How to Read A Black and White Film Negative

August 18, 2016  •  9 Comments

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The reason why we expose and develop our films is to tell stories via our photographs.  

It makes sense that we want to have the best possible negative to make our jobs easier and to ensure that we can create the image that we had in our minds when creating the exposures.  

There is a lot of "science" that goes into creating high-quality black and white film negatives that ultimately leads to a creative expression.  One without the other leads to failure on some level.  

I have realized a few trends over the years by teaching, mentoring, and working with a wide variety of darkroom photographers that I wanted to share in this article with you.  

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First, without testing your films, there is no way to know the true ISO (exposure index) for your specific environment.  Your environment includes your selected film, methods for development, and choice of developer.  The true speed of your film (EI) is rarely ever the proposed speed as listed by the manufacturer.  By exposing your films without the proper EI, you are placing yourself at a great disadvantage and lack control over your creative process.  You could be placing your shadow details one or two stops in the wrong direction, for example.  I am sure I have received hundreds of emails over time that go something like this... "what should I rate my xyz film at?".  Replace xyz with just about any film you can think of.  There is no way for me to provide the proper answer to this question because the testing has to be done independently.

The second trend that I notice is that many photographers don't know how to interpret their negative in terms of making changes to achieve the types of results they want.  If you are not rating your films at the proper EI, it is all downhill for there. Let's assume moving forward that you have properly tested your film and developer combination and you know the EI for your film.  

Depending on your intentions, print in the darkroom, scan your films, hybrid process where you want to print in the darkroom and scan or create alternative prints like Platinum/Palladium, all drive the type of negative that you will need to create.  For example, if I am going to be making silver gelatin prints in the darkroom, I know the exact type of negative that I will need to create.  This same negative is not a good candidate for making Platinum prints for example.  In either case, I need to know how to make adjustments to my processes to create the best possible negative for my output medium and creative intentions.  

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To make sure we are all on the same page, I want to cover a few fundamentals first.  When you expose a negative in your camera the light places a latent image on the film.  That latent image of silver which is coated on the films base is activated when you develop it.  The more light (slower shutter speed) you give your film at exposure time, the darker the negative will be and the lighter the resulting print tones will be.  The less light (faster shutter speed) you give your film at exposure time, the lighter the negative will be and the darker the resulting print tones will be.  

When looking at a very thin negative, we know that it wasn't given enough exposure.  When looking at a very dark or thick negative we know that it was most likely given too much exposure in combination with being developed too long.  

Generally speaking, we want negatives that reveal shadow detail where we want it and retain highlights so they are not blown out without details.  

In our shadow areas, we want to see detail.  If that area of the negative is clear or too light, then we under-exposed the film.  If it is too dark, then we overexposed.  

In our highlight areas, we want the negative to be dark, but you should be able to read a newspaper through them.  If they are too dark and thick, then you over developed your film.  If they are thin and too light, then you underdeveloped your film.  I typically hold the negative and newspaper up to a window or lay them on a light table.  

In general terms, you expose for your shadows and develop for your highlights.  Shadow details develop and form very quickly during development and highlight values continue to develop out over time.  While this doesn't tell the whole story, it is an old saying for a reason.  If you understand this principle alone, you will start creating higher quality negatives.  

With that in mind, your exposure determines your shadow details.  This is why it is so important to know the proper EI (exposure index) of your film.  If you are getting poor shadow detail results, then you are most likely rating your film wrong if everything else is in order.    

Development determines your highlights and overall contrast of your negative.  Your highlights should be denser than your shadow areas on your negative, but still transparent enough to reveal details.  This is why the old trick of testing your highlights with newsprint is so effective.  If your highlights are too thick, then your development time is too long and if there are too thin, then your development time was not long enough.

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Tim Layton Fine Art
Hi Brian, thanks for your comment. I typically hold the negative up to a window or on lay it on the light table.


Brian Wiese(non-registered)
With regards to "highlight areas, we want the negative to be dark, but you should be able to read a newspaper through them"... I just tested this by laying a developed b/w negative on top of a newspaper and tried to read the text through a dark area such as a road (I don't know if it was zone 3 or not) - and could make barely discern the black newspaper characters behind it. When I tested against the blown-out highlights of the sky (thick/black part of negative), that was pure black and I could not see the newspaper characters. Testing in direct sunlight would probably work best.
Tim Layton Fine Art
Hi Raytoei, thanks for your comment and support. I am glad the article was useful to you. Thanks!
Hi. I always look forward to ur newsletter. As one who only shoot and dev film, i am a later comer to this medium, while i enjoy the wealth of information available online, it is also filled with rule of thumbs and habits which only work in certain circumstances. So it is great that i read up from you who is a lot more disciplined in your processes. Thanks again
Stephen Hartsfield(non-registered)
Hi Tim, good article for neophytes, however where do we find newsprint these days?.....LOL. For Klaus in the first comment, I never had a problem with HC110 with the older films prior to 2000, but since then I have had to dilute HC 110 to 1:62 and sometimes to 1:47, it still works beautifully. Also, FA 1027 (sold by Photographers Formulary) works very good too. I don't use Xtol because of the way it is sold, in large quantities that would go bad before I could use it all. A good ballpark ISO to start with for all films is to under rate the film, ie I shoot Tmax 100 at 80, Tmax 400 at 320, Tri-X at 250, and FP4 at 80. Those are good starting points for anyone. Of course, your milage may vary (but not by much!).
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