Metering for film photography is one of those topics that seems to always come up. In particular, when people are new to large format or fully mechanical film cameras, metering is a topic that gets a lot of airtime.
I have included a summary in the sections below for my metering techniques for the above-mentioned films. I should mention that my goal for metering is to create an exposure with the most amount of information that medium is able to record. It is also difficult to discuss metering in a vacuum, particularly for black and white negative film because development is a key part of the overall process in creating the desired negative. I will mention development as appropriate. I also should state that my goal is to create a negative that I can print in the darkroom, which also infers that it would be a good candidate for scanning if that is desired. For slide film, I want a slide that "sings" when I lay it on the light table or hold it up to daylight.
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Black and White Negative Film
For metering, I typically find the darkest area in my scene or subject where I want to have detail. Since we know that a meter is based on 18% gray or Zone V, I stop down two stops to place that shadow area on Zone III. I like to control my DOF, so I change my shutter speed to achieve the two stops most of the time. The only exception to this method is what I have a subject or scene that is predominantly white and then I base my metering on the lightest part of the scene where I want detail, such as Zone VII 1/2 or Zone VIII.
After I spot meter my shadows, then I look around the scene to find my highlight reading. If there is a five-stop range between my shadows and highlights, I do normal development. If the scene is less than 5 stops, I increase development. If the scene is more than 5 stops, I decrease development.
The trick with medium and large format black and white film is to make sure you give the shadows enough exposure.
When I am not playing and having fun, I use Pyro HD to develop my black and white negative films because it is nearly impossible to blow out highlights with Pyro HD and the tonal scale is very impressive. I like to have deep blacks (DMAX), long tonal scale with beautiful shadows, and delicate highlights in my fine art prints. I use Ilford FP4+ for a very contemporary and super sharp silver gelatin print and for a classic look, I use Foma 100.
I should note that I have extensively tested my films using a densitometer to determine the exact amount of development adjustments that are required for adding or subtracting zones as desired. This process is beyond the scope of this article.
Color Negative C-41 Film
For color negative films, I like to use Portra 160 and Porta 400 because of its flexibility and incredible dynamic range. I love to make RA-4 color prints with this film and it also scans incredibly well too. I do like Ektar for dramatic landscapes, however, I have found it not to be as flexible and forgiving as Portra.
You could use the same method for metering Portra color negative film as I discussed in the black and white negative section. In fact, I use that technique most of the time. The other approach that I use occasionally is what I call the averaging method. I spot meter the shadows and the highlights, placing both readings in memory and then using my Sekonic 758, I average them to get a suggested exposure. I then scan my scene looking at the deviation from average to ensure that my film will be able to record the values in my scene. This is why it is important to get to know a film. Knowing how to interpret the metering information for your specific film is a skill that you must earn over time. Don't take anyone's word, this is something you need to figure out yourself. You can take information from an experienced photographer like myself as a starting point, but it should not be the gospel and go untested in your own photography. Because in the end, you need to trust your meter and your own judgement.
In summary, the exposure strategy for the color negative films that I use is more or less the same as black and white film, where I make sure I give the shadows enough exposure and I don't really worry about highlights because I know the film will record the information without fail.
This is where film shines over digital photography for me and my work. Digital photographers are forced to protect their highlights, often at the expense of shadow detail. The impressive latitude of black and white and color negative film allows for opportunities that I can't replicate with any other approach in the digital realm.
Color Positive E-6 Slide Film
Color slide film requires a lot of field experience to create consistently good exposures. If you meet someone that shows you their portfolio in slide film and they are properly exposed, then you should pay attention to this person because only experience coupled with knowledge can accomplish this.
I use Velvia 50 in 8x10 and 120 roll film and I use Provia 100 in 8x10, 4x5, and 120 roll film. I use those films based on the variables of my subject, but the metering technique is the same. I use the averaging method that I described in the color negative section, but I ensure that my deviation from average is not more than +2 for highlights and -2 for shadows. If that happens, then I try and adjust with a graduated neutral density filter. If that still doesn't work, then I will likely use color negative film if I have that option.
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