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mikeber
12-Oct-2009, 18:33
As before, I would like to consult this knowledgeable community about a project I want to start. It is taking photographs in urban settings with low light conditions. These scenes aren't totally dark, but very contrasty with harsh highlights and large portions of total darkness. I viewed many night pics and there are a few things which I will avoid (at least for the beginning) - shooting totally dark scenes, illuminated only by stars, or overexposing so that photographs look as taken during daylight. I estimate most exposures between a few sec to 1/2 hour. The exposures will be B&W.
I need recommendations in regard to the equipment that matches such project. (I try to avoid what many do - first purchasing equipment and only later thinking how to adapt it to certain conditions). My budget is not unlimited, but would also like to hear opinions as if there is unlimited budget.
The first selection is between digital and film. I have no experience with digital sensors in long exposures. I am quite concerned with noise accumulation by MF digital backs.
Although I may later reconsider, I would like to start with film for now. The first choice that comes in mind is my Rolleiflex. It has a great Planar lens and no moving mirror, but is limited to one lens only which doesn't fit this project. So next question is if to purchase a MF SLRs with a choice of 3 lenses or a Mamiya 330C. Although that may be the best choice, for now, I am considering a 4x5 outfit since I want to use some limited LF camera movements.
Next question is which 4x5 camera will perform best in low light conditions. Focusing on the GG in the dark is difficult, so a rangefinder comes in mind. I read several posts in regard to rangefinders, but they referred to fast handheld action, which is not what I am after. I will use a tripod for all exposures.
The cameras I have in mind are the Linhof Technika, Speed Graphic, Horseman, Burke and James, and Wista RF. Please let me know about other options and which in your opinion is best suited for this project.

vinny
12-Oct-2009, 18:50
The camera isn't so important as the lenses. Fast lenses help as do led's that can be placed in frame for focusing. The following are guys I know who shoot 4x5 night work regularly:
johnsmithimages.com
petersmithimpressions.com
tompaiva.com

Ed Richards
12-Oct-2009, 19:04
How big do you want to make prints, and how much does fine detail matter? Digital is amazing now for this sort of work, which is why it has taken over astronomy. Nikon at least has dark sensor noise subtraction and at lower ASA is not going to have any noise at all. You can also do limited HDR to bring out shadows a bit, without getting into the surreal look. Most importantly, you can a LOT more shots each night because the exposures will be much shorter - you do not stop down as much, and there is no reciprocity failure. You can also see what you are doing. So, unless you know you want to do big prints with a lot of deal, and that you want to send a long time on the learning curve because of the limited number of exposures you can do, and the processing and film costs to test things, you might start with digital and see what you can do. Does not need to be a MF back, a FF or even DX camera would be fine - all the new ones do great on noise as long as the ISO is kept low. Also gives you more freedom to apply virtual filters when you are converting to B&W.

Steaphany
12-Oct-2009, 19:23
mikeber,

This is an area of photography that I did years ago with film, attempted recently with my Sigma SD14 dSLR with varying success, and one of the motivations behind returning to film and getting into large format.


These scenes aren't totally dark, but very contrasty with harsh highlights and large portions of total darkness.

No scene will ever contain total darkness. Whether reflected from lights in the area or even from the back ground glow of a light polluted night sky, given a sufficiently long exposure, your camera will record light from every point in the scene.


overexposing so that photographs look as taken during daylight.

Long exposures which give a sense of a day lit scene will always carry a surreal look of night simply because of the lights from windows and street lighting.


I estimate most exposures between a few sec to 1/2 hour.

A 30 minute exposure precludes digital technology, at least when performing the exposure with a single long exposure. I do not know of many cameras where the electronics allows for an exposure lasting more than a few minutes.

Alternatively, you can achieve long digital exposure in software by the technique of image stacking. This is commonly done in both professional and amateur astronomical photography. The process averages out the noise and enhances the imaged light by mathematically combining multiple digital exposures. Whether you go with digital or film, you may want to research these software packages to help you decide:

RegiStax (http://www.astronomie.be/registax/)

DeepSkyStacker (http://deepskystacker.free.fr/english/index.html)

AIP4Win (http://www.willbell.com/aip/index.htm)

I have all three and my best results have been with DeepSkyStacker. As long as it can identify "stars", small point sources of light surrounded by darkness, it will align and stack anywhere from a few to hundreds of exposures. ( Some amateur astronomers use web cam video cameras connected to a telescope and combine the stack of video frames. )


The first selection is between digital and film.

I recommend that you start out with film. The noise that you can be plagued with in low light digital photography can be really discouraging.

Film also has an advantage over digital in that you can perform a pre-exposure, exposing the whole sheet to a uniform low intensity light to move the starting exposure out from the initial nearly horizontal region of the exposure versus density curve. Done carefully will effectively increase your film's sensitivity.


Focusing on the GG in the dark is difficult

Then don't. An easy way to eliminate focusing in low light is to set up your camera a couple hours before it gets so dark that you could no longer focus. This will allow you all the freedoms afforded by a large format camera. Another alternative will take some math. Calculate your lenses hyperfocal distance. When you are setting up your camera, set your lens to focus to the hyperfocal distance and then everything from 1/2 the hyperfocal distance through to infinity will be focused.

I hope this helps you pick a direction.

mikeber
12-Oct-2009, 19:58
The camera isn't so important as the lenses. Fast lenses help as do led's that can be placed in frame for focusing. The following are guys I know who shoot 4x5 night work regularly:
johnsmithimages.com
petersmithimpressions.com
tompaiva.com
Thanks vinny! I looked at these guys and their images are great!
BTW, what do you mean by leds that can be placed in frame?


How big do you want to make prints, and how much does fine detail matter? Digital is amazing now for this sort of work, which is why it has taken over astronomy. Nikon at least has dark sensor noise subtraction and at lower ASA is not going to have any noise at all. You can also do limited HDR to bring out shadows a bit, without getting into the surreal look. Most importantly, you can a LOT more shots each night because the exposures will be much shorter - you do not stop down as much, and there is no reciprocity failure. You can also see what you are doing. So, unless you know you want to do big prints with a lot of deal, and that you want to send a long time on the learning curve because of the limited number of exposures you can do, and the processing and film costs to test things, you might start with digital and see what you can do. Does not need to be a MF back, a FF or even DX camera would be fine - all the new ones do great on noise as long as the ISO is kept low. Also gives you more freedom to apply virtual filters when you are converting to B&W.
Thanks for the great advice Ed! It made me rethink the whole project. The main reason I was considering film is dynamic range. From my experience with digital, exposures need to be more precise, while a film like Tri X is more forgiving. Since the main issue is shadows and light, I thought I may get a better gradation with film. The long exposures are to emphasize passing cars as well as accumulated lightnings on stormy evenings, but perhaps that may be achived in 2-3 minutes with digital.


mikeber,

This is an area of photography that I did years ago with film, attempted recently with my Sigma SD14 dSLR with varying success, and one of the motivations behind returning to film and getting into large format.



No scene will ever contain total darkness. Whether reflected from lights in the area or even from the back ground glow of a light polluted night sky, given a sufficiently long exposure, your camera will record light from every point in the scene.



Long exposures which give a sense of a day lit scene will always carry a surreal look of night simply because of the lights from windows and street lighting.



A 30 minute exposure precludes digital technology, at least when performing the exposure with a single long exposure. I do not know of many cameras where the electronics allows for an exposure lasting more than a few minutes.

Alternatively, you can achieve long digital exposure in software by the technique of image stacking. This is commonly done in both professional and amateur astronomical photography. The process averages out the noise and enhances the imaged light by mathematically combining multiple digital exposures. Whether you go with digital or film, you may want to research these software packages to help you decide:

RegiStax (http://www.astronomie.be/registax/)

DeepSkyStacker (http://deepskystacker.free.fr/english/index.html)

AIP4Win (http://www.willbell.com/aip/index.htm)

I have all three and my best results have been with DeepSkyStacker. As long as it can identify "stars", small point sources of light surrounded by darkness, it will align and stack anywhere from a few to hundreds of exposures. ( Some amateur astronomers use web cam video cameras connected to a telescope and combine the stack of video frames. )



I recommend that you start out with film. The noise that you can be plagued with in low light digital photography can be really discouraging.

Film also has an advantage over digital in that you can perform a pre-exposure, exposing the whole sheet to a uniform low intensity light to move the starting exposure out from the initial nearly horizontal region of the exposure versus density curve. Done carefully will effectively increase your film's sensitivity.



Then don't. An easy way to eliminate focusing in low light is to set up your camera a couple hours before it gets so dark that you could no longer focus. This will allow you all the freedoms afforded by a large format camera. Another alternative will take some math. Calculate your lenses hyperfocal distance. When you are setting up your camera, set your lens to focus to the hyperfocal distance and then everything from 1/2 the hyperfocal distance through to infinity will be focused.

I hope this helps you pick a direction.
Thanks Steaphany, Your point of view is interesting.
Pre exposing film - funny, I used to do that with papers in the darkroom to get above the threshold with highlights. I never considered doing the same with film, though.
About Foveon sensors, I think Sigma SLRs are quite old. New Nikons, Canons, etc, provide dark frame subtraction for noise reduction and I heard it works.
I also noticed your square format pics... Are those with a MF camera?

paulr
12-Oct-2009, 20:24
The digital options sound compelling, but I don't have experience with them. With film, the reciprocity characteristics of t-max make it almost magical, at least compared with traditional emulsions.

I went out and did a small series of urban night pictures with tmax 100 ... didn't even feel the need to try 400. I found the film extremely forgiving. I guessed at the exposures, and maybe did a couple of brackets, and generally found every exposure to be perfectly printable or scannable.

If I remember right, my exposures were never more than a few minutes.

Here's one:

http://www.paulraphaelson.com/portfolios/wilderness/21annes_roof.jpg

r.e.
12-Oct-2009, 20:38
There is an American photographer named Chris Jordan who used to participate in this site several years ago. He is from the State of Washington, and spent quite a lot of time when he first got involved in photography doing long nighttime exposures with an 8x10 camera. His work was in colour, but that doesn't make much difference.

Anyway, you might look for his old posts. If I recall, he talked about his technique a bit. Jordan did very long exposures, so the images were quite abstract. He subsequently went in a very different direction. His web site is at http://www.chrisjordan.com/, but unfortunately he doesn't show those early photographs anymore. They were very good.

Cheers

Gordon Moat
12-Oct-2009, 20:44
Compare Nikon D3 images to many minutes low ISO 4x5, and the tonality difference goes towards film. However, you really need to think in reverse: decide what you want to print, and go from there. A D3 is great in low light, but even with tilt/shift lenses it is not anything like 4x5 movements, especially for more architectural scenes.

HDR will crunch images into looking like daylight. Avoid HDR, and your darker areas will act as negative space, and often the factor of focal points and a less-is-more approach can allow for more compelling results.

I do many long exposure night shots using ISO 100 and ISO 200 films, usually in colour. I also have a few long exposure Plus-X and TriX sourced prints at 24" by 36". The shots from E100VS have been the ones that worked the best for me, usually a little after sunset, and often around f8 to f16, slight 82A filtration, and around 2 minutes to 6 minutes.

I have recently been working on some handheld ISO 800 and ISO 1600 night image, all urban cityscapes and scenes. The big thing has been to achieve 1 second or half second exposures, in order to use bracing instead of a tripod.

That brings me to the real tough part, you need some sort of tripod, clamping set-up, or at the least a beanbag. Often I take a tripod for the 4x5 night images, though with medium format or DSLR I can change to a Manfrotto Super Clamp set-up, a braced monopod, or go with a Home Depot sourced home-made clamp.

What I find works well is having all your gear in a fast and ready to use set-up. Quick out of the bag, and minimal time needed in many locations. Security is one concern, though the other is that the best light (darkness actually) happens for barely 30 minutes. Lots of walking means easy to use bags, which for me means a backpack for the 4x5, though I have recently used a Lowepro Slingshot 200 very effectively.

Ciao!

Gordon Moat Photography (http://www.gordonmoat.com)

tgtaylor
12-Oct-2009, 22:09
For B&W film, consider Fuji Acros which is a sharp fine grain film with a reciprocity charastic similar to a CCD chip: A 16'40" exposure requires a mere 1/2 stop compensation.

A good 1 degree spot meter will come in handy in determining exposure and a tripod is essential for long exposures - especially with medium or LF. A small flashlight (to see the second hand on your watch) and cable release completes the necessities.

Thomas

Clement Apffel
13-Oct-2009, 02:27
A 30 minute exposure precludes digital technology, at least when performing the exposure with a single long exposure. I do not know of many cameras where the electronics allows for an exposure lasting more than a few minutes.

Just for the record, any DSLR remote control will allow you to make exposures from 1 second to 100 hours.
And of course allows both B and T settings.

And also note that the noise during long exposures can be present even on low ISO settings and with recent DSLRs if the temperature is above 25-30C.
I had to make long exposure night photography in Egypt between May and June (30-35C during night time). And the noise with digital cameras was unmanageable.

However, I agree with Ed Richards on the faster and cheaper trial & error with digital.
And concerning the "tonality difference" and the overall image quality for prints up to 30x40cm (11x14") keep in mind that the difference between film and digital remains VERY subjective to each user.
Especially if we are talking about recent DLSRs like Nikon D3, D3x or Canon 5DM2 or 1DsM3 in standard uses. (i.e. no tropical heat or anything exotic)

That being said, my own preference goes to film. But what I’m advising you here is: take the time to make your own tests prior to any purchase.

Hope it helps,
Regards,
CA.

Sascha Welter
13-Oct-2009, 05:30
Check out the CityScapes (http://www.largeformatphotography.info/forum/showthread.php?t=39237) thread. Apart from lots of great example photos, you can also see what people work with and quite often their exposure choices.

I'd say they use almost all kinds of large format cameras. Focusing on the GG will mostly be influenced by the maximum aperture of the lens and by the quality of the GG. Rangefinders are things for quick shots, not for exact composition, that's why people use large format cameras in the first place :-)

Steaphany
13-Oct-2009, 06:45
About Foveon sensors, I think Sigma SLRs are quite old. New Nikons, Canons, etc, provide dark frame subtraction for noise reduction and I heard it works.

The SD14 also performs dark frame subtraction, but the Foveon noise has less to do with silicon and more to do with the mathematics of separating the spectral overlap between the layered red, green, and blue channels. Being film experienced, I chose to go with the Foveon, despite the detracting reviews, because the imager employed a color film like layered architecture. ( I purchased my SD14 before learning that film and large format photography was still alive and thriving. ) I have experimented with processing the RAW data through an identity matrix which yields wonderfully noise free low light images, but the color rendition becomes a problem.

I know Nikon received a patent, US Patent 7,138,663 (http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=vSp9AAAAEBAJ&dq=7,138,663), which optically stacks the three color channels under a common microlens, eliminating the weakness's of a Bayer masked imager, while achieving better low light noise response than a Foveon, but Nikon tech support was never willing to identify which cameras took advantage of this technology. The best I got from them was "Nothing, digital or film, beats our products".


I also noticed your square format pics... Are those with a MF camera?

If you are referring to my image "Hit & Miss" in my Texas gallery on Imagekind, which I previously posted to:

safe haven for tiny formats (http://www.largeformatphotography.info/forum/showthread.php?p=502985#post502985)

No that was shot as a 3 x 3 mosaic with my SD14. I was too close to the engine to capture it in a single frame when shooting through my 1250mm Maksutov Cassegrain with it's 0.95 x 0.63 angle of view. After stitching, I cropped the frame to a 4x5 film frame aspect ratio.

ki6mf
13-Oct-2009, 11:27
I haven't read all the posts so don't know if the http://www.thenocturnes.com/ site has been mentioned. A good resource. Basically you test for your exposure based on the ambient light conditions. A meter almost always does no good. I shoot film and have exposures ranging from 5 minutes to 30 minutes. Almost always shooting at F22 and using compensating developer, Choice of developer is not really important you will be overexposing highlights and under developing shadows so need to compensate for the extreme contrast range. Process is basically the same for digital. Test and remember what the light looked like for your exposure. After a while you will figure out what works. As to gear for film it all works the same and I have seen great night photos taken on 35 MM film. I shoot 4X5 and usually when shooting long exposure will take my Shen Hao field camera and my Crown Graphic and set them up side by side that way i can have a 5,10, 15 minute exposure on one camera and the 20 minute on the other. Also I bring a folding chair to sit in so as to be comfortable. A LED flashlight helps to illuminate subjects to get the focus right.

BennehBoy
13-Oct-2009, 12:30
Wish I could see some of those Chris Jordan images, but there's nothing still available on the forum that I can find.

pocketfulladoubles
13-Oct-2009, 12:38
Aside from setting up in the day, you can use a flashlight to help you focus at night. And 30 minutes? Maybe not. I took a moonlit shot the other day using Velvia 50, and the average light in the scene metered a -3 exposure with 15 minutes at f/16. I know Velvia isn't recommended for long duration shots, but I assumed some reciprocity failure and gave it 5 hours of exposure, from about midnight to 5am. It came out just right. It is hard to tell if the color shifted due to the mystical shades of moonlight, but all in all I like the way it looked. Too bad it was a boring picture :D

tgtaylor
13-Oct-2009, 15:56
If the intent is to take B&W images "...in urban settings with low light conditions. These scenes aren't totally dark, but very contrasty with harsh highlights and large portions of total darkness..." then several hour exposures are not needed and it is not necessary to stop down. F8 or F11 will be sufficient in most all cases.

I once shot the Bay Bridge at night with a Toyo 45cf that didn't have a fresnel using a Nikkor-M 300mm lens (F9). Because I wanted the bridge cables sharp in the print and couldn't see them on the ground glass I stopped down to F16 and took a 60-second exposure. Came out really good with the cables and bridge sharp and a nice silver streak on the water. The 60-second exposure evened out the turbulance in the water into nice calm looking little waves.

I have found the spot meter to be a real help in shooting urban scenes at night as it will tell you where the highlights are and therefore give you an idea of where to put the exposure. Take, for example, paulr's image on the first page of this post. A spopt meter will tell you where the lights in the windows are as well as the street below.

Thomas