Film Photography: Long Exposures and the Freedom to Fail

I have a talented Flickr contact named David who regularly posts botched photos on Fridays. He used to call it Failure Friday, but now it's Freedom Friday (as in Freedom to Fail). I like these installments and often learn from his explanation of the process and what his intentions might have been. A photographer shouldn't be afraid of failing often. I know that failure is an odd concept in the age of digital photography, where we can take a shot, check the LCD screen, delete, adjust, and take the shot again. There's very little mystery and no heartbreak involved: just keepers, then those bytes and bits relegated to the virtual trash bin or languishing on a hard drive.

But for a curious film photographer, failure is real. That roll you haven't developed yet could be just what your experience has taught you to expect - solid and well exposed. It may even contain a shot or two that just makes you weak in the knees - somehow the quality of the light and the emulsion have combined to give you something so beautiful and unexpected that you treat it like a gift. On the other hand, that undeveloped roll could be brutally underwhelming. Maybe it was your first time using that film stock, a new technique, or you thought that you could make bad light into good.

I've recently started shooting long exposures and really enjoy the change of pace that night photography gives me. There's no concern about the quality of the light or the harshness of the sun. There is only light from the buildings, signs, streetlights, and moon. For my first long exposures, I did my research and picked a tried-and-true film (Fuji Neopan Acros 100) that would be easy to use and develop at home. I was very happy with those two rolls, even stunned by the quiet beauty of a couple shots.

Excited about those shots, especially the ones of Jane's Carousel, I got a little greedy and returned to the same spot in DUMBO a few days later. Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm I downplayed the inclemenent weather and I shot a black and white roll in a light rain and heavy wind. The results were exactly what I should have expected and I now understand that shooting into a 20mph wind negates the careful use of a tripod. Lesson learned: check the weather next time.

That night, I also used the roll of Fuji Velvia that I happened to have in my bag as an experiment. I didn't check the fact sheet for the film. If I had, I would have known that Velvia is not recommended for anything past 64 seconds (doh!). This roll of twelve exposures was muddy and underexposed. And now I know why: reciprocity failure is very real with Velvia. I bracketed my exposures, but none of them turned out very well. The carousel is well-exposed, but the sky looks like a purple mess of coffee grounds were smeared across it.

Jane's Carousel, Fuji Velvia 100, Long Exposure

Not all was lost that night though. Despite the wind and rain, I managed to salvage this shot on a roll of Fuji Neopan Acros 100.

Lower Manhattan Glowing, Fuji Neopan Acros 100, Long Exposure

I also didn't do my research when using Astia film on the Hudson River. (Turns out, it's fine up to and even past 120 seconds provided you account for reciprocity failure and up the exposure.)

The slides were mostly okay if a little underexposed. But what was most alarming was the color shift when I scanned them.

Scanned long exposure slide of Fuji Astia about 10-15 minutes after sunset. Hello purple sky and water!

After color correction the Astia slides turned out decent, but they were not sharp. The lights in the buildings across the Hudson River are soft and a little "blobby." I realized at the time that my tripod was resting on steel grate, not concrete. Joggers and walkers were tromping past during exposures...I remarked to Kate at the time, "That can't be good for my exposures." It wasn't. Another lesson learned.

Reflecting the Stars Lights on Hudson Piers, Fuji Astia 100, Long Exposure

This slide of One World Trade Center jutting into the sky is also pretty unremarkable, but at least it didn't have the crazy color shift.

One World Trade Center Rising from West Village, Fuji Astia 100, Long Exposure

All images were shot with my Hasselblad 501cm and Zeiss Planar 80mm f2.8 lens.

The results weren't catastrophic, just a bit of a letdown. I knew when I handed them over that I might be unhappy with the results. I consider these two rolls a learning process or a starting point.