What to do when the summer days keeps giving you a high contrast lighting, that is very hard to meter and expose correctly? You know, when it’s otherwise a lovely summer day, which is seemingly a perfect time shoot some nice black and white film, but your negatives turn out horrible, consisting only of solid areas of total black and over blown highlights. The answer might be pulling film. Read on and I’ll share my experience.

The summer can be a nightmarish time for a photographer — the flowers smell, vinyl collections melts away in heat and worst of all, the damn sun shines too much, ruining each image with hard shadows and that excessive contrast! Existence in conditions like these, is unbearable.  

At least for me, high contrast lighting has been one of my biggest hurdles, creating a dualistic, conflicting stand on summer. During any other season, I wait nothing more than the summer to come, because it is my favourite time of the year to shoot, for obvious reasons. The days are long and sunlight is plentiful. But then again, too much light is a bit too much. I’d prefer a bright, but a slightly overcasted sunshine. This summer has been so far the warmest and sunniest that I’ve ever experienced in my life. It is still May, but we’ve had more hot and sunny days here in Finland so far, than typically during the entire summer. It has not been overcast, which I’d prefer for an optimal lighting, but rather scorching heat and brutally hard sunlight all the time, which doesn’t create the most ideal lighting. 

I’ve developed a bit of a mannerism on pushing my film for a stop or two. I like contrast just as much as any street shooter, but on a perfect sunny 16 day, something like Tri-x pushed one stop to 800 creates just way too contrasty images — at least for my taste. Lately I’ve developed a taste for slower films as well, but I’ve also been hoarding a boat load of Tri-x, that I really want to shoot, so I had to come up with a solution to the dilemma. I also have a stash of T-Max 100, which would be a more suitable for really bright days, because of it’s moderate ISO sensitivity. But what to do with that contrast? T-Max 100 is still very contrasty film, thus not removing the contrast problem. 


Kodak Tri-x 400 pulled to 200, street photography
This shot wasn’t the easiest to meter for. As you can see, the setting evening sun shines very brightly from the right and actually the shadows were much darker in real life than the image lets you to believe. The exposure turned out rather perfect. The shadows hold an amazing amount of delicious tones. I really like the look of this exposure. If this would have been shot with Tri-x pushed to 800, the left side of the subjects faces would have probably been very dark and the highlight over blown.


Pulling the film rescues the day

I can’t believe I haven’t tried pulling film before! Like I said, pushing film is a bit of a mannerism for me. Lowering myself to shooting films on box speed, feels like completely losing my street photography credibility, not to mention going even lower than that by pulling film. Tri-x is meant to be pushed. That is a rule in street photography. But after thinking few seconds out side of my very small box, I realised that Tri-x isn’t really that contrasty on box speed and would be even less shot and developed at lower speeds. 

So, few day ago I loaded a roll of Tri-x to my Leica and set the ISO to 200, creating a one stop pull, as opposed to my usual one stop push. I usually shoot Tri-x at 800 to give me super fast shutter speeds for going berzerk on the streets. These days, I’m not too worried if I have to shoot at relatively slower speeds or wider apertures on the street, so I was comfortable going with a 200 speed instead of two stops faster 800. My main motivation was trying to achieve richer mid tones and try to avoid over blown highlights of completely dark shadow ares, even in extremely hight contrast lighting, such as these burning hot days we’ve been experiencing. After doing a bit of reassuring research online, I learned that for example Garry Winogrand used to shoot Tri-x at 200 just for the same reasons. Whether that’s true or not, I was really excited to try out. 

The results are simply amazing in my opinion! I’ve of course heard many times about pulling film and I’ve always known what is does, but I suppose the knowledge of receiving a flatter negative has always been a turn-off for me. I’ve completely misunderstood what that actually means though. I’ve seen that as a rather undesirable and negative feature, because who on earth would want less contrast? Street photography is all about hight contrast, just like the cover art for Transylvanian Hunger. At least, that’s what I used to think. Having a flatter tonal range is absolutely amazing thing to have when there’s just too much contrast in the environment. Sure, the tones might require more after work in printing or photoshop, but I was surprised how usable the negatives were straight from the box. I did only very minor editing. As I was expecting, I needed to darken just the darkest shadow areas just a bit. The midtones and highlights looked very perfect as they were. Having heard so much of the flat negatives, I was expecting some contrast adjustments to be made, but on conditions like these, the negatives were far away from flat. 

Kodak Tri-x 400 pulled to 200, street photography
A fast emerging street photography situation, shot on Kodak Tri-x pulled to 200. On this occasion, pushing the film would’ve actually been potentially detrimental to the image. I was expecting for an almost solid black silhouette on a white background, but I was delighted to  discover the nice tonality on the person’s figure as well as on the background.


What exactly is pushing and pulling?

You probably know all about this stuff, but just in case you don’t, here’s a very brief summary. Pushing film means shooting the film at higher ISO what it’s rated by the manufacturer. It doesn’t make the emulsion any more sensitive to light, but it allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds. It can be somewhat helpful in low light too. The gained visual effect is increased contrast and grain, which can be used as an artistic effect, and is usually very common in street photography. High contrast can be extremely nice looking, but the drawback is decreased picture information in a form of tonality loss. This is bad if you want to preserve shadow details e.g. have a wider range of dark tones in the shadow areas, instead of just solid black areas.

Pulling is pretty much just the opposite. You shoot the film at slower speed than it’s rated for and it has the opposite effect. It reduces contrast the amount of grain. Pushing and pulling are one the most beloved exposure hack amongst film photographers and there is a plethora of information, tutorials and discussions all over the internet, in case you want to know more.

Kodak Tri-x 400 pulled to 200, street photography
Great example of Kodak Tri-x 400 pulled to 200. Have a look at the cast shadow of the subject. Notice it’s not even close to a solid black, but you can rather see a lot of different shades of dark. I’m absolutely loving the tones all together!


Kodak Tri-x 400 pulled to 200, street photography
Another good example of almost magical tones with Tri-x pulled to 200.


I used my Leica M6 for this shoot with the Leica Summaron 35mm f2.8 lens. I developed the images in Kodak D-76 developer, diluted to 1:1. I used the times straight from the Massive Dev chart, which said 9,5minutes.


Having previously shot so much Tri-x at 800, I was intuitively expecting the turnout to be more reminiscent to something I know from previous experience. Tri-x is an amazing film and still my favourite black and white film of all times! To me it’s primarily a 800 speed film and I can usually pre-visualise very well what kind of image I should be expecting when pushed one stop. It’s amazing to think that you’re able to get such a different kind of look from exactly the same film.


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