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Rogue Swan Burns Performance – Fun with bad lighting and underexposure…

Jan 29, 2020

When I told JimmyO, the drummer here, that he was so much better lit there in the background than those in the foreground that when I brought them in his face would emerge like a ghost in their midst, he said he wanted me to feature one of thise in my next posting. So, here it is, above. Below is me zooming in on the effect at a point when no one was standing in front of his barrier.

The State Theater a new project renovating an old movie theater, and without front or floor lighting for the stage at this point. Without the zoom lens I had trouble recognizing some of the people on the stage. I found myself having to shoot at ISO 6400 and consistently running 2 to 3 stops underexposed at that. Why don't I simply expose at 25600? Good question – because of the way sensors function, not at all like film. The actuality is that initial exposures are all the same – treatment of the nascent file is different. This seems to work fine for me up through 6400.

I find that, for above 6400, I do better by leaving it there, underexposing, and accomplishing the next two jumps or so myself. I just don't like the way the camera does it – especially for B&W. My results pretty closely resemble what I would have gotten with old Tri-X film pushed to ISO 800 – something of a nice grainy but sharp image. If left in color, the effect – after adjustments – is more like high speed slide film.


I've had a few people ask me how I get this particular effect – the old Trix-X film at 800 grain look. I’ve been slow to address that because the answer is a little tricky. I do not use artificial film effect presets. It comes about quite naturally from shooting in such low light that, instead of letting the ISO extend upwards, I wind up setting the ISO on 6400 and letting the exposure be two to three stops under – again, passing on the 12800 or 25600 (or higher settings). The initial results are dark, very dark, but my own efforts in Photoshop bring the images back in. Occasionally there is some white noise in the blacks – easily eliminated by area application of the dust and scratches filter in Photoshop. Otherwise, most "noise" is conveniently replaced by visible grain.  I confess that this doesn't seem to work as well on my Canon exposures, just the Fuji – not sure why. At the same time, I seem to be incapable of getting the effect, to my satisfaction at least, using other than Photoshop. Interesting. And, as I’ve mentioned before – PhotoKit plugins, free by the way, provide 90% of my adjustments.

Admittedly this approach often requires very selective adjustments. I’ve had stage shots where I had to select a dozen individuals separately for special treatment. It can be more like painting light with a brush than photography. But, and here’s the big plus, I seldom have to worry about the type of “noise” that comes from very high ISO exposures. Of course I’ve evolved this workflow over the last couple of years, a result of trial and error, accident and desperation.

I'm pleasantly surprised at how many shots I like from this effort. I only kept 50 of my 400 exposures. A pretty low number. The color exposures that I could salvage, slightly corrected, are available as JPGs to Rogue Swan on Flickr. Who knows, someone might have a use for one. Here are a couple more B&Ws – the rest will be next posting: