Benefits of Wide Exposure in Black and White Film Photography: Or, let the light be on.

I am a photography enthusiast with an interest in imagery sustained for decades. I find that there is no end to learning the artistic and technical aspects of photography. I have learned that knowing what to do is not enough: in film photography, good execution is essential.

In this brief article, I’ll review the ability of black and white (B&W) film to absorb remarkable amounts of exposure, beyond what many photographers believe is possible.

A film photographer can be confident that developing black and white film, if handled properly, can control sufficient exposure. Sufficient exposure leads to richer tones in the image which therefore reveals depth and dimensionality. Images taken with insufficient exposure will show flatness in the photo.

A photographer who chooses to use B&W film has an interest in learning the Zone System, a systematic exposure method developed years ago by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. The system is well documented in various sources – one of the best is The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum) It provides a way to use a light meter to drive desirable exposure in order to get enough detail in the darker areas of the scene where detail is desired. The study of the zoning system is best done by detailed writing which can be found in chapters 8 and 9 of the book Barnbaum.

Photographers are familiar with light stops. Many would say that a B&W image can absorb ten stops of light since photo paper spans ten stops. But the movie itself can record well over ten or even up to 16 stops. We’ll look at the methods for using these higher stops.

In a nutshell, Barnbaum’s recommendation for B&W films is to place the darkest area of ​​the image where you want to see the detail in Zone IV (or even higher). Often times, these areas are placed in Zone III, which places the development too low on the development curve, which is called the toe of the curve. Tone differences cannot be adequately achieved when Zone III is the choice.

When using a spot meter, be aware that a light meter always returns an area 5 result. Therefore, a photographer must use judgment as to which area to select. So if a scene has a dark area where detail is desired, the exposure for that area should be adjusted to move that dark area to area 4. That is, an exposure reduction of a level is necessary.

Film manufacturers often assign higher nominal ISO ratings than warranted. So, for a given B&W film, which ISO should be used on the light meter? The response cannot be generalized due to variations in film, developer, or even local water. Personal tests must be performed. Actual ISO values ​​can be as low as half the nominal ISO. Of course, the choice of the actual ISO has a direct bearing on an appropriate exposure. A starting point for development times can be found at Massive Development Board.

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A well-known method of managing contrast is to reduce development time when it is known that there are higher areas which could be considered overexposed. Lower areas (that is, darker areas of the image) develop based on exposure, not development time. No matter how much development time is given to the lower areas, at some point they will stop developing further. The upper areas (i.e. the brightest areas of the image) develop over time and it is the upper areas that can be manipulated to the desired level of contrast.

A less well-known method of managing contrast is Barnbaum’s two-solution compensation solution which I have found to be a way capable of bringing back exposures with very high areas or where a softer look is desired. A more complete description can be found in chapter 9 of his aforementioned book.

In general terms, here is how I apply this method. Basically, two development solutions are prepared: the first is a slightly denser development solution; the second is a very dilute solution. The film is in the first solution for three minutes then the tank is emptied. The second solution is added and the film develops for an additional seven minutes. Stirring is 15 seconds on the minute mark except for continued stirring for the first minute with the first solution.

I would say that my appreciation of the benefits of abundant exposure began when I made repeated and intensive study of Barnbaum’s text. There is a great deal of content to this practice beyond what is possible in this short article. If you’re interested, check out the Barnbaum book for a full discussion.

My cinematographic work settled exclusively in the B&W cinema. I shoot digitally if I want color. (A photographer who wishes to intervene for reasons of color film contrast management in the development process will find limited opportunities.) Although I have shot with ILFORD films, my films of choice are the Kodak T-MAX 100 and , if higher speed is required, Tri-X. I would say about 80% of my work is in 120 format, 15% in large format, and 5% in 35mm format. Since 2013, I have developed my films with Kodak XTOL, an excellent developer. About a year ago I changed to Kodak HC-110 for its convenience. I have experience with Pyrocat-HD which has stellar properties. I had two bad experiences with Pyro because the developer ran out prematurely on two occasions. (I understand that the Pyrocat HD formulation with glycol has a much longer shelf life.)

I now scan my film negatives with my DSLR camera, macro lens and Kaiser Slimlite Plano lightbox. I find the quality to be high and the process faster than scanning with my Epson scanner. I use Negative Lab Pro as the first step in digitizing, then work in Lightroom and Photoshop to make whatever edits I choose to make.

I share here a selection of my B&W photos. Most are recent, but two photos are from my days in the military in Germany almost 50 years ago. While I love these old photos, I see they are a bit underexposed and would have benefited from more exposure.

~ Fred

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About the Author

I was born in Arizona with a childhood in Venezuela and Spain. From my college days, I looked at prints of beautiful photographs. I started making my images in Germany at the beginning of the 70’s. In 2009, … View Fred Delgado’s full profile and links

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