Pushing Film

Pushing Film

Pushing Film was a very confusing topic to me when I first started shooting film.   The explanations I found seemed overly technical and didn’t really help me to understand what pushing film was all about.   Let me try to explain it here in plain english.  Let’s say you are out shooting film one afternoon and it is getting late in the day and starting to get a little dark.   You switch from ASA 100 to ASA 400 film as that is the fastest film you have with you.   Before you fire off your first frame you notice that with your biggest aperture (smallest number) the fastest shutter speed for a proper exposure is 1/60 of a second.   While this is OK for now in another 20 or 30 minutes as it gets darker you know your fastest shutter speed is going to drop to 1/30 of a second and then 1/15 of a second.  With a shutter speed this slow you won’t be able to capture a picture without camera shake in it.

What do you do?  I guess it is time to pack up and go home…

You could also choose to push your film.  Pushing film means you will change the ISO setting for your camera’s light meter to ASA 800 or 1600 to give you another 1 or two stops of light even though we loaded ASA 400 film.   We will ‘tell’ our camera that the film is really ASA 400 or 800 even though we have only loaded ASA 400 film.  We will also tell the lab that we pushed the film to 800 or 1600 when we drop it off for processing so they know to expose the negatives properly.

Let’s say we pushed to 1600.  Now our slowest shutter speed will be 1/250 of a second.  Said again our exposure settings of ISO 400, f/1.4, 1/60 that we were getting when we first loaded the film now changes to ISO 1600, f/1.4, 1/250.   We increased our ISO 2 stops which allows us to increase our shutter speed 2 stops.   With a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second we can easily get a few more hours of shooting in. It really isn’t much more complicated than that.

A few things that you need to understand about pushing film.   When you are pushing film you are pushing the entire roll.   The lab will develop the film all at the same shutter speed so you cannot push some frames and not others.  I know this is obvious to some people but I get asked this question so I figured it was good to mention it here.   You also typically do not want to push a film more than 2 stops.  This means you can push 400 to 1600 or 800 to 3200 but don’t try to push 400 to 3200.   You will seem a noticeable increase in both contrast and grain when you are pushing film.   For that reason you’ll find pushing film works best in situations with a lot of contrast.  Think a singer on a stage in a jazz club with a single light on her or my friend Thorsten standing on a dark street.

Often I am traveling I’ll carry two film bodies with me.  One I’ll have ASA 100 or 400 film and the other ASA 400 pushing to 1600 or 800 pushing to 3200.  When it starts to get dark I just switch camera bodies.

I have completed my Kyoto Series with my last post.  I hope you have enjoyed all of the photos of Kyoto.  I have a few more to share here below and then we will be moving back to photos of Tokyo and some recent trips to the US I have taken.

Here is the first temple shot I took in Kyoto.  It was a little temple on a side street on passed on my way to Gion.

Today’s configuration: Leica M6 with various Leica Lenses pushing Ilford 400@1600 and TMAX 400@1600.

A small street side temple in Kyoto shot on Ilford 400@1600 with a Leica M6

This scene made me laugh and made me think of my favorite episode of Friends ‘The one with the unagi‘.  It was the episode when Ross was studying ‘Ka Ra Te’ and his master told him he had achieved ‘Unagi’…

Rachel and Phebe were talking to Ross about a self defense class they went to and the scene went something like this:

Ross: ‘There is something you should be familiar with.  It’s what the Japanese call ‘Unagi’

Rachel: ‘Isn’t that a kind of sushi’

Ross: ‘No it’s a concept’

Phebe: ‘Yeah it is, it’s fresh water eel’

Ross: ‘OK maybe it means that too’

Rachel: ‘Oh I would kill for a salmon skin roll right now’

Ross: ‘OK get attacked I don’t care’

Rachel: ‘OK sorry tell us’

Ross: ‘Unagi is the state of total awareness.  Only by achieve true unagi can you be truly prepared for any danger that may befall you’

Phebe: ‘Do you mean like if someone tries to steal your bamboo sleeping mat or kettle of fish?’

Ross: ‘Shut up, it takes years to achieve Unagi’

Rachel: ‘Phebe we can have unagi in about 20 minutes if we make a reservation’

It is genius.  I highly recommend watching it.

Unagi Shop in Kyoto shot on Ilford 400@1600 with a Leica M6

Expensive imported beers…

Kyoto at Night shot on Ilford 400@1600 with a Leica M6

Kyoto at Night shot on Ilford 400@1600 with a Leica M6


Kyoto at Night shot on Ilford 400@1600 with a Leica M6

I’m always surprised by the random words that are in English in Japan…

Kyoto at Night shot on Ilford 400@1600 with a Leica M6

..and by the complete lack of spell checking.  This was painted on the side of a restaurant.   All I have to say is I like my food’s and drink’s cheep and dericuse!

Kyoto at Night shot on Ilford 400@1600 with a Leica M6

More saki!  I didn’t notice at the time I took the photo but the saki barrels were ‘coned off’…

Saki Barrels in Kyoto shot on Ilford 400@1600 with a Leica M6

Speaking of cones…  OK what is going on in this scene?   Is the cone being thrown away?  Are they coning off their trash?  Is the cone a paper weight of sorts to keep the boxes in their place?

Traffic Cones in Tokyo shot on TMAX 400@1600 with a Leica M6

How about here?   Did the brick destroy the cone?   Is the brick being put in place to hold the remains of the cone in place?  Did someone smash the cone with the brick in defiance of what was being coned off?

Traffic Cones in Tokyo shot on TMAX 400@1600 with a Leica M6

A Japanese candy store… A Japanese Candy Shop shot on TMAX 400@1600 with a Leica M6

Before heading to Kyoto I went for a walk around Nezu with my friend David!  More shots to come.

Nezu Jinja shot on TMAX 400@1600 with a Leica M6

Nezu Jinja shot on TMAX 400@1600 with a Leica M6

Nezu Jinja shot on TMAX 400@1600 with a Leica M6

Thanks for stopping by today…


  • steve

    Hi dave,i was in akihabara a few years ago & an electronics store were advertising BRU ray players..made me smile :-)

  • http://www.shoottokyo.com Dave

    BRU Rays are awesome!

  • nb

    Hi Dave,
    nice post, thanks 😀
    pushing Color film such as portra400 and such is great too, because the Colors usually get more “Vibrant”.

    by the way, i used to read your blog through rss, which was a pleasant experience, i have to admit. but when visiting your site, it always throws a “subscribe” now pop-up into my face, no matter how often I have visited it already… would be great if you could make that a bit less intrusive :)

  • http://www.shoottokyo.com Dave

    Hi NB. Glad you like the post and thanks for subscribing to my RSS feed. Regarding the newsletter subscribe you can click ‘never show this again’ link on the bottom right and you won’t ever see it again.

  • http://www.lillyschwartz.com Lilly Schwartz

    Hi Dave,
    Good explanation of pushing film! Since I shoot without a light meter I sometimes forget that pushing 2 stops isn’t that much, really. My last roll definitely came out a bit too dark, because I was careless. By the way, when you develop yourself you can also push just part of the roll. Stand development makes it possible. And the advantage is that the developing time is always the same, no matter the film speed, the film type or whether you pushed it. I basically develop everything with Rodinal 1:100 for 1 hour. Only if you push more than two stops you need to increase development time.

  • http://www.billbaloukas.com Bill

    Hi Dave,

    Great post; I really like the eerie feeling of the double lantern shot!

  • http://www.shoottokyo.com Dave

    Lilly – Can you expand more on stand development?

    Thanks Bill – I liked that shot as well.

  • Pingback: Pushing TMAX 400 - ShootTokyo()

  • Ike

    thanks for the quick review – and these photos turned out really well – a good reference for my own future attempts.

  • Gunston

    hi, thanks for the clear explanation of film pushing.
    Now i am paying more attention to film photography, since the moment i have got my first film camera Nikon FM2n before plunge into Leica M6 (currently owned a Leica M9 black).
    I also read some good feedback of shooting Kodak Portra 400 film pushed to ASA800 in setting, but developed in 400. Yet the result is still very pleasing.

  • John Thomas

    Thanks Dave, great read. I started learning on a Fujica in the mid 80’s. I then lost touch with film photography to a degree. I’ve recently had a resurgence and bought a Canon 1V. Loving it and appreciate reading and re-learning from great sources such as yours.
    Amazing, moving images. Powerful. Bookmarked and following.

  • Cheesba

    Thanks for a great explanation! I love the first pic with the chef!

  • http://www.shoottokyo.com Dave

    Thanks Cheesba!

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  • Mihai Ursea

    So let me just check if i understand, basically you just expose the images having in mind that 2 stop exposure difference, and the rest will be taken care at the developing stage of the film.

  • http://www.shoottokyo.com Dave

    Mihai-san – That’s right. Just remember that you are pushing the entire roll and not just a single frame.

  • JeffreyW

    Thanks so much for a great article explaining this somewhat confusing subject! Now I will be confident to just stick with 400 and adjust my iso according to how low the light gets. =) So helpful!

  • http://www.shoottokyo.com Dave

    Welcome Jeffrey. Just remember you push the same for the entire roll.

  • http://monochrome.me.uk/blog/ Hans ter Horst

    The added contrast when pushing film is due to the fact that not all values are raised equally when extending the development time: the shadows stay where they are, underexposed, and only the highlights are raised. Depending on the scene it can be a desired effect and it works really well in most of your photos above.

  • http://tomomimachida.portfoliobox.se Tomomi Machida


    Wounder, i got unsure. I shoot my ilford hp5 400 at 800. I the lab don’t push my film 1 stop it gets underexposed? I´am i right or wrong?

  • http://www.shoottokyo.com Dave

    Tomomi – That’s right it will be one stop underexposed.

  • Joan M

    Hi Dave,
    I just stumbled on your excellent site while looking for info on pushing. Thank you! I do need to point of clarification, if you don’t mind. If I change the ISO for a full roll of film, say from 400 to 800, do I tell the lab to develop it as if it were shot at 400? Or at 800? What will the difference be? Does it work the same for black and white film?
    Thanks so much for your time.

  • http://www.shoottokyo.com Dave

    Hi Joan – If you have ISO 400 film and you set your meter telling it you had ISO 800 film then you would tell the you pushed the film to ISO 800 and to develop it like it is ISO 800. If you don’t your images will be under exposed. Think of it this way, it would work just like you were using a digital camera and raised the ISO. The camera will automatically account for that. In this case you have to tell the lab to manually account for it.

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