Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Film Photography by James Baturin

Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film Featured Image
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Written by James Baturin

Reciprocity failure. You may have heard the term thrown around in the world of film photography and dismissed it as unimportant or sounding too complex to bother.

And in the everyday world of shutter speeds of a second or less, you can probably get away with this dismissal.

But if you’re looking to enter the world of long exposure photography on film, reciprocity failure is really important to understand, and not as complicated as it might sound.

Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography
Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography
Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography
Black and white film photography long exposure of a concrete divider in the water - Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Ilford HP5
Metered time: 23seconds
Exposure time compensated for reciprocity failure: 1 minute

What is Reciprocity Failure?

So, let’s talk about what reciprocity failure is first.

If you’ve been in the world of manual film cameras for any length of time, the word “reciprocity” refers to a concept you’ll already be familiar with on a practical level. That is, you’ll understand that making a properly exposed image depends on a relationship between two variables: shutter speed and aperture (leaving ISO to the side for simplicity’s sake).

You’ll also have some idea of the way in which shutter speed and aperture work together in an inverse or reciprocal relationship. For example, if a scene requires a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second at f/5.6 for a proper exposure, a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second at f/8 will produce the same exposure value. This is what is referred to as the law of reciprocity, and it’s a law that holds up pretty well for photos taken at normal shutter speeds.

Reciprocity failure is what happens when, at longer exposures (generally shutter speeds of 1 second or more), the law of reciprocity (you guessed it!) fails!

Black and white film photography long exposure of clouds and water - Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Ilford HP5
Metered time: 23seconds
Exposure time compensated for reciprocity failure: 1 minute

So why does this failure occur with longer shutter speeds?

Well, unlike digital photographers, to be a film photographer is to be a chemist of sorts. A film’s emulsion is made up of a layer of silver halide chemicals that react when exposed to light. So, whenever a film photographer exposes an image, their shutter is setting in motion a series of real chemical reactions that eventually will give you your negative.

If you remember from high school chemistry, when a chemical reaction takes place, the chemicals in said reaction begin to be used up and lose their potency in the course of the reaction. This is no different when it comes to film.

Over the course of a long exposure, the chemicals in the film emulsion lose their potency and become less sensitive to light as a result. The longer the exposure, the less potent the emulsion becomes over time, and, therefore, the more compensation is needed in order to achieve a proper exposure.

Film that had a particular sensitivity to light at the very start of the exposure will be less sensitive to light after one second, and less sensitive than that after 30 seconds, and still less sensitive than that after 3 minutes, and so on and so on.

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Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography

With that all explained, what does reciprocity mean practically for your long exposure photography?

Essentially, it means that for exposures of 1 second or more you are going to have to make certain compensations in order to adjust to the film’s loss of sensitivity through the exposure.

In other words, if you don’t add more time to your exposure, your image is going to come out under exposed.

Underexposed black and white film photography long exposure - Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
An example of an underexposed image on Kodak Tri-X where reciprocity failure was not accounted for.
Exposure time: 1 minute
Exposure time needed to compensate for reciprocity failure: 9 minutes 10 seconds

The most obvious compensation is that you will need to add more exposure time to properly expose the image than your light meter reading suggests. If your light meter is giving you a reading of 1 second, you might need to expose for 2 seconds. For longer exposures of 1 minute or more, you might need to expose for 2 minutes.

Reciprocity Failure and Different Film Types

The concept is simple enough, but it becomes a bit tricky when applying it to specific film types. The problem is that each film type is affected by reciprocity failure differently, and, therefore, each require different time compensations when calculating exposure.

Fuji Acros 100, for example, was one of my favorite films for long exposures because it was not affected by reciprocity failure until exposure times reached 2 minutes or more.

Ilford HP5 Plus, on the other hand, requires an additional 1 minute and 20 seconds of exposure on a metered exposure of 15 seconds, for 1 minute and 35 seconds of total exposure.

Black and white film photography long exposure of a castle - Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Ilford HP5
Metered time: 52seconds
Exposure time compensated for reciprocity failure: 2 minutes 56 seconds

Compensating for Reciprocity Failure During Development

The other potentially necessary compensation for reciprocity failure is done during development.

Given the extra exposure time, images with really bright highlights have a tendency to blow out in the image, leaving you with no detail in those areas. Lessening the development time (also known as “pulling” film in development) can serve to lessen the increased contrast that comes with long exposures and keep detail in the highlights that might be lost otherwise.

While reciprocity failure always requires you to compensate by lengthening exposure time, I’ve found that compensation in development is only really necessary in images with a really wide range of tones.

Black and white film photography long exposure of breaking waves - Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Ilford HP5
Metered time: 1 second
Exposure time: 1 second

Calculating Reciprocity Failure

So how do you calculate reciprocity failure for specific films?

The first (and probably most accurate) way is to consult the data sheets given by the film manufacturers themselves.

On Ilford’s website, for example, they assign each film a numeric value (P) that when plugged into an equation will give you an adjusted exposure time that accounts for reciprocity failure.

Personally, I use a lot of Ilford HP5 Plus, so I printed a chart with adjusted exposure times using this data.

Ilford HP5 film reciprocity chart - Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find this information on the film manufacturer’s website, and, let’s be honest, doing math is a pain. Luckily, there are also apps available on your smartphone that make calculating compensated exposure times for reciprocity failure really convenient.

I’ve been using an app called Reciprocity Timer for iPhone and have been really happy with the results and with the number of film stocks it includes. There is an equivalent app for Android users as well, though I haven’t tried it, so I can’t speak to how useful it is.

I’ve found there are some small discrepancies in the times it gives for Ilford films compared to the data sheet information from Ilford’s website, but it’s a difference that hasn’t really affected my exposures. One of the advantages of reciprocity failure is that it actually allows for a greater margin of error when it comes to exposure time, especially in exposures over a minute.

Given that, an exposure time that’s “in the ballpark” in terms of accuracy is often good enough. Also, as the film gets less sensitive to light throughout the exposure, it also becomes more resistant to overexposure, so if I’m not sure of an exposure time I usually try to err on the side of more exposure time rather than less.

Black and white film photography long exposure of a castle on the coast - Understanding Reciprocity Failure in Long Exposure Film Photography by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Ilford HP5
Metered time: 23seconds
Exposure time compensated for reciprocity failure: 1 minute

Thank you so much, James! James is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here, including how to shoot star trails on film and a camera review for the Hasselblad 500 C/M. You can also check out James’s work on his website and Instagram.

Leave your questions about reciprocity failure for long exposure film photography below in the comments, and you can check out more of our long exposure film tutorials here!

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James Baturin

James Baturin is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find his other articles here, including Hasselblad 500 C/M Film Camera Review and Long Exposure Film Photography Tutorial.

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Blog Comments

“Over the course of a long exposure, the chemicals in the film emulsion lose their potency and become less sensitive to light as a result.”

This is simply untrue. If the chemistry was “used up” (for film emulsion, exposed) your negative would come out as black as if you’d pulled the film out at noon in the Sahara.

What’s happening is the response curve for the quantum efficiency of the silver halides is linear only over a limited range of photons per square meter per second. Once you have too few photons hitting the emulsion per second, you can no longer rely on the linear (the reciprocity of exposure rules) response and have to wait longer and longer to achieve the same exposure as you would in the linear part.

Film can be designed around this to an extent, the original Fujifilm Neopan Acros 100 allowed exposures up to 120 seconds (2 minutes!) before you needed to begin computing the reciprocity failure.

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