Metering for Black and White Negative Film vs. Using Digital Cameras

September 05, 2015  •  4 Comments

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.

You are welcome to connect with me on my personal Facebook account where I provide behind the scenes updates for my friends and family that I don't share anywhere else.

Free Analog Photography Resource Guides by Tim LaytonFree Analog Photography Resource Guides by Tim Layton

Free Darkroom Diary Newsletter by Tim Layton

* indicates required


My general 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.

Tim Layton Fine Art All Access Pass B&W Darkroom Photography Video WorkshopB&W Darkroom Photography Video Workshop Large Format Photography Video Workshop SeriesLarge Format Photography Video Workshop Series

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 the contemporary digital mindset.  

Here are some 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 the 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

Receive my Darkroom Diary updates every Saturday at 9AM CT where I share my insider tips and tutorials with film and darkroom photographers. Get sneak peeks inside my darkroom and studio and early access to to my latest fine art prints. [Hint: I give away free fine art prints to my Darkroom Diary readers, so don't miss out.]

Read the latest issue of the Darkroom Underground Magazine where we bring you leading articles and tutorials from photographers around the world and the latest portfolios of leading analog photographers.
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 and this is part of my general strategy.  

For C-41 color negative films like Kodak Portra, I dial in another stop in addition to cutting the film speed in half for shadow detail.  So, for Portra 400, 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.  

I have found Portra 400 color negative film to be 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 in my opinion and if you like a lower contrast film, then Ilford HP5 is a great choice.

Analog Photography Learning Library by Tim LaytonAnalog Photography Learning Library by Tim Layton


Tim Layton Fine Art All Access Pass B&W Darkroom Photography Video WorkshopB&W Darkroom Photography Video Workshop Large Format Photography Video Workshop SeriesLarge Format Photography Video Workshop Series B&W Large Format Floral Still Life Video WorkshopB&W Large Format Floral Still Life Video Workshop Large Format B&W Film Testing Video WorkshopLarge Format B&W Film Testing Video Workshop Large Format Paper Negative Video WorkshopLarge Format Paper Negative Video Workshop DIY UV Printer Design & Build Video WorkshopDIY UV Printer Design & Build Video Workshop Platinum & Palladium Printmaking with Vellum Video WorkshopPlatinum & Palladium Printmaking with Vellum Video Workshop

Read Testimonials from photographers and collectors from around the world.

Buy Your Photography, Video, & Technology Gear at No Additional Cost To You From B&H Photo


Fujichrome Provia 100F - Fujichrome Velvia 100 - Fujichrome Velvia 50 - Kodak Portra 160 - Kodak Portra 400  - Kodak Ektar 100 - Fujicolor Pro 400H - Fujicolor Crystal Archive Silver Gelatin RA4 Paper - RA-4 Color Print Processing Developer & Processing Chemicals - Color Darkroom Enlargers 


Ilford HP5 PlusIlford FP4 Plus - Ilford Delta 100 - Ilford Delta 400 - Ilford Delta 3200 - Ilford Pan F Plus - Ilford XP2 Super - Ilford SFX - Ilford ID-11 - Ilford DD-X - Ilford Microphen


Kodak Tri-X - Kodak T-Max 100 - Kodak T-Max 400 - Kodak Portra 160 - Kodak Portra 400 - Kodak Ektar 100 - Kodak P-3200 - Kodak Ektachrome - Kodak D-76 - Kodak XTOL - Kodak HC-110

Jobo CPP-3 processer - Ilford RC Pearl Paper - Ilford RC Glossy Paper - Ilford Multigrade Fiber Paper - Ilford Stop Bath - Ilford Rapid Fixer - Neutral FixerKodak Photo-Flo - Hypo Clearing Agent - Darkroom Trays - Chemical Storage Jugs - Nitrile Gloves - Film Archival Storage Sleeves - Archival Storage Binder - Archival Print Storage Boxes

Note: I participate in affiliate programs where I earn a small commission on some select products that I provide links for on my website at When you use these links, I earn a small commission and there is no additional charge to you.


Tim Layton Fine Art
Hi Mike, thanks for the question. If the manufacturer suggests to rate the film at 400 and develop for 10 min, you would rate the film at EI 200 and develop for 10% to 15% less time.

Hi Tim, I know I am a little late considering time when this article was written but I'll give it a shot.
I don't understand one thing... Regarding b&w film, you say you rate film at half the speed (for example 400 at 200) and decrease development time by 10%. But what time you actually decrease? The time that film rated at box speed should be developed for, or the time that film rated at half the speed should be developer for? (for example if I shot Tri-X 400 at 200 speed should i develop it for 6.5 min - 10% (normal time for 400) or 10.5 min - 10% (chart time for film shot at 200)? I hope I didn't make it too complicated, cheers.
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?
No comments posted.