Beginner’s Guide to Low Light Film Photography: Fire Dragon Festival in Hong Kong

Beginner's Guide to Low Light Film Photography: Fire Dragon Festival in Hong Kong

Guides and Tips

Beginner’s Guide to Low Light Film Photography: Fire Dragon Festival in Hong Kong

Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800
Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800

I have always been fascinated by the captivating fire dragon during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong. Today, I want to share some valuable tips and considerations for beginners or anyone interested in shooting film in low light conditions, specifically on the bustling streets. The key to success lies in achieving the right shutter speed while minimizing the impact of camera shake on your images.

Before diving into the photography aspect, let me share a brief history of the Fire Dragon festival. The Fire Dragon Dance originated in Tai Hang over a hundred years ago. After a devastating storm, the people of Pok Fu Lam village faced further turmoil when a snake disrupted their peace. The Fire Dragon Dance was believed to ward off bad luck and disease, and this tradition has been preserved to this day, spreading from Tai Hang to Pok Fu Lam. It is a traditional custom associated with the Hakka ethnic group from China.

The Pok Fu Lam fire dragons are impressive creations, measuring over ten meters in length. They are constructed using bamboo sticks, metal wire, and straw (pearl grass) imported from China. Bamboo poles are used as handles for the dancers, and burning incense sticks are affixed to the dragon’s skeleton to form its body.

Problem 1: Images Too Dark

When your images turn out too dark, it means not enough light reached your film. Think of it like cooking pasta—overcooking it will make it too soft, while achieving the desired al dente texture requires precise control. Similarly, controlling the amount of light reaching your film is crucial. To address this, follow Step 1 (ISO selection) and Step 4 (manual mode) from my tips (lower part in this article).

Image too dark
Image still too dark
Right exposure

Problem 2: Images Out of Focus

Blurry images often result from not properly adjusting the focusing ring. In low light situations, it can be challenging to focus accurately on fast-moving subjects like the fire dragon. If you find it difficult to focus directly on the dragon, try focusing on something else in the vicinity, such as a stationary object or the general environment. This will help you maintain focus when the dragon passes by, avoiding any last-minute panic.

Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800

Problem 3: Images Too Blurry

If your images are excessively blurry, it’s likely because your shutter speed was too slow, causing motion blur. To understand this concept, imagine the shutter curtain of your camera as if it were a refrigerator door. When you open the door quickly and close it, you don’t feel much cold air. However, if you leave the door open for a longer time, you’ll start to feel the cold more intensely. Similarly, when using a slow shutter speed, the longer the exposure, the more motion blur you’ll notice in your images.

To minimize motion blur, remember the exposure triangle—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Make sure your shutter speed is not lower than 1/45. This faster speed helps freeze the motion and reduce blur. A shutter speed of 1/125 is generally considered suitable for reducing motion blur in most situations. However, if you’re open to capturing some intentional motion blur for artistic purposes, using a slower shutter speed, like 1/45, can help compensate for any hand shake or movement while still maintaining a sense of sharpness in the image.

Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800
Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800

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Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800
Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800

Introducing a few tips to help you solve the low light film photography challenges:

Step 1 - Picking the Ideal ISO Speed:

To simplify things, let’s categorize the lighting environment into three general categories: 1) Indoor well-lit, 2) Outdoor well-lit, and 3) Outdoor dark. This will provide you with a basic understanding before further adjusting based on your experience, environment, and personal judgment.

  • Indoor well-lit: ISO 400
  • Outdoor well-lit: ISO 400 or 800
  • Outdoor dark: ISO 800 or above (consider pushing to 1600 to 3200 if necessary)

Based on this scale, you can choose the appropriate film for your desired aesthetic. For a cinematic look with a red halo, consider trying Reflx Lab 400D and 800T. If budget allows and you don’t mind a warm cast, Kodak Portra 800 is a great option.

Step 2 - Consider Your Lens Aperture:

The aperture value determines the amount of light passing through your lens onto the film. A smaller aperture value allows more light intake, enabling faster shutter speeds. However, keep in mind that using a smaller aperture will result in a shallower depth of field, creating more pronounced subject separation. As a beginner, I recommend using lenses with wider apertures such as f/2, f/1.8, or f/1.4. This provides a buffer for achieving a higher success rate in low light conditions.

Step 3 - Opt for an Autofocus Lens:

Focusing in low light can be tricky, especially when everything appears dark and confusing through the viewfinder. If you lack experience in manual focusing, consider using autofocus lenses or a point-and-shoot camera to assist with focusing. However, if you only have a manual focus lens, don’t worry! A helpful technique is to find a recognizable shape or object to focus on and then compose your shot accordingly.

Step 4 - Camera Settings:

Always set your camera to manual mode when shooting in low light conditions. The lighting during the festival can vary significantly, and you want to ensure accurate exposure readings to avoid underexposing your images. Manual mode gives you full control over the exposure settings, allowing you to adjust on the fly to capture the perfect shot.

Additional Tips:

  • Use a tripod: When shooting in low light, a tripod provides stability, reducing camera shake and allowing for longer exposures without blurring the image.
  • Experiment with different films: Different film stocks have varying light sensitivity and produce unique results. Consider trying a few options to find the one that best suits your desired aesthetic for capturing the Fire Dragon Festival.
  • Embrace the atmosphere: The Fire Dragon Festival is a vibrant and energetic event. Don’t be afraid to capture the dynamic movements and expressions of the participants. Emphasize the interplay of light and shadows to add drama to your images. Pick a wide angle lens to get interesting perspective, all images in this post were shot with Leica Summilux 24mm f/1.4 asph M lens.
Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800
Fire Dragon, Hong Kong, Reflx Lab 800

As you venture into the world of low light film photography, remember to experiment, learn from your experiences, and adapt to different lighting conditions. The Fire Dragon Festival in Hong Kong provides a fantastic opportunity to put these tips into practice. So grab your camera, embrace the enchanting atmosphere, and capture the magic of the Fire Dragon Festival through your lens.

Reflx Lab 800
Reflx Lab 400D
Reflx Lab 500T (35mm Film)
Reflx Lab 500T (120)

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