Reciprocity (photography)

Reciprocity (photography)

In photography and holography, reciprocity refers to the inverse relationship between the intensity and duration of light that determines exposure of light-sensitive material. Within a normal exposure range for film stock, for example, the reciprocity law states that "exposure = intensity × time". Therefore, the same exposure can result from reducing duration and increasing light intensity, and vice versa. Total exposure of the film or sensor, the product of focal-plane illuminance times exposure time, is measured in lux seconds.

The reciprocal relationship is assumed in most sensitometry, for example when measuring a Hurter and Driffield curve for a photographic emulsion.


In photography "reciprocity" refers to the relationship whereby the total light energy, proportional to the product of the light intensity and exposure time (controlled by aperture and shutter speed, respectively), determines the effective exposure; an increase of brightness by a certain factor being equivalent to a decrease of exposure time by the same factor. For most photographic materials reciprocity is valid with good accuracy over a range of values of exposure duration, but becomes increasingly inaccurate as we depart from this range: reciprocity law failure. As the light level decreases out of the reciprocity range, the increase in duration required to produce an exposure becomes higher than the formula states; for instance, at half of the light required for a normal exposure, the duration must be more than doubled for the same result. Multipliers used to correct for this effect are called reciprocity factors (see model below).

In other words there is under normal circumstances an inverse linear relationship between aperture area and shutter speed, with a wider aperture requiring a faster shutter speed for the same exposure. (Or we can speak of direct proportionality between aperture area and the reciprocal of shutter speed; hence "reciprocity".) For example, an exposure value of 10 may be achieved with an aperture of f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/125 s. The same exposure is achieved by doubling the aperture area to f/2 and halving the shutter speed to 1/250 s or by halving the aperture area to f/4.0 and doubling the shutter speed to 1/60 s.

However, during very long exposures, film responds less than usual. Light can be considered to be a stream of discrete photons, and a light-sensitive emulsion is composed of discrete light-sensitive grains, usually silver halide crystals. Each grain must absorb a certain number of photons in order for the light-driven reaction to occur and the latent image to form. In particular, if the surface of the silver halide crystal has a cluster of approximately four or more reduced silver atoms, resulting from absorption of a sufficient number of photons (usually a few dozen photons are required), it is rendered developable. At low light levels, "i.e." few photons per unit time, photons impinge upon each grain relatively infrequently; if the four photons required arrive over a long enough interval, the partial change due to the first one or two are not stable enough to survive before enough photons arrive to make a permanent latent image center.

This breakdown in the linear relationship between aperture and shutter speed is known as reciprocity failure. Each different film "emulsion" has a different response to long exposure. Some films are very susceptible to reciprocity failure, and others much less so. Some films that are very light sensitive at normal illumination levels and normal exposure times lose much of their sensitivity at long exposure times, becoming effectively "slow" films for long exposures. Conversely some films that are "slow" under normal exposure duration retain their light sensitivity better at long exposures. Compared at very long exposure times, Kodak's T-Max 100 speed film is faster than nominally 4 times faster Tri-X 400. Most film manufacturers publish reciprocity corrections.

For example, for a given film, if a light meter indicates a required EV of 5 and the photographer sets the aperture to f/11, then ordinarily a 4 second exposure would be required; a reciprocity correction factor of 1.5 would require the exposure to be extended to 6 seconds for the same result. Reciprocity failure generally becomes significant at exposures of longer than about 1 sec and below about 1 ms for film, and above 30 sec for paper.

Reciprocity effects can also occur within the tonal range of a photographic scene when at the limit of exposure, resulting in burnt highlights while losing detail in the shadows. The composition of the film stock used, and in particular the relative amounts of silver bromide, silver chloride and silver iodide, can adjust this tonal response for the desired effect.

Reciprocity also breaks down at extremely high levels of illumination with very short exposures. This is concern for scientific and technical photography, but rarely to general photographers, as exposures significantly shorter than a millisecond are only required for subjects such as explosions and particle physics experiments, or when taking high-speed motion pictures with very high shutter speeds (1/10,000 sec or less).


Reciprocity failure is an important effect in the field of film-based astrophotography. Deep-sky objects such as galaxies and nebulae are often so faint that they are not visible to the un-aided eye. To make matters worse, many objects' spectra do not line up with the film emulsion's sensitivity curves. Many of these targets are small and require long focal lengths, which can push the focal ratio far above f/5. Combined, these parameters make these targets extremely difficult to capture with film; exposures from 30 minutes to well over an hour are typical. As a typical example, capturing an image of the Andromeda Galaxy at f/4 will take about 30 minutes; to get the same density at f/8 would require an exposure of about 200 minutes. When a telescope is tracking an object, every minute is difficult; therefore, reciprocity failure is one of the biggest motivations for astronomers to switch to digital imaging.


A similar problem exists in holography. The total energy required when exposing holographic film using a continuous wave laser (i.e. for several seconds) is significantly less than the total energy required when exposing holographic film using a pulsed laser (i.e. around 20–40 nanoseconds) due to a reciprocity failure. It can also be caused by very long or very short exposures with a continuous wave laser. To try to offset the reduced brightness of the film due to reciprocity failure, a method called latensification can be used. This is usually done directly after the holographic exposure and using an incoherent light source (such as a 25-40W light bulb). Exposing the holographic film to the light for a few seconds can increase the brightness of the hologram by an order of magnitude.


* Retrieved March 8, 2007.
* Retrieved March 8, 2005.
* October, 2003.
* May, 2002.
* June, 1999.


* [ Reciprocity charts for slides and black & white]

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