Low-key lighting is one of the most beautiful techniques in photography, but also one of the most challenging. The exposure premise for film photography falls within the same parameters as shooting digital. The big difference when shooting film is that you will not know how your work will come out until you develop the film. The recommended camera settings in this article will work for any low-light conditions, but this question was originally prompted by a trip to Zions National Park. Utah and Arizona have some stunning slot canyons, the best-known being Antelope Canyon on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. These locations are incredibly picturesque, but the unique lighting conditions make it famously difficult to photograph. I’ll use the example of my canyoneering experience as the backdrop for this discussion.
Pack Light Gear
To capture the best low-lighting images with film, you must have the right gear. With film, the right settings are mandatory. Make sure you bring a light meter, a 35mm or medium format SLR camera (Mamiya, Hasselblad, Canon or Nikon), a 75-300mm SLR lens, UV lens, polarizer filter, a small bag, shutter release cable, tripod, small reflector, and color or black and white film. Fujifilm Natura 1600 or Kodak Porta 800 for color and Ilford Delta 3200 for black and white images are the best-recommended films.
Preparing for Conditions
If you are filming in slot canyons, you should be aware of some unique challenges besides the lighting. The stone is sandy and abrasive. There are obstacles such as technical climbs, rappels, and potholes that make canyons difficult and dangerous to navigate (we all remember the story of Aron Ralston). If it rains it can flash flood. The floods frequently leave deep, cold cesspools that will get into your gear.
What do these challenges mean for photographers? You need to protect your gear from these uniquely challenging elements. Cameras and lenses need to be stored in hard-shell, watertight cases. I like Pelican cases for the size of cameras I use for outdoor shoots. It’s important to protect your food the same way. I don’t usually bring tripods to these kinds of locations, but if you do, you’re going to want a cheap, compact, lightweight throwaway, because the sand is going to get into the joints and you’re never going to get it back out.
Setting Up Your Gear
There are many different ways to set-up your gear. The area you chose to photograph is what will determine how and where you set up. Find a crevice in a slot canyon that you want to shoot. Make sure the sun is not facing directly at it, or you’ll have drastic over-exposed areas that do not add detail. Set up your camera ISO, film speed, aperture, shutter speed, and UV and polarizing filters. Make sure your tripod is steady, and your shutter release cable is plugged in.
The best times to shoot in low-key lighting conditions is approximately 15 minutes after sunrise or sunset. The exposure will be smooth and provide a spectacular image with no details lost from over or underexposure. Set up at least 30 minutes before. If you don’t have a light meter, then use your camera’s internal light meter. Set up your camera to the right exposure settings and remember to bracket. Bracketing means you must shoot one correct exposure, one exposure up and one exposure down. Bracketing ensures you have three different images to choose from in case your exposure is off.
APERTURE F/4 – F/16. It depends on the depth of field you are looking for.
SHUTTER: 1/15-1/400. Match the film with ISO selected.
Exposure combinations depend on your light meter sequences.