Metering for Negative Roll Film

There are hundreds of articles on the web about how to meter for negative film, most probably much more informative than this one. This is just my own method for metering. It’s not exactly scientific, so if you’re after a well defined method, look elsewhere. It’s also neither ground breaking or original, this will be similar to how many people already meter for film. This post is just my view on the technique and why I use it.

The Zone System and is it Dead?

Recently on Twitter and probably elsewhere on social media there has been a bit of tension surrounding an article declaring the death of the Zone System. For the record I don’t believe the Zone System is dead, I think it’s as valid today as it’s ever been and there are many, many photographers using it to make awesome photographs.

If you don’t know what the Zone System is, I’ve provided some resources at the end of the post. Now, having said that, I don’t actually use the Zone System, not because it’s not valid, it just doesn’t suit my style of shooting. For a start I shoot only 135 and 120 roll films, there are articles that show you how the Zone System can still be applied to roll films (again resources linked at the end), but it’s too slow and convoluted for me. I’m a run and gun type of shooter, I see something I’ll take one or two shots and I’m off. I’m not the kind of guy to meter different areas of a scene, then do some calculations blah, blah.

If I shot Large Format and I was paying circa £5 per shot, it would be a different matter. Each shot counts with Large Format, you can’t afford to get your exposure wrong. With roll film however I don’t feel the need to be as careful, for me it’s about acceptable exposure rather than perfect/correct exposure. I don’t need my exposures to be perfect, I just need them to be good enough and on the whole I believe they are. I am absolutely positive (see what I did there) that my negatives wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Anybody who really knows what they are about would look at my negatives and see lack of shadow detail or blown highlights and who knows what else. But for me they are good enough, most of the time anyway, some shots have absolutely horrible exposure, but 99% are good enough.

Metering Method

My metering method is pretty simple, I’m not saying it’s ideal or that anyone else should use it, but it’s what works for me. I use the same method whether I’m shooting Black and White or Colour, it doesn’t matter to me. The only time I change my method is when I shoot slide film, that’s a different matter entirely and maybe the subject of a future post. I shoot at either box speed or if in really low light or doing street photography where I need higher shutter speeds I will push the film a few stops.

When I’m outside I don’t tend to use a meter I just use Sunny 16 to get an initial exposure and then I will add a stop or 2 of exposure (see I told you it wasn’t scientific), usually by slowing the shutter speed. If I then enter an area that is in a lot of shadow I might add another stop. If I’m inside I will use a handheld or in camera meter and again add 1 or 2 stops. It’s that simple, I’d rather err on the side of over exposure than under.

Developing and Scanning

When I develop my negatives at home, I develop for slightly less time than recommended, to tame the highlights from over exposure. Again. not very scientific I know, I go by gut feel a lot of the time.

In my experience when I’ve under exposed a shot there’s not much I can do to recover it, but when over exposed, highlights can be recovered nicely. This seems to be true for scanning negatives, this may not be the case when wet printing. I’ve not had the opportunity to wet print yet, there are no darkrooms near me and I don’t have the room for my own. This where some people will say “if you’re just going to scan your photos why don’t you just shoot digital?”, well I’m going to leave the answer to that for a future blog post too.

Conclusion

Like I said at the beginning of the post this isn’t exactly original, I didn’t come up with this method (if you can really call it a method). The method is loosely along the same lines of metering for the shadows, develop for the highlights. I could go on about exposure latitude of negative films (yawn), but I won’t, I’ll leave that to those much cleverer than me. At the end of the day use what ever method work for you. If you’re a perfectionist looking for the absolute best negatives for printing or scanning, you’re looking in the wrong place. If however you want acceptably good negatives with very little effort, give it a try.

Resources

A Strategy for Using the Zone System with 35mm and Medium Format
Sunny 16 Rule
The Zone System
Massive Dev Chart

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