Living in Los Angeles is a bit different than outsiders think. In the popular imagination, LA is a sprawling, steamy city teeming with lawyers, writers, and aspiring actors who live fast and chase dreams with ruthless, amoral fury. It’s a place filled with sunshine and broad streets, racing cars and celebrities, scorching beaches and winding coastal highways. Of course people see it this way; it’s a vision that’s been shot countless times through the lenses of Hollywood and broadcast endlessly to the entire world. And it’s true that LA is a hot, fast-paced city. But there’s a side of the city that only native Angelenos know. The real LA – Los Angeles at night. When the sun goes down and the heat of the day has dissipated, a gentler, more beautiful LA emerges.
Being an avid photo geek and an LA native, I’ve long sought a film that could adequately capture the unique visual signature of this lesser-seen side of the city. After all, what better way to capture a city synonymous with film than with film? Unfortunately, the not-so-recent decline of analog photography meant that my options had been limited to a select few films, and because most of these were intended for general purpose daylight shooting it looked like I was never going to be able to properly commit my beloved city to film.
Fortunately, a small startup called Cinestill decided to change all that. In 2013, Cinestill ingeniously introduced a new color negative film called Cinestill 800T, an emulsion derived directly from Kodak motion picture film. In doing this, they threw open the gates for film photographers everywhere to make use of the huge spools of film Kodak produces for the motion picture industry. Even better, this film was originally intended for low-light shooting, making it perfect for my little pet project. But before we throw our wallets at Cinestill and proclaim them our low light Messiahs, let’s take a closer look and see exactly what we’re buying.
As mentioned, Cinestill 800T is derived from the same Kodak cinema film used in films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Inglourious Basterds, and Midnight in Paris, to name just a few, and when first released, Kodak’s Vision 500T was one of the most advanced film stocks made to date. With 500T, Kodak married low light performance to modern sharpness, and packed in scan-ability that would make the film perfect for the era’s digital workflow. This fast film was rated at ISO 500, and formulated to work best in artificial light (that “T” in the name stands for tungsten). But why is it so good indoors and in artificial light? Let me walk you through it.
Let’s say you’re hanging with your friend, out shooting Fuji Superia 400. You take some shots in the hills, some shots in the city, all under that blistering LA sun. Later, it’s a bit past midnight and there’s a few exposures left when you duck into a diner for a quick bite to eat. There you notice the warm light from an overhead lamp perfectly illuminating your pal, who’s passionately rambling away on some subject you don’t particularly care about, and in an effort to make the meal more interesting for yourself you grab your camera and quickly shoot a portrait.
A few days later you get the prints back from the lab. All the scenes from your day out look fantastic. Street scenes and outdoor pictures of nature are gorgeous, and you fancy yourself the next Ansel Adams. But when you get to the shots from the diner your dreams of photographic greatness shatter into a million pieces. There’s a disgusting yellow-orange cast that completely ruins the photo and you tear the print in disgust. How could this have happened?
The answer is simple; Fuji Superia 400, along with many other films, are daylight-balanced, meaning that they’re engineered to work best with the temperature of light provided by the sun. But what this also means is that they’re not suitably formulated for the artificial light provided at night. Tungsten balanced films correct for this by rendering cooler than usual, effectively balancing out warmer light to look normal. Kodak Vision 3 500T is a tungsten balanced film, making it perfect for the next time you’re stuck in an uninteresting conversation with one of your best friends at night.
Sounds like Kodak came down from the heavens and bestowed yet another miracle upon us unwashed masses. Where does Cinestill fit into the picture? Well, the problem with this heavenly Kodak emulsion was that it was never intended for the cameras of still photographers. It was developed solely for use with the motion picture industry’s standard development process, ECN-II. What Cinestill’s done is to modify Kodak 5219 Vision 3 500T to work in the still imaging world’s standard C-41 chemistry, and christened the new product Cinestill 800T.
But even though Cinestill 800T is essentially Kodak Vision 3 500T, the modification makes it a different beast from its production house predecessor. The major difference we see is in sensitivity – Cinestill’s product rates at ISO 800 versus Kodak’s original 500. This is really just a byproduct of developing with the C-41 process, which pushes the ISO from 500 to 800. This is good news for low-light shooters, and for the contrast-lovers among us, Cinestill’s film can be pushed all the way up to a blisteringly fast ISO 3200 without losing shadow detail. This is impressive.
Another difference between the original and the new is the presence of some strange effects not usually encountered by modern film users. Cinema film contains what’s called a rem-jet layer which protects the film from halation (halos of light surrounding bright light sources) but also prevents the film from being processed properly in C-41 chemicals. Cinestill did away with the rem-jet layer, and the result is a film that makes images with more halos than you’ll find in a Renaissance painting. Cinestill advises shooters not to shoot 800T at a bright light source to avoid this… unless you want some really cool effects. But more on that later.
Statistics and history can only tell us so much about a film. There’s only one way to find out how a film performs – shoot it. Being a native Angeleno, photo geek, and movie buff, it took very little encouragement to convince me to shoot motion picture film on the streets of LA. Once I heard about Cinestill, I was in.
A sleeping Los Angeles is a thing of beauty. When LA sleeps, it dreams. It gains a stillness, a kind of vastness combined with sparse lighting that makes the city look unreal and enchanting. It’s in unique environments like these that I feel Cinestill 800T comes into its own. The film is sharp, but is tempered by its larger grain, resulting in a softer rendering of fine detail that I find perfect for capturing sleeping cityscapes. Streetlight lit landscapes take on a dreamlike character, and portraits glow with a gentle light.
Cinestill 800T’s unique color rendition adds to its otherworldly nature. Under warm, tungsten lighting, the film looks perfectly natural. Indoor portraits of friends are shot worry-free and need nearly no post-processing. But under other kinds of lighting, say, fluorescent or neon light, it tends to react more interestingly. Colored lighting becomes exaggerated but never garish, and fluorescent lighting brings out the blue-ish cast of the film normally used to balance out warmer light. The result is frequently astonishing and completely unlike the rendition of regular daylight balanced film, perfect for the mixed and unpredictable lighting of any cityscape. Shooters unfamiliar with this aspect of tungsten balanced film may find this jarring and unpredictable, but photo geeks looking to experiment need look no further.
And if there’s any single hallmark of Cinestill 800T, it’s the way it renders bright light sources. As said before, this film is prone to stark halation, and while some consider this a technical drawback, I feel it opens for the shooter artistic possibilities. Neon signs take on an otherworldly glow, city lights transform magically into stars, and even basic highlights glow in a way not found in any other emulsion. When all these traits combine we get a film that’s simply perfect for a midnight stroll through an empty city.
And once we understand the characteristics of the film, we begin to think and shoot just a little bit differently. Instead of approaching the warmer lighting of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s outer plaza with fear, I pointed my camera straight towards it with a renewed curiosity. Grand Park’s colorfully lit water fountain seemed more irresistible than usual, knowing the film’s proclivity for deep saturation of artificial light. I even started viewing the broad, otherwise empty Grand Avenue as a place that could look enchanting, even romantic, with Cinestill’s stellar treatment of streetlamps. Cinestill 800T became the perfect tool for capturing Downtown LA’s severe, lonely charm – something i’ve always wanted to capture on film.
For all of this fawning there are a number of huge drawbacks. Cinestill 800T is as specialized as it gets, which means that it doesn’t do well outside of its intended purpose. Throw Cinestill into bright sunlight and otherwise normal shooting conditions and it suddenly becomes inflexible and cumbersome. Blue casts abound along with larger-than-life grain if shot in broad daylight. This high speed stock brings with it an inability to use fast apertures. In its defense, Cinestill advises the use of an 85B warming filter with this tungsten balanced film along with an increased EI of 500, but we find that this cuts the proverbial hair from Samson’s head. The film’s dreamy saturation just doesn’t translate well to intense daylight. Usage of a filter can certainly work well in a pinch, but shooters who prefer daytime light would be much better suited to a low-ISO, daylight balanced film.
So is Cinestill 800T worth your investment? It depends on where and how you shoot. This isn’t a jack-of-all-trades stock, and such specialization may make the film seem like a frivolous luxury. Then again, its very existence points to the broader revitalization of the recovering film photography industry, and when I consider the dearth of options of two decades ago, I feel thankful that there’s a film like this in 2016. I personally thought low-light shooting with color negative film had faded into the irretrievable past, but Cinestill proved me wrong.
It’s exciting to live in a time where the creative windows of photography are being thrown open once again. Specialized emulsions like these are a sign that the unique artistic potential of analog photography has not been forgotten, and that we analog shooters haven’t been forgotten either. Cinestill shows us that even though our world of film sometimes feels like a dark, abandoned city, there are still points of beautiful light if we just look for them.