Tips on How to Expose Film Properly


Nowadays, making a proper exposure with your digital camera is simple and straightforward: set your camera to A, S, or P and let the camera do the work. It’ll work most of the time and, in those instances where it doesn’t, you might pull out an external meter for a bit more precision. In all of these cases, you always have the rear LCD to double-check your shots if you’re unsure and, for the fanatical, you can even use a live-exposure histogram while shooting. When you’re using film, however, the luxury of being able to check your exposure by digital means isn’t available, and you need to be a bit more tuned-in to everything that’s going on to expose your film properly.

A Couple of Tools

Light Meter

A light meter is one of the more misunderstood tools in the photo world of today; it’s seemingly obsolete and unnecessary when our digital cameras, and even late-era film cameras, have very sophisticated meters built in. And even if your camera doesn’t have a built-in meter, it’s still a chunky and unnecessary accessory because there are smartphone light-meter apps that do a decent job, right? Well, yes, right. It’s easier than ever to meter your shots, and smartphone apps do a half decent job to determine a usable exposure, but I’m still going to argue the case for a separate handheld meter. Why? Because of accuracy, because of control, because of versatility, and because of functionality. With a separate meter you can measure flash illumination, you can measure reflected light from very distant scenes, and you can measure the light falling onto a subject, versus only reflected light. With film, I’d argue, these differences matter. Unlike with digital, where you can fire off a few shots in 1/3 stop increments without much pause, with film there is a natural desire to get it done right with a single shot. And a meter is one of the best ways to achieve this goal.

Sekonic LiteMaster Pro L-478D-U Light Meter

A bit of overkill for most, but the Speedmaster L-858D-U is the meter of choice for those who want something that does it all—flash, reflected, and incident, along with wireless triggering, a touchscreen, and capabilities for filmmakers, too. It also offers one of the biggest benefits to me, the inclusion of a 1° spot meter. There’s little else anyone could ever want out of a meter. For a more modest feature set, the Flashmate L-308X-U is one of the most popular meters around, due to its pocketable size and simple design. It’s the meter that gets thousands of young photographers through art school every year, and is the meter they still have with them long after they graduate. Dipping one more notch on Sekonic’s scale, there is also the essence of simplicity, the Twinmate L-208. This compact handheld meter uses a match-needle system to determine exposure settings.

Sekonic Speedmaster L-858D-U Light Meter

Looking outside of Sekonic’s offerings, there’s the sleek Voigtländer VC Speed Meter II—a thing that our own Allan Weitz loves—as well as the Kenko KFM-1100, the versatile Gossen Sixtomat F2, and the especially compact Gossen Digisix 2.

Voigtländer VC Speed Meter II

For more on what to look for in a light meter, check out the B&H Light Meter Buying Guide, which covers some select use cases for different types of meters, and which is best suited for the type of shooting you do.

Gray Card

One of the least exciting accessories ever, the Gray Card, can also be one of the more important tools for tricky exposure situations. Even if you only have the small 4 x 5" card, or the small gray target within X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2, it can be a huge help for getting accurate meter readings. The short story of why a gray card is important has to do with a light meter’s sensitivity to 18% gray—the same shade of gray as a gray card—and how a meter will effectively treat every area of the scene as if it’s 18% gray. It is always providing you with the reading to expose the scene correctly as if the metered subject were 18% gray, regardless if the subject, in reality, is completely white or completely black. When you insert a gray card into the scene for metering’s sake, you can then accurately meter something that is the exact tone to which the meter is sensitive under the lighting conditions of whatever your subject is. The result: a well-placed exposure where highlights will remain bright and shadows will remain dark.

Delta 1 Gray Card - 4 x 5"

As a workaround, if you don’t have a gray card or a ColorChecker on hand, is to look for other aspects of a scene that are “middle gray” within your frame. It takes some practice to be able to recognize these, but a few of the most common ones I use are the asphalt of a road under generally overcast conditions, medium brown dirt roads, sunlit green grass, faded black shirts in sunlight, and open water in overcast situations. The more black-and-white film you shoot, the easier it becomes to recognize middle gray targets (which are applicable for both color and black-and-white films) just due to the experience of seeing the world in gray, and then the easier it will be to meter your scene accurately.

Tips for Film in General

It’s hard to generalize exposure tips for working with film, mainly because with film, compared to digital, is a tactile medium that has so many variables. And it’s also one of those things for which everyone has their own preference regarding the best way to do something. I have my own way of exposing and developing film that has worked well for me for many years, but it is completely different than the way some of my friends work with film. Our negatives look completely different, but we’re able to get equally usable images that have an obvious aesthetic difference between them. And the crux of the issue, I suppose, is that much of metering for film lies in aesthetics and decision-making. Do you choose to let that shadow go black or do you choose to let that sky go white? Neither is necessarily the wrong choice, but sometimes you have to choose one or the other.

Some things I keep in mind when metering:

  • Negative films tend to be much more flexible than slide films because they have a wider usable dynamic range; they can handle over- and underexposure more easily.
  • Most negative films love overexposure—so much so that I (slightly) overexpose about 95% of the rolls I shoot; most of the time I like to rate 100-speed film at 80, 400 at 320, 800 at 640, and 3200 at 1600.
  • Using graduated ND filters is one of the most useful ways to control exposures taken in difficult lighting situations, such as during sunrise/sunset. Especially with film, since HDR techniques are not really available, you should focus on containing the entire exposure in one frame.
  • Color transparency films/slide films require more accurate exposure control and do not have as much tolerance for under- and overexposure; I tend always to rate these films at box speed and develop as normal when possible.
  • With black-and-white film, I loosely follow the adage “Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights,” where I make sure to provide enough exposure so the darkest subject in the scene can appear on the film, and then, if needed, vary development length to control any bright highlights. This is essentially the opposite of how I work with a digital camera, where I value the highlights more and feel like I can bring up the shadows in post.
  • Finally, learn from a master. I had decent photo schooling, but my main resource for learning the technical fundamentals of working with film was Ansel Adams and his three-part book series, The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. Even though these books were written more than 50 years ago and include examples of many obsolete films, chemicals, and cameras, the information in them is immensely valuable and applicable to all techniques of shooting.

What are some of your tips for metering? How do you arrive at different exposure values while shooting? Do you work differently with film than with digital? Let me know what your workflow is like, in the Comments section, below.