How to Expose for Shadows and Develop for Highlights Using B&W Film

April 02, 2015  •  17 Comments

How To Expose For Shadows & Develop For Highlights Using B&W FilmHow To Expose For Shadows & Develop For Highlights Using B&W Film If you have been around film photography for very long a couple of quick observations come to mind.  First, things just sound complicated and in reality, they really are not.  Math is involved so that puts a certain distribution of people in the tank all on its own.  In this article, I am going to share some very practical advice with you on how to expose for shadows and develop for highlights when using black and white film so you can improve your black and white photos and prints. 

My goal in this article is to show beginning black and white film photographers how to produce good quality black and white negatives whether you are printing in the darkroom or scanning your film without performing scientific testing to establish your personal EI (exposure index) and development times.

Entire books have been written on some of these concepts so keep in mind that I am trying to distill over 100 years of knowledge into one brief article and make it practical for you.  If you send your film out for development then you are left to the mercy of your lab.  You are better than that...

Join Tim Layton on YouTubeJoin Tim Layton on YouTube  I am going to discuss how to properly expose for shadow detail in your scene and make the appropriate adjustments on your meter/camera when you don't know your true film speed.  I test black and white films and provide the densitometer tested and verified film speed and development times for various developers. 

By employing a simple method that I am going to teach you in this article and then following through with developing your film as I will discuss in this article, you can get good quality results on a consistent basis.  

This is most applicable for roll film/small format cameras.  I like the freedom of roll film, but I know that I am opening myself up to a wide number of variables that can ultimately impact my darkroom prints or even scans for that matter.

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Step 1 - Rating Your Film Speed

The best advice I can give a black and white film photographers that haven't tested the film and developer combination is to rate your film at half the box speed and then develop for a little less time than the manufacturer data sheet instructs.  I am purposely omitting the scientific underpinnings in this statement because this article would quickly turn into a book.  This approach will work the vast majority of the time for you.  

You can use this approach if you simply want to try and new film and don't have time to perform the testing, or if you hate testing and want decent results most of the time, then this approach is a great place to start.  

For example, if you are using T-Max 100 then rate it at EI 50 or even EI 80.  If you are using Tri-X 400 then rate it at EI 200 or 250.  If the manufacturer datasheet says to develop at 6 minutes then develop for 5 or 5 1/2 minutes.  Something in the range of 10% to 15% less is the rule of thumb that I would suggest. Keep in mind that you want your development times to be at least 5 minutes for most films, so if you find yourself dipping below this threshold, consider dilution your developer to 1:1 or trying a different developer is another option.

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Step 2 - Calculating Your Exposure

For my style of photography, I want to control my depth of field so by default I meter and think in terms of aperture priority.  I use manual cameras and use a hand-held spot meter most of the time.  If you have a camera that has a built-in spot meter, then try that.  I use the built-in spot meter in my Nikon F100, F5, and F6 with very good results.  You may be different and just adjust as necessary. 

When you meter your scene with your camera or exposure meter, look for an area that is the darkest area that you still would like some detail in your print (shadow detail).  Since your meter measures everything in zone 5 (middle of the scale) you will need to adjust your camera meter 2 full stops to get your shadows placed on zone 3 versus zone 5.  The easiest way to do this is to use the exposure compensation dial on your camera if you have one.  If you are using a handheld meter, then you can adjust your meter. 

You can do this by increasing your shutter speed by two stops (e.g., 1/15 meter value to 1/60th new shutter speed) or if it fits your creative vision you could change your aperture from let’s say f/5.6 to f/11.  In photography lingo, you may have heard this referred to as “stopping down”.  It doesn’t matter if you are using an internal meter on your camera or an exposure meter, you should have it set to spot metering mode.  You may have a camera that allows you to dial in exposure compensation as I do on the F100.  If you have this option, then it makes things very simple.  

The idea behind this is to place your shadows on the correct zone for adequate exposure and then control your highlights via your development time.  Your film responds to light on zone 1, which in densitometer terms is .10 density units above your film base + fog.  You don't need to worry about this technical jargon to create great negatives.  

This is why when you photograph snow you have to go the other direction.  For example, if you have some beautiful snow in your scene that has been untouched by footprints, I would probably expose at + 1 1/2 or + 2 stops.

As a general rule, I try and keep everything with detail between zones 3 and 8.  When I photograph flowers against a black backdrop I don’t want or need detail so zone 0 is my target.

If you refer to the zone system scale below all of this will make sense.

Now What?

So far you have cut your film speed in half and you have stopped down two stops from your shadow detail spot meter reading.  Now all that is left is to release the shutter and create the exposure.  That is all there is to it! Keep in mind you are exposing for your shadow detail and developing for your highlight values.  If you are consistently seeing a problem with your shadows and/or your highlights, then you know where the problem is located.  

If you are printing in the darkroom you will want to develop for your highlights first and then work on your shadows.  This is where the old phrase “expose for your shadows and develop for your highlights” comes from.  I have a guidebook on split-grade printing in the darkroom that will transform how you make your darkroom prints. 

This is beyond the scope of this specific article, but this is why variable contrast papers and filters were such a success with black and white darkroom photographers.  It is like having several grades of paper at your disposal all on the same print.  The goal is to produce a high quality negative with all the detail that you need in order to make the type of print you want.  How you get there and how consistently you do that is all about your craft.  The more you practice, the better you will become over time.  

When you self-develop your film just decrease the time of your development a little and you should be set.  For example, if your film datasheet says to develop for 6 minutes then something in the range of 5 minutes would work nicely or use the rule I stated above and decrease by about 15%. 

I try and keep these articles to a manageable size, so if you have questions, just enter them in the comment section below, and I am happy to help.

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Highlight compression work is highly developer dependent. And some films do better than others ( eg tabular grain vs cubic grain films). My pyro developer compresses highlights well but is poor at highlight expansion for example. With 400TMY I can shoot at EI50, under develop and capture a lot of dynamic range. So much so that there is no need for a light meter outdoors in the sunshine.
Ian Simpson(non-registered)
Hi Tim thank you for this. Really useful information. If I rate Portra 400 at 200 ISO do I then just meter for the shadows or take a reading and stop down two stops. Does this work for both Colour and black and white negative film? Thanks for a comprehensive explanation. All the best, Ian
Fernando Yepez(non-registered)
Very effective communication style. I absorbed a lot of information in a very compact article. Nothing wasted. Thank you.
Liso T(non-registered)
Hi Tim, great article!
So, if a use a Ilford HP5 and rate it at 200 and then I develop with Microphen, what would be the correct developing time for this case?
Tim Layton Fine Art
Hi John, thanks for the feedback and comment. I am happy this is helpful for you. Post some of your results on my FB page at I have over 150,000 people following the page, so it is good exposure for photographers. Stay in touch and let me know how things progress for you.

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