Film photography is often regarded as more difficult than digital. A large percentage of this likely comes down to the lack of the ability to check results in those first seconds after the button has been pressed. The result of this is that it’s harder to diagnose problems, especially problems with exposure, specifically if you’re unsure of what poor exposure looks like in the end results.
The interesting thing about negative film photography is that poor exposure doesn’t always result in a poor outcome. In fact, with some films, a touch of overexposure not only doesn’t do any harm, but it can actually help ensure good results.
It is from this fact that the oft-repeated mantras of “expose for the shadows”, “shoot half box speed” and “err on the side of overexposure” come from – all of these mantras point toward some degree of over exposure!
There is good reason for this too, it is in fact underexposure that is the main cause of slightly shitty looking murky results. Aiming for some degree of overexposure is a great way to avoid that problem – especially when you’re new to film photography.
But to what degree is over exposure of negative film ok? Well, the answer to that question is as deep as it is long, and as such is way beyond my desire (or knowledge) to cover in its entirety. What I do want to talk about is my personal experiences of overexposure of film, how I’ve used that experience to completely remove the problem of accidental underexposure and murky unattractive photos. Finally, I also want to make the point that I made it so easy for myself that it felt like cheating. So much so that I am now purposefully making it harder for myself – which ain’t a bad problem to have!
Before I get into this, let me just point out that this article assumes you are shooting film and either digitally scanning your negatives or having them scanned by a lab. This is what I do, and it is within the scope of that practice that I am writing.
I also want to emphasise the point that this isn’t a post about best practice – this is a post about what many photographers would consider cheating. “Perfect” exposure will always result in the best results. This is more about getting closer to the best results without necessarily being a technically perfect photographer. It is also worth noting that this doesn’t work with all film. The films I talk about within, it does; beyond that, it’s up to you to experiment…
My perfectly exposed (looking) photos
- 1 My perfectly exposed (looking) photos
- 2 Choice of film
- 3 Density correction in the scan
- 4 Understanding of the room for manoeuvre
- 5 Practical implications
- 6 Achieving this for yourself
- 7 The problems with density correction
- 8 Caveat emptor
- 9 So to conclude
First I want to share two interesting facts about my negative film photography. The first is that in the last year I have used a light meter less than I have before. The second is that in the last year I have taken fewer accidentally underexposed film photos than I have ever before – in fact 9 rolls out of 10 I don’t get a single murky underexposed frame on a roll at all, and when I do, it’s not unexpected.
As an example, I recently went out taking photos with a friend. He’s a good photographer, he knows what he’s doing and was shooting with his super-duper-top-flight-Canon autoexposure film camera. I had my Leica M-A, a meterless manual camera. Every single one of my photos came out perfectly, whereas at least a couple of his results were murky from underexposure. So what? I’m saying I’m a better judge of light than a very expensive camera, right? No, not at all! What I’m actually saying is that at that point in time I was just a bit better at cheating with my Leica M-A than my mate was with his fancy-pants Canon.
The reality is, if you looked at my mates negatives alone you would judge him a much better photographer than me. All 36 of his frames would have been fairly consistent in their density. That is to say that if you held the negatives up to the light they would look evenly exposed across the roll. Yes he suffered a couple of thin, slightly underexposed negatives that resulted in a murky scan. But this was likely because the light he was photographing tricked the meter of his camera into slightly overestimating the amount of light. But that was just a couple of frames. Overall, his negatives would have been pretty accurately exposed, and more importantly – even taking into account the couple of slightly under shots – they would have been fairly evenly exposed across the extent of the film.
My negatives on the other hand varied wildly in their density. Some were quite close to accurately exposed, but many were massively overexposed, very dense, thick, dark negatives. There’s very good reason for this too. Whilst he was changing his settings on a shot by shot basis, I hardly ever changed my settings with regard to the light. In fact, almost regardless of light, indoors, in shade or outside I just shot my camera at pretty much the settings I fancied, only taking the minimum of care. Yet despite this, the outcome was that the scanned negatives look pretty damn good. They look like they were all exposed accurately, when actually the exposure varied a great deal.
The reason for this is quite simple. Firstly the huge overexposure latitude of the film I chose to shoot gave me massive room for error. Secondly, I know that any “mistakes” I make in exposure will be compensated for when the film is scanned. And thirdly, through experimentation, I now have the experience and understanding of the length, breadth and width of the room for error the combination of latitude and mistake-compensation the scanner gives me to know what I can get away with in what light. Let me explain…
Choice of film
The films I choose to shoot are Portra 400 and Ilford HP5+. I shoot these films primarily because I like the look of the results. Additionally to this though, I shoot them because they’re incredibly forgiving. Portra 400 is especially impressive as not only does it allow lots of overexposure, it does it without introducing too much in the way of undesirable changes in colours. It’s no exaggeration to say that I have had useable photos shooting Portra 400 overexposed by what I’d guess was about 9 stops. This photo was shot at f/1.5 at 1/60th of a second in bright sunlight (I know it’s not perfect, but I’ll come to that in a mo).
Overexposure latitude – it’s not a myth!
I’d been told this sort of overexposure was ok with Portra 400 a few times, but it wasn’t until I tried it for myself that I really believed it. It just doesn’t seem to make sense that it would be possible to overexpose to this sort of degree and still get a perfectly usable photo. If you tried this with a digital camera the out of camera shot would be white. You might – if you shot RAW with a really fancy modern digital camera – be able to pull something back, but I’d bet it wouldn’t be much good.
Yet with the likes of Portra 400 this is abundantly possible. The reasons for this are its very broad overexposure latitude and the simple way negative film works. In very much layman’s terms (because that’s about the most of it I understand) the more light that hits the negative – albeit to an ever decreasing degree – the more chemical reaction occurs in the film’s emulsion. The more the chemical reaction occurs the thicker, or more dense, the negative gets. Hold a developed overexposed negative up to the light and it will look darker than a normally exposed one. The darker the negative the more the chemicals have reacted to the light. Inversely, very underexposed developed negatives will have areas which are completely clear. Where the negative is clear, no chemical reaction has occurred.
The importance of avoiding underexposure
This is of course why it’s so important to avoid underexposure, and ultimately the basis of where all the aforementioned mantras come from. In an underexposed negative there is less or indeed no chemical reaction, and where there is no chemical reaction there is no picture to scan.
Density correction in the scan
The next step is extracting that picture from the negative. Negative film is, of course, negative, so where the negative is highly exposed it is dark, but the end result of that part of the photo will be light once it has been inverted into a positive image. With films with as broad a latitude as Portra 400, to get a positive photo out of a highly exposed, very dark or dense negative you simply need to shine a brighter light through it. The more dense, the brighter the light required.
With Portra 400, it almost doesn’t matter how overexposed or dense the negative is, it is still theoretically possible to obtain a potentially usable image. Taking image quality concerns out of the equation for a second, it’s quite safe to say that as long as the chemical reaction has happened, there will be a picture on the negative. Inversely of course – as mentioned – where there is no chemical reaction there is no picture. You can’t shine less light through something that’s completely clear and expect to see a picture if there’s no picture to be seen.
This variation in brightness of light is what happens when my massively varied negatives go through a scanner. The really thick dense overexposed photos get a bright light shone through them, and the “better” exposed ones get a less bright light shone through them. This process is called density correction and is what results in all of my wildly differently exposed negatives all looking evenly exposed in the final scanned images.
Understanding of the room for manoeuvre
What’s important in this process is having a good idea of the scale of the room for error. The size of the room for error is – at least for the sake of this post – determined by the exposure latitude of the film and the capability and quality of the scanner used to scan the negatives. As mentioned I use Portra 400 film. Alongside the use of this film I use a commercial Noritsu scanner. Up until recently I was outsourcing my scanning, though since I’ve just bought a Noritsu of my own, I shall soon be scanning my own negatives. That said, regardless of by whom and where my negatives are scanned, through experimentation I have found the limitations of the scanner and film.
At the overexposure end of the scale, please refer again to my very overexposed photo above. As you will see, it doesn’t quite have the colour contrast and brightness of some of the other photos I took on that same day. (Such as the image at the top, or this next one)
I can’t find another example – I don’t publish or indeed keep many of my experiments – but over time I’ve exposed a few negatives like this and found this drop in contrast always there. What I determined is that what I was seeing in images like this was either the technical limitation of the scanner or the film. I’m not sure which, but actually in practice, it doesn’t really matter what causes the limitation. What matters is that within the film and scanner I’d chosen, I found the upper limit for overexposure before my photos start coming back lacking a bit of contrast. Actually in practise I decided that my absolute limit should be around 7 stops of overexposure – I mean how much overexposure does one really need…?
I then based my underexposure limit on where I found the line between a murky and non-murky photo coming back. In practice I found that if I underexposed by any more than about 1 stop, I risked getting murky scans. That 1 stop plus my other 7 gives me a maximum of 8 stops of room for error, which if you think about, is huge!
The practical implications of this are obvious. For a start, it puts an end to all that nonsense about the 1/1000 max shutter speed of a Leica film camera being an issue. It also helps with compact and more basic cameras that have even slower maximum speeds. My Voigtlander Vito B has a top speed of 1/200. But this isn’t limited to older film cameras. Cameras like the Konica Hexar AF for example only have top speeds of 1/250th. This is often stated as a disadvantage or limitation, but really – at least in terms of exposure – this can be solved with what I’m talking about in this post.
It also opens up the possibility of more easily shooting narrow depth of field or slower shutter speed photography in brighter light without the use of any neutral density filters. Which if like me you have some sort of built in hatred of filters, is definitely a bonus!
More than this though it allows – should you choose to embrace it – a very simple approach to shooting some types of negative film. My anecdotal tale of going up against a mates all-singling-all-dancing Canon was not a one off. In fact more often than not over the last year I have abused the latitude of my film in this way. Really – I’m almost ashamed to say – just because it makes life profoundly easier. In fact as I alluded to at the beginning of the post I’d go as far to say that I’ve become a little lazy (more on that later).
Back to my 8 stops room for error for a moment. Taking in to account that there is only 7 stops difference between f/1.4 and f/16. This means that using the sunny 16 rule as a starting point, on a bright sunny day if I set my hypothetical camera to 1/400 with 400iso film I should need to set the aperture to f/16. In practice because of my room for error I could actually take photos at f/1.4 in the same bright sunshine and still get a photo that – once density is corrected in the scan – looks like it was normally exposed. Of course this is a little extreme, but the fact that it’s possible certainly open up a certain level of freedom within your shooting disciplines.
Achieving this for yourself
The beauty of all this is that unlike most of my posts where I’m extolling the virtues of x-camera or y-lens – or something else that can involve considerable investment on your part – in this case the only investment I’m recommending is in film and time. You don’t even need to change the film you shoot, or even the scanner you use.
Yes, you could go out and buy a load of Portra 400 and get it Noritsu scanned by AG or Richard Photo Lab or Mein film lab or whoever else has a Noritsu. If you don’t give them instructions to the contrary, shoot your Portra 400 photos within that 8 stop range and your photos will likely come back density corrected to look like normally exposed photos.
But why follow my path? I’ve chosen the path I have as I just happen to like what overexposed Porta 400 looks like when it’s Noritsu scanned specifically by AG. You might not. That being the case, you just need to experiment with the film/films that you do like. Try overexposing. Shoot a film a different levels of under and overexposure and see what results come back when you either send your scans off or try and scan them yourselves.
I’ve found that Portra 400 gets more colour-contrasty when it’s overexposed. Colours become more vibrant and in my mind very pretty, especially with a Noritsu scanner which in itself natively produces warmer more contrasty results.
Fuji 400h seems to get less vibrant, and actually in my experience doesn’t give such broad room for manoeuvre. These are both professional grade films, but there are stacks of consumer films that will likely give a vast range of different outcomes.
The point I’m trying to make is that experimentation and finding what film and level of overexposure right for you is key. Most would recommend as a general rule keeping it within about 3-4 stops of overexposure. I say they are probably right, but really, what harm is there in experimenting?
Beyond that, it’s just a case of finding a scanner, or someone to scan your negatives in a way that you like the look of. As a general rule, cheap mini lab scanners can’t cope as well with over exposure. The same can be said for cheap home scanners. But go to a pro lab or buy a good scanner and you should find your room for error in exposure increases.
The problems with density correction
Of course all of this does bring up the question of how to under or overexpose your photo for effect. What if you want your photo to be really bright or indeed really low key? If density correction always returns a negative film photo to the point of looking normally exposed, how do you either under or overexpose on purpose and see the result in your photos?
Quite simply this comes down to your chosen approach to scanning. If you scan at home, you can choose the exposure of the scan in the process of scanning yourself – this is of course the main virtue of home scanning touted by those who do it (it’s also my main motivation for buying my own Noritsu, but that’s story for another day).
The problem with sending your photos away for develop and scan is that you’re effectively leaving the decision about what each frame should look like in the hands of the computer or person operating the scanner. This basically puts a big chunk of your creative process into the hands of someone or something else. This is something that many people find a hard pill to swallow, despite the fact the getting your negs scanned professionally almost always results, objectively speaking, in high quality images. Fortunately, there are a few ways to retain that creative control.
Obtaining a “look” from a lab
To make things slightly more complicated, different pro labs seem to have different looks, not to mention different scanners. Some will tell you about how they try to capture the native look of the film, some will tell you they can make your photos look pretty much how you want them to look, and some like AG will just send you scans that they have deemed look right with little input from you. None of these ways is necessarily right or wrong, but again, there are plenty of companies to try, its just a case of experimenting and finding what suits you best. What is consistent to all pro labs is that they will all tell you that for best results from you negative film to aim for some level of overexposure. From that point its just a case of finding the lab that makes your photos look how you want them to look!
Retaining creative control when using a lab
There are a few possible solutions to the problem of having someone else scan your film. The first is as simple as having a good relationship with the company you use. Talk to them, tell them your expectations and desires from your scans – some companies will be more accommodating to this than other. Some companies actually offer it as a service. UK film lab and Richard photo lab come to mind as two companies that offer a custom service that maps your desires to their process on an ongoing basis. There are many photographers that are quite vocal in their praise of such services.
But actually it doesn’t need to be as complicated or in depth as that. Some other companies like Carmencita offer simpler approach. As part of the ordering process with them, you make some basic specifications about colour, contrast and brightness which they work to when they process your film.
There is a third, and in my opinion even more simple approach to outsourced scanning. Or at least there is an approach that I’ve found suits me best. What I’ve found is that if I have my scans returned to me in TIFF format they give me just enough room to adjust the exposure to taste in post. TIFF files have per-pixel data, they are not compressed like JPEG files where the compression allocates single colours to whole areas of adjoining pixels. What this means is that within reason, your TIFF files can be adjusted to taste in your own post process software without too much degradation to the image.
What’s important here is that once again there are options. Whichever path suits you best will come down to your own experimentation. Try having a conversation with a company like UK Film Lab, try using the Carmencita ordering system, and try using someone like AG to get your scans back as TIFF files so you can process them a bit if you feel the need. It’s your photography, you have to make it work for you in a way that feels most comfortable to you!
Before I conclude this post, I just want to touch on something I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the post: my laziness. In practice, just because you can shoot Portra at EI 1.6 doesn’t mean you should.
Many would also argue that shooting film like this is shooting it well outside of how it is designed to be used. In many people’s opinion, shooting like this results in technically worse image quality. I am sure they are right too – but really, if you are happy with the results shooting this way, who’s to argue with you??
That being said, this massive room for manoeuvre can – as it has in me on more than one occasion – led to laziness. Not needing to think about anything other than framing, focusing and setting the aperture to suit is a wonderful thing, but after the novelty wears off it’s hard to avoid the feeling that one is somehow cheating. This sense of feeling like I’m cheating has on occasion led me to feel less fulfilled by the process, and feeling less fulfilled by photography is something that I feel quite strongly about avoiding.
This is exactly why I have spent the last year also trying to find myself a light meter that works to subtly rein me in a bit without impacting too much on the speed I am able to work – I’ve now found one, in fact it was finding a light meter that suited me that inspired this post – but more on that another day.
What I’ve found is that I’ve got to a point in my film photography where I feel like I’ve learned the rules. I’ve then learned how to break the rules with some pretty outrageous abuse of latitude. I’m now learning to get the same consistently good results as quickly as I have been, but without taking the abuse of the latitude so far – the journey never ends does it?!
So to conclude
Fundamentally, all this should be about advancing your skills and quality of photography – and despite the title of this post – not about finding a way to cheat or bluff your way to good results. With the right film and scanning process you can abuse the hell out of the latitude, and actually it’s a lot of fun doing it as part of the process of learning to obtain great results more consistently. But ultimately it shouldn’t be about the abuse of latitude, it should be about the well considered good use of it instead.
Ultimately, some negative film has lot of overexposure latitude, you’ll either be well aware of this and be in on the trick, or you won’t. If you’re not, you really must give this sort of experimentation a go. It will help you understand the properties of negative film better, open up some creative possibilities and methods of shooting that give a sense of freedom like little other. But more than anything else – as it has in me – it should help you find a path to consistently better results in your negative film photography.
Cheers for reading,
Some interesting links: