

Tall Ships America’s Challenge Race Series returned to the Great Lakes, and Kenosha, Wisconsin acted as a host city for the weekend of 1-4 August 2019.  Seven sailing vessels participated in the events, which included the Parade of Sail on 1 August, with all seven ships arriving in port under sail. The headliner ship was the Niagara, an accurate reproduction of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victorious flagship from the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie. Two ships, the Kenosha-based Red Witch, and the visiting Appledore IV, provided day and night sails for the four days of the event.  There was even an opportunity for 14-18 year-old students to join the crew of the S/V Denis Sullivan on a three-day hands-on adventure sail immediately before the public event.

I visited the Tall Ships Festival with my wife, Corinne, during the day on 2 August, and enjoyed touring the Niagara, viewing the other ships (all were available to board and tour), and watching the ships departing and arriving on the day sails.  I did take some photographs, but, being mid-day, and with large tourist crowds, I did not get any really compelling shots.

Tall Ships Kenosha – Leica M4, Summicron 50mm, Kodak Tmax400

I did, however, see an opportunity for some night photography, especially after the festival crowd had gone home.  To that end, I returned myself the following evening, just about sunset, to shoot the ships at rest in harbor that night.  I brought my Fuji XT-1 with the XF 50-200mm for my digital shots, and the Pentax 67 using primarily the 105mm f2.4 and Kodak Portra 400 for my film attempts. I had some apprehension about this, as it would be my first attempt to shoot film at night.

The good news was that all of my shooting took place at sunset and later, with most of the festival crowds around the ships gone. The downside of this was that the area immediately adjacent to the ships was inaccessible, so I needed to shoot from across the narrow harbor.  The biggest problem posed by this, however, was not the distance but the challenge of shooting into strong floodlights illuminating the ships; it was virtually impossible to get a composition without the lights in the frame, so I needed to try to incorporate them into the picture somehow.

For the digital shots, my strategy was to embrace the light by employing small apertures to get starbursts from the light sources. This proved largely successful, but some shots were degraded due to either excessive starburst effect, or to lens flare caused by shooting almost directly into the light.

Tall Ships Kenosha – Niagara – Fuji XT-1, XF 50-200mm
Tall Ships Kenosha – Red Witch and Appledore IV – Fuji XT-1, XF 50-200mm
Tall Ships Kenosha – Fuji XT-1, XF 50-200mm

I was unsure of my chances for success with the Pentax/Portra combination, especially after seeing the problems the lights posed with the digital camera.  In addition to that was also the added complexity of focusing manually in reduced lighting, and accounting for film reciprocity failure.

For those unfamiliar with reciprocity failure, in simplest terms it is the phenomenon where a film emulsion becomes effectively less sensitive to light hitting it after a certain exposure time threshold is exceeded, typically around 1-3 seconds or a bit more.  This is because each silver halide crystal suspended in a film emulsion needs to be exposed to a minimum number of photons per unit time to effect the reaction that creates a developable latent image.  If the light level is low enough, insufficient photons impinge on the silver grains to fully create this latent image – this necessitates compensation, i.e., additional exposure time over the metered exposure time, to build up the latent image.  Each film type has its own reciprocity characteristics; some are barely effected, and others suffer severely.

Takk Ships Kenosha – Niagara – Pentax 67, 100mm f2.4, Kodak Portra 400

Fortunately, film manufacturers generally provide good data to photographers to calculate the amount of additional exposure required due to reciprocity failure.  This may be given via a percentage increase, or more likely, via a compensation chart, as the correction required is typically not linear but exponential.  Photographers in today’s smart phone world can employ phone applications that calculate the correct compensation for a given film type; plug in the metered exposure time and the application calculates the corrected time that accounts for the reciprocity failure.  I use an app called Reciprocity Timer that makes this calculation, and that also accounts for bellows factor and filter factor corrections.  For an example, if I metered a low light/night scene for Portra 400 and came up with a 20-second exposure time, entering this in Reciprocity Timer gives me a compensated exposure time of 51 seconds.  The app also has a built in timer to guide your use of the camera in bulb mode with a remote shutter release for the corrected longer exposure.

Tall Ships Kenosha – Pentax 67, 100mm f2.4, Kodak Portra 400

If this talk of reciprocity failure and compensating exposure times has got you anxious about shooting film in low light, let me offer a thought to reassure you. In the example I gave earlier, with the 51 second compensated exposure time, what if you screwed up the timing and exposed by accident for, oh my gosh, 60 seconds? Consider the forgiving exposure latitude of negative film – you can easily overexpose most films by 4 or 5 stops and still have a useable negative (they are less forgiving of underexposure). For a 51 second planned exposure, an accidental 60 second exposure constitutes less than 1/5 stop overexposure – if you doubled the planned 51 second exposure to 102 seconds, that would still only be ONE stop overexposed; a 3-1/2 minute exposure would just exceed 2 stops over.  In short, once you have calculated a compensated exposure time for reciprocity failure, it would be almost impossible to overexpose the image even with gross increases in the exposure time. Since underexposure would likely result in an unusable negative, it is far better to err on the side of overexposure, and rest easy knowing that even large increases in exposure time over the compensation value are unlikely to seriously hurt your negative’s quality.

Tall Ships Kenosha – Red Witch & Appledore IV -Pentax 67, 100mm f2.4, Kodak Portra 400

Well, after all this discussion of reciprocity, what were the results of my nighttime film shots? In short, I was very pleased. I erred towards overexposure with my compensated times and got good negatives.  A added feature of film with long exposure is that there is no increase in grain, unlike digital photography, where long exposures introduce noise concerns. I even think that the Portra handled the point light sources better than the Fuji digital camera.

As a final pleasant surprise for my night photography outing, on my way home from the harbor, I passed a Metro train station in Kenosha where a couple of Metra trains were parked for the night.  Noting the unique light streaming from the empty train windows, I quickly turned around, set up the tripod, and captured a couple more night shots, each around 2 minutes long. All in all, it was an instructive and rewarding night photography excursion, and one I plan to emulate again soon.

Metra Train at Rest – Kenosha – Pentax 67, 100mm f2.4, Kodak Portra 400

Click on any image to see full size.


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