Today in Digital SLR era, when I find myself in low light situation in a place that I can't use my tripod or I don't have it, and still don't want to get blurry images, I use the widest aperture which may not be enough, so I raise my ISO.

I'm curious what did film photographers do with their fixed ISO/ASA per film roll? Specially if they are using a low ISO film like 50 or 100.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If they loaded slow film when working handheld in low light, they didn't "overcome" it. They got blurry pictures, and deserved it. \$\endgroup\$
    – coneslayer
    May 11, 2012 at 18:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @coneslayer: Thats not generally what I've heard. As Steve Ross stated in his answer, it was not an unheard of process to rewind, mark your frame, and load a roll of faster film. Pushing (and pulling, in case you used too high of an ISO) was/is also a pretty common practice...and sometimes for artistic intent as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    May 11, 2012 at 18:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jrista I was interpreting the question to rule out changing to a different film. If you change film, the premise of "constant ISO/ASA" no longer applies. \$\endgroup\$
    – coneslayer
    May 11, 2012 at 18:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @coneslayer I edited the question to avoid the confusion, but I didn't mean what you understood \$\endgroup\$
    – K''
    May 11, 2012 at 19:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Take along the right film for the job.That's how it was done. I have seen brilliantly lit photographs that knock the socks of lazy digital photographers. I also know professional film photographs who have gone digital but they still light their photographs correctly because they don't want to spend hours working in Photoshop. \$\endgroup\$
    – user19877
    May 12, 2013 at 11:38

2 Answers 2


There were several techniques:

  • Carry extra film backs (MF) or camera bodies (35mm) with different film loaded
  • Push process lower ISO film to sacrifice fine grain in favor of perceived higher ISO
  • Rewind the film already in the camera until just the leader is outside the canister, noting what frame you are on, then load a different roll. You can then reload the original roll and expose black frames until you are on the "next" frame
  • Use a flash
  • Use a tripod for more shots

I've been in many situations where simply walking from a more open area in a city to a denser part where the buildings created shadows made 2 or more stops difference. Carrying multiple bodies or push processing were my technique of choice. Push processing is an all-or nothing thing, so you either push the whole roll or you don't. Push and pull are for carrying one type of film you feel covers the most general case and then adjusting ISO for specific cases outside those boundaries. Carrying a separate body is great because you can switch back and forth quickly. It's not all or nothing, and you don't have to take the time to rewind film, etc.

ISO 50 film, in particular, is dicey because photographers chose it for (among other things) its grain structure. Pushing something like Velvia gives it a different character -- somewhat grainier and even more contrasty. Probably not the effect intended when the film was loaded. Even more so with the slow B&W films like Pan-X.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1. You can buy a "leader retriever" to pull the film leader back out of the can to reload the (135) film. I have one made by Ilford. Of course as Steve says you have to wind on until you get to the first unexposed spot. \$\endgroup\$ May 11, 2012 at 22:33

You young'ns have it too easy with your digital cameras that let you adjust ISO at whim.

This is how you overcome it:

  • Technique: breathing, bracing, practice, practice, and more practice. (Honestly, I think the high ISO capability of DSLRs has made many people very lax in this area.)
  • Monopod or tripod. Or a tree, doorjamb, car -- anything you can lean against or use for a little extra stability.
  • Larger aperture.
  • Faster film. Even if I've only taken ten shots with that slow film, I'd pull it out to swap in some faster film. A film leader retriever is helpful to have.
  • Flash. Today's flashes aren't much, if any, more powerful than the old ones from film days, so flash would work just as well/easy as it does today.
  • Seeing the light. Sometimes I realize that I'm not as disciplined at this with digital as I used to be with film: surveying the scene and noticing where there is more light may provide an easy way to get a better-lit photo.
  • Aim to take a "creative" photo. ("See how this is blurred here -- I meant to do that!") Panning, zooming, etc.
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 Well, I guess all that flim-foo that makes you an 'old fogie'. ;P \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    May 11, 2012 at 19:01

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