Metering for Black and White Negative Film vs. Digital Cameras

September 05, 2015  •  2 Comments

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One of the things that I love most about black and white negative film is the ability to capture a very wide range of contrast.  In addition to discussing a metering and exposure strategy for black and white negative film, I also briefly cover C-41 color negative and E-6 positive slide film.  

Negative film, in particular, simply does this better than digital sensors, and this is one of the core reasons I continue to use medium and large format film in my landscapes. I see similar results with C-41 color negative film.  In fact, for Portra, I meter for my shadows and let my highlights fall where they want because I have never blown them out before.    

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My strategy for metering black and white negative film is very simple, and it is the opposite of when I have to use a digital camera.  I protect my highlights with digital, and I expose for shadows with negative films.  To be fair, I protect my highlights with E-6 slide film too and have a much more narrow range than when I use negative films.  For E-6, I average my meter reading and then make sure I am not +2 or -2 from the average to avoid problems. 

I will assume that most people don't have a densitometer laying around as I do, so here is my strategy to get the best results with black and white negative films.  One of the most common mistakes that photographers make when using both film and digital is they underexpose film because of their digital mindset.  

Here are the basic steps to follow:

  • If you don't have the proper means to test your personal EI, then rate the negative film at half the box speed.  By cutting your ISO in half, you are doubling the light to your film (+1 stop)
  • Expose for the shadows (spot meter on place where you want shadow detail, and this gives you another one or two stops depending on if you place your shadows on Zone IV or Zone III)
  • Decrease development by 10%-15% for black and white films

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Keep in mind, this is a starting place, and you should make adjustments for your style of photography.  I like the longest tonal scale possible.  

For C-41 Portra 400 that I dial in another stop in addition to cutting the film speed in half for shadow detail.  So, you could either place your meter at ISO 100 or you could leave the meter at ISO 200 and dial in +1 for exposure compensation.  They all end up at the same place, so pick the method that you like best.  I have found that +2 or +3 stops works best for Portra in particular and then just let the highlights fall where they want because the film will hold the detail.  

I encourage you to get out there, photograph what you love and take good notes.  Only through your personal experiences will you find what works best for you.  

Porta 400 color negative film is an amazingly flexible and resilient film to use.  I can create exposures ranging from ISO 100 to ISO 1600 on the same roll with high-quality professional results and without any change in development.  I have personally found that Portra has an amazing range of -3 to +6 for my style of photography. That is an amazing range that I can't get anywhere else within the bounds of my creative vision.  

Don't try that on your latest Nikon or Canon DSLR.  When I use Portra 400 and Tri-X in medium and large format, I always make sure I am giving the shadows enough exposure.  In fact, when I am doing landscapes, I adjust the ISO of the film as discussed above, then I meter for my foreground shadows typically and just take the exposure because I know the film will hold all of the highlight detail without even using an ND grad filter.  If you are a black and white negative film lover, then there is no film more flexible and forgiving than Tri-X. 

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-Tim Layton 

Tim Layton
Darkroom & Large Format Photography
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Tim Layton Fine Art
Osman, thanks for your questions. I will answer them in order. 1.) You have to keep in mind this article address a wide range of possible scenarios and it is directed at small format 35mm or 120 roll film users. Roll film typically has a lot of different types of exposures on a single roll which typically makes it very difficult for photographers. There are a number of different strategies that a photographer could employ to manage to this common scenario. If you had a situation where you had a low contrast scene for every exposure on the roll, then yes, you could developer for a longer than normal time. The old saying, expose for shadows and develop for highlights is an old saying because it is true. However, if you had a roll of film where you had a wide variety of contrast, then you may blow out your highlights on those frames that are low contrast in nature. Your thinking is correct, you just need to keep the things I mentioned in mind when balancing all of the variables. 2.) You always need to compensate for your filters when calculating your final exposure. You may also need to account for reciprocity failure too. For example, my red filter requires +3 more stops of exposure. If I were using a film that required reciprocity failure corrections based on the adjusted exposure time, then I would need to apply that as well. The general rule is to apply your filter factor first and then your reciprocity failure as the last step in the new exposure calculation.

Stay in touch,

Osman Khan(non-registered)
Hi Tim,
Thanks for this article. Got 2 questions:
1) Using your method , would you still decrease development of your film, regardless of whether the scene was low or high contrast? Wouldn't you increase development if it was a low contrast scene?
2) Would you also increase your exposure time a bit if you were using a red or yellow filter for black and white?
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