The Zone System is Dead

Posted by on Oct 7, 2016 in Tutorial | 235 Comments
The Zone System is Dead

Ever since I published my article about metering for film and how to approach exposure to achieve optimal results with color negative film, I have gotten an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from film photographers who were finally able to achieve good, consistent results by applying a very simple approach to metering.

I also received a lot of questions and some criticism. Many traditionalists asked about the Zone System, and how I could so blatantly ignore the rules of physics and what master photographers like Ansel Adams and Fred Archer have established in the darkroom for all of us decades ago – long before I ever picked up a camera.

I had shared before that you don’t need to worry about your highlights when shooting color negative film and demonstrated this by shooting an exposure bracket for Portra 400 in search of an answer to the question for where the limit for overexposure really lies (about 7-8 stops over base exposure, believe it or not).

This motivated me to research a little more in depth for B&W film too in order to see if I could come up with a similar approach. The general consensus among B&W photographers always seemed to be that you can overexpose color negative film, but shouldn’t try that with B&W film or you would risk losing your highlights. The mantra “expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights” reflects exactly that, and suggests to overexpose and underdevelop.

That in itself doesn’t really make sense according to the Zone System, because it artificially changes the density and the tone curve of the negative. Overexposed and underdeveloped negatives are easier to print in the darkroom, but they usually look flat and lifeless on the scanner and need a lot of tweaking. I was looking for something that works well in both worlds, preferably with identical results.

When I first started shooting B&W, I metered and exposed very traditionally. Like many other photographers before me, I often wasn’t happy with how my results looked and it seemed to be a matter of luck whether or not a technically good and properly exposed negative would look good as a final image. Over time, I changed my metering method and my results improved significantly. The more dense my negatives were, the better my scans came out. Instead of flat and lifeless, my B&Ws all of a sudden looked rich, vibrant and had a beautiful tonal range without losing either shadows or highlights.

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Leica M2 + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 1 stop, overdeveloped by 1 stop)

I started shooting my B&W film just like I shoot color negative film, rating it at half box speed and metering for the shadows. I even tried overexposing Tri-X 400 by 5 stops and then overdeveloped it another 3 stops – just to see what the film can take – and I still got usable results. Yes, the look of B&W film changes the more you overexpose it, but despite an increase of grain and contrast, my results were always good. Until the current day I have never lost a single frame due to increased exposure or even gross overexposure.

What I discovered led me to challenge the foundation of how we think about photography today. I have since then researched the topic in depth, shot hundreds of rolls of B&W film, experimented with all kinds of exposure settings, chemicals and development formulas. I also spent hours printing my negatives in the darkroom. Along with that, I discussed my findings with accomplished photographers and master printers like Paul Caponigro and Gary Briechle.

All of my efforts only confirmed my theory and lead me to a very simple but relatively disturbing conclusion:

The Zone System is dead.

What may sound funny and flippant is meant very serious: I believe Ansel Adams’ Zone System, the holy grail of traditional B&W photography, is fundamentally flawed. The great news is that you can forget about it now (in case you didn’t ever completely understand or like it anyway), because there’s a much easier and more reliable way to get good and very consistent results.

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Leica M2 + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 2 stops, overdeveloped by 1 stop)

The Zone System?
But let’s take a step back and look at what the Zone System is about. It’s a photographic technique for determining optimal film exposure and development. The technique is based on late 19th century sensitometry studies and it provides photographers with a systematic method of precisely defining the relationship between the way you visualize a photographic subject and the final results.

That sounds complicated, but it simply means that you have to pick your exposure based on tonal values, so that the black you see in a scene also looks black in your final result and not middle gray. Ideally, this should work without any manipulation. Although it originated with black-and-white sheet film, the Zone System is also commonly applied to medium format film, both black-and-white and color, negative and reversal, 35mm film and today, even digital photography.

Everything evolved in the last 100 years
And that’s the very problem. The Zone System never got updated even though photography and its technical base evolved in the last 100 years. There are many technical misconceptions still being carried on until the present day. Photographers seemingly repeat these golden rules without ever questioning what Ansel Adams came up with, or taking into account how new film emulsions and papers stocks changed the technical base the Zone System was once founded on.

Exposure latitude in different formats
Large format sheet film, for example, has way more exposure latitude than medium format film. Medium format film has way more latitude than 35mm film, which again is a completely different story than a modern digital sensor. The size of the negative has a tremendous influence on the tonal range and the final result, be it a scanned image, a traditionally printed image or both. Dividing every image into 10 identical zones is a questionable approach, because the tonal response of a large format negative and a way smaller 35mm negative to the same exposure, the same amount of light, are completely different.

B&W vs. color negative vs. slide film
It’s also important to take into account that color negative film and true B&W film do not respond the exact same way. That’s even more so with slide film. Depending on the contrast range of the scene, slide film won’t be able to capture more than 7-8 stops and you will lose your highlights if you don’t meter accordingly. Digital cameras just clip the highlights if you overexpose too much, and don’t gently fade off like film. A digital response curve is way more harsh and binary, but you don’t have to worry about shadow detail.

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Leica M-A + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 4 stops, overdeveloped by 1 stop)

Exposure range vs. fixed value
One of the most important things about film photography, which I mentioned in my last article about metering, is that you work with an exposure range when shooting film, rather than a “fixed value” that delivers a perfectly exposed image. The ISO rating (“box speed”) states the minimum value at which you will be able obtain a properly exposed negative. Tri-X 400, for example, requires to be metered and exposed for at least ISO 400 (“box speed”), but it can be exposed from about ISO 800 to ISO 25 (-1 to +4 stops) with very good results without adjusting the development times (normal processing, no pushing or pulling).

Point of reference
The most common problem in film photography is underexposure. Not because metering is more difficult than with a digital camera, but because all light meters are using medium gray as their point of reference. How many zones a scene really has changes based on the lighting situation and the contrast range.

Metering for neutral gray often makes shadow areas fall into the wrong range, or if you like, zone. For very many scenes the tonal range at the lower end of the histogram (the first 2-3 zones) is brought onto the wrong end of the histogram and doesn’t receive sufficient exposure to carry any information in the chemical emulsion. This makes for very thin negatives without enough density and resulting images that look flat and murky (yes, the once so popular faded blacks in digital post processing were never based on properly exposed film).

No correlation between exposure and tonal values
The biggest misconception resulting from the zone system is the suggested correlation between tonal values in a scene and tonal values in your print or scan. There simply is no such correlation. If you would like to achieve a dark and moody look with B&W, you still have to expose your negative correctly and then adjust on the scanner or the enlarger. If you meter two stops darker to bring medium gray into a different zone, you will get a darker image but also mess up your negative and get faded, washed out looking shadows and blacks.

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Leica M2 + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, underexposed by 2 stops, overdeveloped by 1 stop)

Darkroom prints are subjective
It’s also not correct that darkroom prints are straight, unmanipulated results where the metered tonal value of the scene translates from the negative directly onto the paper. The photographer decides with each print how he would like to final result to look like and can adjust the brightness and the contrast of a print frame by frame – just like a pro lab does this on the scanner. Every image is an interpretation of the negative, no matter if it’s scanned or printed.

Ansel Adams talked about that in his writings. He also mentioned zones XI and XII, and he was a master manipulator in the darkroom. His famous print “Moon over Hernandez”, for example, significantly changed over time with his personal preference while the exposure of his negative obviously didn’t change.

What’s the alternative?
Metering for the shadows, by holding your meter into the darkest part of the picture and letting the highlights fall where they will, brings zones “II” to “IV” up to zone “V”, depending on the contrast range of the scene. Assuming that there are significantly more zones than the Zone System originally suggested, metering for the shadows will fix exposure problems independent from the lighting situation and the contrast range of a scene. It ensures that there is always enough shadow detail on the negative, which can then be processed normally and either scanned (using the histogram) or printed (using variable contrast paper) to one’s personal liking.

Portraits
From left to right:
Leica M2 + Nokton 50mm 1.5 ASPH VM (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 2 stops)
Leica M2 + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 1 stop, overdeveloped by 1 stop)
Leica M-A + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 2 stops, overdeveloped by 2 stops)

The limit is never the negative
When I first started talking with other photographers about my findings, I usually heard that what I am doing in camera might work for the scanner, but that it wouldn’t work in the darkroom. I had never printed in the darkroom at that point and couldn’t verify or falsify this, so I had no other choice but to go do my homework and learn it. I had many heated discussions with my darkroom instructor at first, who strongly opposed any of these ideas until I was able to show my final results. But what I found was that overexposing B&W film works beautifully, both for the digital scanning process and for traditional darkroom prints.

One of my most important lessons learned is that overexposure compresses the contrast range of a negative while it significantly opens up the tonal range. High contrast negatives are actually way easier to print and to scan if they are dense and overexposed – as long as the shadows have enough exposure.

The limit is never the negative, it’s always the printing process or the scanner. Very dense negatives require longer exposure times on the enlarger and a scanner that is able to handle density correction well (like the Fuji Frontier SP-3000), but the results are incredible and worth it. Sadly, I have no way of shooting sheet film from the 1930 to prove that this wasn’t any different back then. And of course Adams’ findings seem to make sense if you only consider the traditional darkroom process and have never worked with a scanner or multigrade paper.

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Leica M2 + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 5 stops, overdeveloped by 1 stop)
 
 
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Traditional 16×20 darkroom print of above negative (Ilford MGFB paper, 9 minute exposure, 2.5 filter)

A dense negative is a good negative
I know that most of what I share in this article goes against the books, but I learned from experience that a dense negative is a good negative. The more exposure you give your negative, the more information it will hold. All of my negatives are overexposed and I love rich blacks in my B&Ws. No matter if you like your B&Ws dark and moody or light and airy, a dense negative can be both.

With B&W film there are always multiple factors that influence the final look: how you expose your negative, how you develop it and how you scan or print it. You can scan a perfectly exposed negative for the highlights and the histogram of the scan would suggest your image is underexposed. Or you can scan it for the shadows and make it feel light and airy. Exposure is something that should always be chosen based on the look a photographer wants to achieve over technicalities. Modern film stocks, both color negative and B&W, can handle almost anything within a halfway reasonable range – except underexposure.

My personal approach with B&W film
I use the exact same metering method for color and B&W film which translates in 2-3 stops of overexposure, but for the past couple of years I usually just guessed my exposure. First I developed with D-76, which gives very soft gradients and beautiful grain. Then I switched to XTOL, which results in more acutance and finer grain. Additional to overexposing my film, I overdevelop my B&Ws a stop to increase contrast and to compensate for the more refined look that’s typical for XTOL with normal development. This way I get the best of both worlds, very fine gradients and a lot of punch. As a welcome side effect, this also provides an additional stop for low light situations and night shots, as it makes Tri-X 400 an effective ISO 800 speed film. I am now able to shoot in harsh daylight and low light situations on the same roll with the exact same development, scanning and printing process.

Johnny's Cheat Sheet
Exposure cheat sheet for Portra 400 and Tri-X 400 (overdevelop B&Ws one stop for increased contrast)

Film stock, pushing and pulling
I shoot Kodak Tri-X 400 because I love its versatility, the look and the grain structure. I like it even more since I am regularly printing in the darkroom. Everything I share here works with other film stocks too, but I recommend ISO 400 speed film over ISO 100. It’s a lot more forgiving.

Pushing film means overdeveloping film to compensate for underexposure in camera. This is done by rating the film faster than box speed and adjusting development times and will increase grain and contrast. Pushing always happens in combination with development (“push processing”), if you are rating your film faster without compensating in development, you are just underexposing it. It’s important to be aware that there needs to be a chemical reaction on the emulsion first to be able to push, therefore pushing is not a means to save severely underexposed film. Tri-X 400 can be pushed 3 stops with great results (ISO 3200).

Pulling is the opposite, it means reducing development times to compensate for increased exposure and it’s usually done to compress the tonal range, reduce contrast and bring down the highlights. I don’t recommend this technique for scans but it works reasonably well for the traditional darkroom process.

Learn to see light and know your film
What’s even more important than exposure is being able to see light and knowing how your film stock will respond to it. B&W film emphasizes light and everything you shoot in great light will look even better on film, while anything mediocre will look worse. The key to great results with B&W doesn’t only lie in your exposure or in choosing a particular film stock. It’s deciding for a film stock and sticking with it until you know it like the back of your hand. The development process and the chemicals also have a profound influence on the look, just as much as the film stock itself. I often see B&W film photographers talk about different film stocks while they are in reality just discussing different exposures and chemicals.

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Leica M-A + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 1 stop, overdeveloped by 1 stop)

Traditional vs. modern workflow
What Ansel Adams gave to us and to photography in general was a great gift, and I don’t mean to diminish any of his teachings with this article. I have read his books “The Negative” and “The Print” and I think that he had profound technical expertise, probably more than many of the great photographers living today. But I think it might be time to update the books and accept that what Adams suggested was solely made for the traditional darkroom printing process – born out of the problem that he had to find a way to compress 15 stops of dynamic range from a well exposed large format negative onto a sheet of paper that can only accommodate a total range of approximately 8 stops.

Nothing is permanent
Everything evolved since 1930, and that includes photographic film, chemical emulsions and photographic paper. With the resurrection of film photography, I think we need to adapt to these changes and make everybody’s life a little easier. There are so many factors that affect the look of a B&W: the film stock, exposure, chemicals, development times, scanner, contrast filters, paper. There’s no need to meter like people did 100 years ago.

If you learn how to meter for the shadows and apply this consistently to all of your images, you will be able to achieve very good and consistent results with both B&W and color negative film in all lighting conditions. With practice you will be able to guess your exposure, which removes all technicalities and for me, is the ultimate freedom. Nothing needs to stand between your vision and your final result.

Stay hungry
I fall in love with B&W more and more every day. Be it delicate and refined shot at box speed with medium format, which I like to equate to classical music, or gritty, grainy and beaten up by overexposure in 35mm, which looks just like rock ‘n’ roll to me. Whichever look you prefer for your own work, I would encourage you to stay hungry, experiment a lot and challenge traditional ideas and concepts once in a while. A lot of things I am sharing in this article shouldn’t work according to the books. But they do, and they do so beautifully.

235 Comments

  1. Rebecca
    7. October 2016

    You were never one to be shy about a little controversy, were you? ;)

    This is awesome, Johnny – from start to finish. I have read and re-read and every time I do, it makes even more sense to me. Some of this takes awhile to arrive if (like me) you come from digital or shoot hybrid. But your theory works. I’ve applied it to Tri-X 400 and Delta 3200 in medium format and I couldn’t be happier. But most of all, your personal results speak for themselves. I love the look you are getting, and how it translates both to the screen and to your darkroom prints.

    Thank you so much for what you have given to the film community in this article. The years of research and learning and arguing with darkroom instructors and experimentation and bucking traditions have clearly benefited your own work with B&W film, but you haven’t hoarded these findings. You’ve given everyone the opportunity to take what you’ve learned, experiment and try it in the context of their own workflow. What I like about this approach is the freedom that one can gain. It takes so much of the fiddling and worrying out of shooting B&W film and lets you trust it (and yourself) a little more.

  2. Johnny
    7. October 2016

    Thank you very much, Rebecca.

    I appreciate your kind words and all of your encouragement and support. Thank you for being so patient with me, always. I will never forget all the encounters along the way and even though they weren’t all positive, they were definitely always worth it. I think one of the most motivating moments for me was working on this with you in the darkroom.

    I’m not shy about controversy and I know that this is going to be indigestible for a lot of people. But that’s ok, it’s going to be helpful for everybody else.

    And I agree, it’s all about freedom. Sometimes even freedom of thought. :)

  3. Christopher Livsey
    7. October 2016

    Worth the wait, and brave, challenging entrenched beliefs is never easy.

    Perhaps not enough weight on the changes made to the films we use today compared to Ansel Adams et al. which is behind much of what you have found.

    These days the final film emulsion is made up of several layers of different “speed” emulsions to arrive at a single rated “speed” The response curve of each layer is different and means the final curve can be finely manipulated by the formulation. The crystal structure, even if not T-grain in nature, is far more controlled when grown and can achieve a much tighter specification and therefore predictable response to light activation. Technically this is worlds away from the N+1/N-1 world of Adams. Regrettably the massive resources put into film research are no longer there but we need to rejoice in the legacy it left for us.

    I’m firmly a sunny sixteen shooter and agree the freedom is liberating creatively but bear in mind for some photographers the more complex and technically challenging the process the more they enjoy it, to each their own.

  4. Johnny
    7. October 2016

    I appreciate your kind feedback, Christoper.

    As I pointed out in the post, the emulsions people worked with back in the days are exactly where I would have loved to do more research. I was able to acquire some film from the 60s and 70s, but it doesn’t hold up for any kind of comparison anymore. But I agree, this would have been very interesting.

    And you are 100% right about the technicalities of photography. Some people love that very aspect and there’s nothing wrong about that. What I am sharing about removing these is my personal philosophy, not a universal truth. I find it distracting to worry about anything but the moment when I take pictures.

  5. Jakob
    7. October 2016

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Johnny. Your contributions to the film community are so generous. So much information here… will have to take time to digest all this.

    Love all the images included as well… especially the one of your notebook. ;)

    Hugs

  6. Johnny
    7. October 2016

    Thank you so much, Jakob! I’m glad you found the post interesting. :)

  7. Carla
    7. October 2016

    A lot of thoughtful, diligent and deliberate exercise on your part has given us all something we can use to improve our photography. Looking forward to taking your learnings and applying them to my work; thank you very much for sharing this!

  8. Johnny
    7. October 2016

    Carla, thank you very much for your kind words and for stopping by. It’s great to hear that you enjoyed the read.

    I hope you’ll find it helpful!

  9. Chris
    7. October 2016

    Extraordinarily well written, my friend! Your generosity is such a blessing to so many. Well done!

  10. Johnny
    7. October 2016

    Thank you so much, Chris! I’m happy you found it worthwhile and I appreciate your kind words!

  11. Sebastien
    7. October 2016

    Thank you for sharing! So interesting – looking forward to experimenting with this. I’m still slightly confused about pushing. Can you comment on this scenario to see if I’m understanding you correctly?

    I’m shooting with Ilford HP5 Plus 400 film. To push my film, I would set the ASA on my Canonet QL17 to 200 (instead of 400) and then meter for the shadows. Let’s say in my particular scene the aperture is determined to be 4 and the shutter speed 250.

    If I wanted to further push the film I could either open up the aperture another stop to 2.8 or decrease the shutter speed to 125, correct?

    Finally, I use Richard Photo Lab to develop my film. I could I ask them to push my film 1 stop there as well to overdevelop the film. Following this approach, I would be able to compress the contrast range while opening up the tonal range?

    I really love the pictures you take and am having a great time taking film pictures. The aesthetic you create is something I try to emulate – it is hard! Thank you for sharing your knowledge! :)

  12. Johnny
    7. October 2016

    Thank you for your questions, Sebastien.

    If you are shooting a ISO 400 speed film at ISO 200, you are overexposing it. To push it, you would have to rate it at ISO 800 and then overdevelop it to compensate for the underexposure.

    What I am doing with my B&Ws is overexposing and overdeveloping, which is counter intuitive because there is no underexposure to compensate for.

    You would have to rate your film at 200 (or 100) and develop at 800. If you work with RPL, you can ask them to push your film a stop on top of that (even though technically this isn’t pushing but overdeveloping).

    Thank you for the kind feedback about my pictures. :)

  13. Robert-Paul Jansen
    7. October 2016

    I have read your “metering for film” blog post so many times, and I recently did again… and I will read this post just as many times, I’m sure.

    Thanks for all the information and energy you have put in this well-written post, Johnny.

  14. Johnny
    7. October 2016

    Thank you very much for your kind feedback, Robert-Paul. I’m happy to hear you’re enjoying my blog posts and find them helpful!

    I’m excited for you to get back into film photography.

  15. Frank Jackson
    8. October 2016

    Hey Johnny,

    In the later 70’s I read all of Ansel books was shooting/processing single sheet film for the zone system… even water bath development. I owned and learned to properly use all kinds of meters.

    I have met several who worked for Ansel and in his book “The Print” he discusses the custom made enlarger with 50 bulbs and 50 individual switches and a vacuum easel for easier precise print exposures. Ansel was also very transparent when he talked about all dodging, burning, farmers reducer and chemical intensifier to get his prints exactly perfect.

    So using the Zone system AND STILL having to go through his darkroom workflow… is what killed the Zone System for me (that and Kodak T-Max film with a Jobo rotary processor). In 1987 Kodak brought out this new radical film called T-Max in 100 ASA and 400 ASA. The first roll processed was in a developed called: Unitol liquid based at 1:14 24c/75d 9mins… (!). The negatives had detail I’d never seen before AND the tonal ranges in the highlights and deep shadows were spectacular. A few years later Kodak brought a game changing developer named: XTOL. T-Max 400 processed in XTOL is my main black and white film to this day, as I cannot get Fuji Neopan 1600 anymore I use Delta 3200 @ EI 1600.

    So all the spot metering and shooting sheets/rolls of film N+1 or N-1, 2 or 3 to find that a good incident reading with b+w film rotary processed, was “Zone System” that worked for me. Remember Ansel was mostly large format-tripod locked down for these images… how many of us shoot like that now?

    I have nothing but love and respect for Ansel Adams but his Zone System really only worked for him.

    Cheers.

  16. Johnny
    8. October 2016

    Frank, thank you so much for your extensive feedback.

    I completely agree with you on the complexity of Ansel’s process. I’ve met a few photographers that knew him in person and the general impression seems to be that he loved the technicalities of photography and the darkroom as much as taking pictures. That was also the impression I had after reading his books. I respect that very much, I just approach it differently.

    If you like Fuji Neopan, you might like to try Ilford XP2. It’s very similar. Delta 3200 is an incredible film too, though. And very flexible.

    Thanks again for your time!

  17. Shanti
    8. October 2016

    Wonderful article Johnny, I’m grateful for you sharing your knowledge with all of us and continue to be inspired. When using your B&W method, is it better to scan on the Fuji Frontier or Noritsu?

  18. Johnny
    8. October 2016

    Thank you for your kind feedback, Shanti.

    Both the Frontier and the Noritsu are great and will work well with this method (as will most flatbed scanners if you don’t overexpose too much). I would make that decision based on the look.

    I prefer the look of the Frontier over the Noritsu, personally. Technically, the Noritsu is the better scanner.

  19. Bo Johnson
    8. October 2016

    Awesome post Johnny! Thanks for sharing your experience. I naturally came to your conclusion by trial and error. I wasn’t really metering for shadows and I would develop Tri-X 400 by Kodak’s recommended film manufacturer times.

    Depending on how well the scene would be lit (more light the better) I got ok negatives. Nothing muddy and with descent detail. I haven’t printed traditionally in years but I scan with a DSLR. The “scanned” files would be flat and lifeless and needed a lot of tweaking.

    I began to expose for shadows by metering in the shadows and plus-sometimes open up a stop or two, then overdevelop. The negs became dense and contrasty which made better files to work with and gave the punch that I like.

    Best Regards

  20. Johnny
    8. October 2016

    That’s really great to hear, Bo. I don’t have much experience with DSLR scanning but it’s good to know that you are getting decent results with a similar approach.

    Thank you for your contribution!

  21. Jonathan Canlas
    8. October 2016

    So this test will work with Tri-X. However Tri-X is not the only B&W film available. Try and expose/dev as you suggested with Acros, any of the T-Max films, or any Ilford other than MAYBE FP4 and your results will be horribly overexposed with blown highlights.

  22. Johnny
    8. October 2016

    Thanks for your comment, Jonathan.

    I have tested this with other B&W films (T-Max, Neopan, XP2, HP5, Delta 3200 to name a few) and it works with all modern c41 and B&W stocks. Judging something without having tried it for yourself is not a productive contribution to any discussion.

  23. Jonathan Canlas
    8. October 2016

    Also your field notes shot… are you saying through your findings that Kodak Portra 400 in a sunny situation or directly lit by the sun is f2.8 @ 1/500? And that in open shade it’s only 2 stop difference from direct sun?

  24. Johnny
    8. October 2016

    Jonathan, thanks for another question.

    No, I’m not saying that. I am sharing my personal approach with the cameras and the film stocks I shoot. The shutter speed limit of my Hasselblad is 1/500 and I just overexpose my film instead of stopping down or using filters. The same with my Leica, the limit is 1/1000. I explain this in depth in my metering blog post, have a look here.

    The difference between direct sunlight and shade is about 3 stops, but it varies based on the contrast range of your scene.

  25. Nate Hyde
    9. October 2016

    From your examples, it seems you have only tested this on Kodak Tri-X 400. Have you tested your theory (or statement of fact as it appears) on other black and white films?

  26. Johnny
    9. October 2016

    Thank you for your question, Nate.

    I have tested this extensively with other B&W film stocks (T-Max, Neopan, XP2, HP5, Delta 3200 to name a few). I shoot Tri-X for all of my work, I think it’s the most versatile B&W film stock available. I wanted to show different looks based on my results with different exposures and one single film stock. My method works with all modern B&W (and c41) film stocks, but the results will vary based on the stock you shoot.

    As mentioned in the post and my article about metering, faster film stocks have more latitude. I recommend shooting ISO 400 speed film. The slower your emulsion, the more careful and accurate you have to be with your exposure.

  27. Rafa García Márquez
    9. October 2016

    It’s great finding someone like you being so passionate about photography and so generous about sharing their findings and exploration of the photo world.

    Great reading, to go back to once and again, specially for someone like me who is exploring film photography with both enthusiasm and ignorance.

    Big hug

  28. Johnny
    9. October 2016

    Rafa, thank you for your comment and your kind words. I’m very happy to hear that you enjoyed the read! I hope you’ll have fun trying this approach.

  29. Tin
    9. October 2016

    Hey Johnny, Thanks for sharing!

    I’ve been following your instructions since I started shooting film. And I usually get good results, even though the darkroom pros back in my country tell me not to do so.

    The only problem is that the people at the darkroom always develop my film through the same process, whether I told them that I overexposed my films or not. My photos never look as bright and vivid as yours.

    What should I do?

  30. Johnny
    10. October 2016

    Thanks for your question, Tin.

    You can apply this method with normal processing (I overdevelop my film because I like strong blacks in my B&Ws). I would try talking to your lab/darkroom processing your film and show them the look you would like to achieve.

    As mentioned above, there are very many different variables with B&W film and they all need to be taken into account. I think B&W is harder to get right than color negative film.

  31. Nate Weatherly
    10. October 2016

    Hi Johnny!

    I’ve been struggling to get my black and white work to look the way I intend and found this very interesting.

    Specifically, the look I’m trying to achieve is a more classical black and white, characterized by rich gradation throughout the tonal range, with lower contrast in the shadows than in the highlights. For example, blacks that are rich and inky with a very smooth and gradual transition to sparkling highlights with good separation (think Ansel Adams aspen trees).

    Would you still use the method you described here to get that look? How would you communicate this to a lab (Noritsu scanner)?

  32. Johnny
    10. October 2016

    Nate, thanks very much for your comment.

    Yes, I would approach it the exact same way. Exposing for the shadows will give you a good negative both for the scanner and the darkroom.

    If you would like to achieve a look with fine gradients and a lot of definition and brilliance, I would go for medium format (or large format if you can) and shoot closer to box speed. The tonal range of medium format compared to 35mm is very different. The smaller the format, the more compressed the gradients look.

    Keep in mind that different film/developer combinations respond differently and you won’t be able to get around testing what works best for yourself. If you can, speak with your lab and tell/show them what look you are going for. I control the look of my final images only via in-camera exposure and development, not on the scanner. Everything you see here is a straight unmanipulated scan.

  33. Philip Möller-Loswick
    10. October 2016

    Hi,

    Great read, thanks for sharing. I go about my C41 and B&W the same way. Recently I’ve been shooting 8×10 Impossible Project film, and the zone system has been helpful in getting those right. The latitude is super narrow, highlights blow out very easily, so I get the best results placing for example black pants in zone 1. Exposing for the shadows is doomed to fail of there is something white in the photo.

    I’m thinking the same would be true for slides, to an extent. Not as unforgiving as IP film though. Neither IP film or slide film is best viewed post scanning, so in these cases would you still recommended applying zone system metering? Would love to hear your comments.

  34. Johnny
    11. October 2016

    Thank you for your feedback, Philip. That’s great to hear!

    You are absolutely right, exposing for the shadows will not work for slide film. I mentioned that in the post. For slide film you can turn this approach around and meter for the highlights. You might have to bracket to get it just right.

    I have very little experience with instant film, sorry. There are additional factors like temperature and, as far as I know, you work with less than a stop of exposure latitude. I would probably meter for the subject and work from there.

  35. Cody Priebe
    11. October 2016

    Hey man,

    I appreciate your enthusiasm and willingness to write and share. I benefit from your openness. I love hearing and seeing how people achieve pleasing results.

    As I am heading towards darkroom printing while simultaneously scanning the same negative this article was carefully read by me.

    Cheers,

    Cody

  36. Johnny
    11. October 2016

    Glad you enjoyed the post, Cody. Thanks very much for your feedback!

    That’s exactly what I was hoping to share. I have a workflow that involves my lab developing and scanning the film and me printing it in the darkroom. Something that reliably works in both worlds can make your life so much easier. :)

  37. Mike
    11. October 2016

    Johnny,

    The Zone System (ZS) is really not flawed. It may not be the most concise expression of a method of shooting film, but it’s not flawed. Literally tens of thousands of photographs taken over the last 70 years attest to this.

    The ZS is not merely a statement about in-camera exposure, but also about developing and printing. And while the ZS can be applied to non-sheet film formats, it was always designed to apply to sheet film, because each exposure can be developed separately from all others. And that part – the developing – is absolutely critical to the correct application of the ZS. A scene with >5-6 stops of contrast (that is, the difference between the darkest blacks in which detail is required and the absolute brightest part of the scene) requires developing of N-1 (or more), because while the exposure will handle the shadow detail, the highlights will need to be tamed. Yes, newer films have more highlight latitude than those used in the past (and this perhaps allows a little bit more leeway before N-1 developing is required), but the theory is sound.

    I would argue that the ZS does not apply to digital photography; for digital, the optimal exposure is the one that shifts the RAW data as far to the right as possible, without clipping. This may necessitate several stops of exposure reduction in post, but it maximizes the overall signal to noise ratio and provides maximal detail in the deep shadows.

    The size of the film has nothing, per se, to do with the exposure latitude. A 35mm-sized piece of 4×5 film has the same latitude as the complete piece of film; it’s just smaller. Where film size does matter is the apparent grain size (and thus the signal to noise ratio), which affects the ability to enlarge the negative. So the only way that smaller film has less exposure latitude than larger film is that the enlargements of the smaller film will contain less highlight detail (i.e. the densest part of the negative) than the same exposure of the larger film (which required less enlargement). But this is, at best, an indirect effect.

    The ISO rating refers to the exposure required to achieve a specific density (0.1, as measured with a densitometer) above film base + fog as well as a contrast curve that retains optimal detail (a subjective matter, to be sure). It has nothing to do with a “properly exposed negative” (whatever that is). EVERY film has only one ISO rating; for Tri-X, it is 400 in D-76. Yes, ISO speed is developer-dependent. In Diafine, the true ISO speed of Tri-X is closer to 1200.

    If you meter a region that you’d like to place into Zone III (i.e. detail under some trees or under a car, where you’d like to retain detail), the meter will tell you the exposure to place that region into Zone V. If you expose your film as the meter indicates, you will create a nominal two stop overexposure. This will not affect the shadows, but may affect your highlights, depending on the contrast ratio. So what do you do? Meter the highlights as well. If the highlights are more than 5-6 stops above your Zone V reading, you’ll need to alter your development. That is how you retain highlight detail in high-contrast scenes; you alter the development. So “expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights” really does work.

    As has been pointed out, this will work for Tri-X, which is designed to be a very forgiving, workhorse film. It will not work for PanF+ or with virtually any T-grain film (Ilford Delta and T-MAX being the most famous examples). In those cases, especially with PanF+, the highlights will, in fact, be lost, since the density curve of PanF+ is rather extreme (incidentally, this is why I love PanF+ so much). I agree with you that you needn’t be as stringent these days, especially if using a film such as Tri-X that offers immense latitude. But the ZS is absolutely sound, when applied in its entirety.

    Pushing only refers to the development. Yes, most people push after having rated their film above its nominal ISO rating, but pushing only refers to the development. Same is true of pulling.

    Again, I don’t want to diminish your efforts here. You are a wonderful contributor to the film community, and if posts like these get people into film photography, then all the better.

    Thanks again, JP.

  38. Johnny
    11. October 2016

    Thanks for your detailed feedback, Mike.

    The Zone System is an antiquated and unnecessarily complex approach that was designed for true B&W sheet film. Everything since then has been a crutch and didn’t take the technical development of the last century into account. The Zone System doesn’t work with 35mm or roll film how it was intended to be used, because it requires frame by frame development. Highlights are not a concern anymore today as long as you expose your film properly and know how to scan or print it.

    If you underexpose a digital RAW file and bump the exposure later, you will mess up your colors. Skin tones for example will fall in the wrong zone. This introduces color-shifts and a lot of other problems.

    There is a distinct relation between the size of a negative and your exposure latitude, dynamic range, tones and gradients. The grain size however is always identical, for the reasons you pointed out. You just don’t see it in your scans because the resolution is different.

    I am trying to simplify technically relatively complex things and make them understandable for photographers that don’t have the same technical background as Ansel Adams. It’s important to understand that film has a flexible ISO range that you can work with. Most problems that I see day in and day out, even from seasoned film shooters, are underexposure and very inconsistent exposures. Metering for the shadows and exposing 2-3 stops over fixes that and it will not have a visible effect on your results, while missing “box speed” by two stops the opposite way will ruin your results.

    As mentioned above, I have tested this extensively with many B&W film stocks besides Tri-X, it also works without problems with Ilford Delta and T-Max. I suggest you try this yourself before you assume it won’t work.

    Every modern color negative and B&W film stock can be exposed for the shadows but faster film stocks have more latitude. I recommend shooting ISO 400 speed film, especially if you are just starting out. The slower your emulsion, the more careful and accurate you have to be with your exposure.

    Pushing always refers to underexposure and compensation in development. Otherwise you are overdeveloping your film, but you’re not pushing it.

    The whole point of my post was to share something new. Everything I describe here is counter intuitive and I appreciate that that’s upsetting for many traditionalists. But you can’t judge a new approach without trying it. Repeating what’s in the books won’t help anyone evolve. People are naturally scared about what they don’t know or don’t understand.

    I appreciate the time and effort you put into your comment. Thanks very much!

  39. Eric
    12. October 2016

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Do a tear strip with some blank part of the film. Including the sprocket holes is best. Find the min time for max blacks on a neutral filter setting. Print a frame on the same roll with this min exposure. If it’s too dark at that exposure, giving it less exposure to make it brighter will only make you lose deep blacks.

    I quickly found that overexposed negatives work the best.

  40. Johnny
    12. October 2016

    Eric, thanks for your feedback. It’s good to know that you have similar findings!

  41. Mark Ivkovic
    12. October 2016

    Right on my man, fight the war!

    It takes some guts to go against the grain. I’ve been out and given it a go over the last few days with a roll of T-Max, rated at 200 then metered for shadows with bulb in on meter. Dev’ed as regular old 400 speed T-Max in HC-110.

    Beauuuutiful negs! Like absolute belters. Scanned like a charm with room to spare in the highlights (bright blue sky, even the specular highlights held). Lovely shadow detail and very minimal twiddling in post.

    I think you’ve just saved me hours in post.

  42. Johnny
    12. October 2016

    Awesome, Mark! I’m so happy to hear that you got great results using this method. Thanks so much for sharing your feedback! :)

  43. Tim
    12. October 2016

    How is it that I can feel 10 times smarter after reading this post, yet 10 times dumber… with questions I would’ve never even thought to ask before reading it? It’s inspiring and maddening at the same time. ;-)

    I’ve always metered for the shadows since reading your 2014 post, but I’m not super-precise. I hold my meter in the darkest area of the scene. And then, based on that reading, I’ll also err on the side of overexposure on my camera settings (e.g. if the meter reads f2.5 at 125th, I’ll set my aperture to 2.0).

    So in a scene with a huge range like the ice cream shop booths above, what constitutes overexposing by 1 stop? What area of that scene would you meter for a “proper” exposure, and what area would you meter for “1 stop” overexposure? If I was faced with that scene, I’d hold my meter underneath the middle table facing toward my camera… but I couldn’t tell you if that would be 1 stop or 5 stops overexposed!

    Sorry to get hung up in the details. I’m just trying to progress from “safely” exposing my images to exposing my images with a specific result in mind. And seeing your notes under each image with ranges from 1 to 4 stops overexposed seems to show that your metering for a result, not just to be safe.

    Oh, and one other thing: Everything I’ve read and watched online over the past 2+ years regarding film, and I’m fairly certain this is the first time I’ve ever heard about “overdeveloping”. I’ve always viewed the Richard Photo Lab form to push/pull as being based on how you rated your film (e.g. if I pushed my Tri-X to 800, I’d ask them to push one stop in development)… but now I learn that film can be pushed/overdeveloped for a specific aesthetic and not just to compensate for underexposure in camera?

    Like I said, maddening. ;-)

    Thank you so much for your work on this, Johnny. And for your continued dedication to our community of photographers.

    Cheers.

    -Tim

  44. Johnny
    12. October 2016

    Thanks so much for your feedback, Tim. I believe inspiring and maddening simultaneously could be a good thing! ;)

    How you approach metering is exactly how I described it in my post and how I meter up to this day. I’m really happy to hear that you’re getting consistently good results.

    I do pick my exposure for the look, that’s correct. You can see in my examples how the look changes with different exposures. I’ve shared a couple of details about how I shoot B&W since I published my metering blog post, but shooting B&W is a lot more complex than color negative and I wanted to share something that’s as usable as possible.

    The ice cream shop was metered the same way, but I had to adjust my shutter speed because of the available light and ended up one stop over box speed.

    The reference of what I share here is always a regular incident reading at box speed, not a shadow reading. A shadow reading results in 2-3 stops of overexposure.

    Overexposing and overdeveloping is not a common approach because most B&W photographers are very concerned about losing their highlights. You can write +1 in the field for pushing on RPL’s order form if you’d like to try this and they will process your film accordingly.

  45. Joey Pasco
    12. October 2016

    Johnny,

    Regardless of people’s opinions, you’ve initiated a great discussion in the film community about shooting B+W film. As someone who shoots 99% Tri-X or HP5+ for my B+W stocks, I can only watch and try to follow along, as most of the arguments against your findings are outside of my personal experience.

    That said, it’s been nearly 2 years – all the way back on December 30, 2014 — since you told me on Twitter that you shoot Tri-X the same way you shoot Portra 400: “rate half box, meter for shadows.” (Before that, I found a few tweets between us where the subject of overexposing B+W 2+ stops is at least alluded to.) Because of those interactions, I’ve been exposing Tri-X and HP5+ that way for quite some time, and can personally attest to your results.

    The point of contention seems to be how this will work for less robust film stocks, which can easily be tested. I would encourage anyone who strongly disagrees with the results in this post to try shooting other B+W film stocks in this way and share their findings. I think no matter what the personal conclusion, the film community is gaining a lot from this discussion.

    Thank you, Johnny, for giving us an excellent reason to question long-accepted conventions.

  46. Johnny
    13. October 2016

    Joey, thank you very much for your kind words and for confirming that this works well for you. I appreciate your feedback.

    I followed a few of the discussions and other people’s opinions are as valid as mine. I knew this isn’t for everyone and I don’t expect people to change their ways. I try to encourage curiosity.

    I think what’s often a problem is making a judgement based on existing knowledge that you have been repeating for 20+ years and that you don’t really want to question. I can relate to that being difficult, but you can’t prove something wrong that you have never tried. That’s just an assumption then.

    As I’ve mentioned above, this works with many other film stocks. You have to expose slower emulsions more carefully and an ISO 50 film will not be able to handle 10 stops of overexposure. But that’s also not an ideal film choice to start out with.

    I end my post with an encouragement to try new things once in a while. I try to encourage people to relax about the technicalities of shooting film and enjoy the creative process without worrying too much about technicalities. I think that’s so important.

  47. Frank Berryman
    13. October 2016

    Would you explain in detail how you metered each of the photos used as examples in your article, in particular how you determined that you were “overexposing” the one to five stops indicated, and how you determined that you were “overdeveloping” by one stop.

    In addition, can you share what paper you use and how many of stops of range it is able to reproduce.

    Thanks.

  48. Johnny
    13. October 2016

    Thanks for your question, Frank.

    My reference for box speed is always a nominal incident reading. If a nominal reading suggests a shutter speed of 1/2000, five stops over would be 1/60. Overdeveloped by a stop means that the film was developed for ISO 800 instead of ISO 400.

    I print on Ilford multigrade fiber based paper which reproduces about 7-8 stops.

  49. Walker
    13. October 2016

    A good teacher owns three core qualities: knowledge, the ability to convey to students a good understanding of that knowledge, and finally, the ability to make the matter interesting. ;)

    Thanks!

  50. Johnny
    13. October 2016

    Ha! Thank you, Walker. Glad to hear you enjoyed the post! :)

  51. Frank Berryman
    13. October 2016

    After you take an incident reading, how do you determine how many stops extra exposure to use for a given photo?

    With respect to the dog in snow, how did you determine that you needed five stops of overexposure and an additional one stop of overdevelopment? How did you determine how much extra time in the developer equaled one stop of overdevelopment?

    You say that Ilford FB paper reproduces 7-8 stops. Didn’t Ansel Adams and his contemporaries also use paper that could reproduce 7-8 stops? How has paper improved so that we no longer have to deal with the issue of fitting a scene with a tonal range of more than 7-8 stops onto a paper that can only reproduce 7-8 stops?

    Thanks.

  52. Johnny
    13. October 2016

    Thank you again for your question, Frank.

    I usually determine my exposure based on tummy feeling – without a light meter. I expose for the look I want based on experience, not based on what is technically right or what I should be doing. My decision depends on the light of a scene.

    Just to clarify this, I show pictures here that are up to 5 stops overexposed and overdeveloped. I do this to share how it looks. I also show an exposure bracket from -2 to +10 stops to show that it works. My metering method suggests 2-3 stops of overexposure. The point is to encourage people to relax about it and focus on making good images and learn how their film stock of choice responds to different lighting conditions.

    There are development charts for every film stock/developer combination and you can look up the recommended times that you need to overdevelop a stop. The paper stocks we print on today are usually multigrade paper, that’s an improvement but it has nothing to do with the range.

  53. Jordi
    14. October 2016

    Just rememebered I’ve a couple of HP5 and Acros lingering on. I’ve always followed and wanted to try B&W seriously; but at the end I think I’m more of a color person. I should someday get a dev kit and at least do some DIY. I’ve gathered quite a bit of info about stocks and dev combinations and it really is dazzling (and exciting if crossing the line).

    An historical switch of ASA ratings has not been raised in the discussion (sorry for the pun). IIRC back in the 60s most, if not all B&W films, were rerated +1 stop. Tri-X and HP used to be 200 ASA and afterwards 400 ASA without any change. People were exposing all the film +1 and being a safety margin. So… after all this method was/is effective!

    Just had to google and Wikipedia has it in the ASA page, so as a reference: “The ASA standard underwent a major revision in 1960 with ASA PH2.5-1960, when the method to determine film speed was refined and previously applied safety factors against under-exposure were abandoned, effectively doubling the nominal speed of many black-and-white negative films.” (Wikipedia)

    If you want to experiment with “old” emulsions, what I gather is that Adox CHS (Efke) and Formapan nowadays are the oldest school types around.

    I’ve a Minolta IIIF with both incident and spot 10º attachments but I often expose sunny 16 or meter with the phone out of convenience. Portra 400 is my staple in a Fuji 6×9 so a guesstimate at ISO 200 does the trick. Still, I’ve had a last couple of inconsistent rolls (my Epson v600 is not that forgiving) and I will dust off the proper metering. I’d love to see a really small incident meter as compared to an iPhone all are huge (that’s some millennial here). Just knowing the essence of incident metering and it seems so simple.

    I do think a bit in ZS principles when reflective metering, grossly knowing where to put the midtones or highlights. However, as most of the hugeness of knowledge in B&W, I never went deep into it for the reason of being a system framed around sheet film and individual dev.

    I feel I’ll reread this article to absorb more, and with fall color perhaps it’ll be a good time to have some penitence properly metering Provia 100F for fall colors. After all, I did survive trying Kodachrome 64 with the OM-1 meter. :)

  54. Johnny
    14. October 2016

    Jordi, that’s such a great contribution. Thank you very much!

    That didn’t make it into the post because I didn’t know about it. But you are right, missing safety factors against underexposure are basically the problem in very many cases.

    I’ll look into the emulsions you suggested and will give them a try. Portra 400 is very forgiving (have a look at my exposure bracket), you can safely rate it at 100 and get great results.

    If you’re looking for a reliable and portable light meter, you’ll love Lumu. It’s only a bulb that you plug into your iPhone. That’s what I use when I need to confirm a meter reading.

    Good luck with the fall colors! :)

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  56. Rob Zeigler
    14. October 2016

    Hi Johnny, thanks again for the great read.

    I’d like to know a little bit more about how you meter Tri-X at night. In daylight you meter for the shadows at 200, but at night (where there are perhaps neon signs and street lamps) where do you meter and do you meter at 400 to push in development later?

    Since I don’t develop at home, and assuming I meter Tri-X at the box speed of 400 at night, would I then tell my lab to push one to two stops to 800 or 1600?

    It’s all still very new to me and I appreciate the help! Any additional light you can shed on this would be great.

    Thanks again!

  57. Johnny
    14. October 2016

    Thanks for your feedback and your question, Rob.

    How I rate Tri-X at night depends on the shutter speed I am aiming for. I don’t shoot my Hasselblad handheld under 1/60 but I regularly shoot at 1/8 at night with the Leica.

    I usually end up rating Tri-X at 800, shooting with a slow shutter speed and pushing it just one stop. But you can rate it up to 3200 (and push 3 stops) if you like the look and need a faster shutter. I would build in an extra stop at first to make sure you’re on the safe side.

  58. Hank
    15. October 2016

    I’m struggling a bit to understand your cheat sheets. Are you really shooting Tri-X at f2 1/1000 in bright sun? That’s a lot of overexposure, isn’t it?

    Thanks!

  59. Johnny
    15. October 2016

    Hank, thanks for your comment.

    Yes, I am because of the shutter speed limit of my Leica. I like to shoot wide open and I don’t use filters. But you are right, that’s a lot of overexposure. ;)

  60. Carlos Carreter
    15. October 2016

    I am often using very old cameras, with lenses that deliver low contrast pictures.

    Empirically I found that using Tri-X or HP5+ @ ISO 200 and developing as if exposed at ISO 400 or 800 improves the final results.

  61. Johnny
    15. October 2016

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Carlos. That’s great to hear.

    I have made similar experiences in regards to vintage lenses. I shoot a Hasselblad and my wife Rebecca shoots a Rolleiflex, which has a very similar look but less contrast. Just increasing the development times by half a stop looks really great.

  62. Martin Cutrone
    16. October 2016

    Enjoyed your article, very stimulating. I am new to thinking about film in such technical terms and new to understanding manipulating exposure and development.

    I love the look of your photos. Help me understand how I can achieve your look in my workflow. I usually develop through a mail away firm, upload scans to Lightroom and then modify. Should I simply overexpose and then change “development” in Lightroom or ask my developer to overdevelop??

    Thank you from a newbie!

  63. Johnny
    16. October 2016

    Martin, thank you very much for your feedback. It makes me happy to hear that you’re enjoying my work.

    What I tried to share here in regards to a look is mainly about exposure and how exposing and developing your film will influence your final results. Assuming you shoot Tri-X, I would start by overexposing your film in camera (by metering for the shadows) and then comparing your results with previous scans.

    If you are happy with the changes, the next step would be to learn which exposures work best in which lighting situation. Just overexposing and overdeveloping will very likely not give you the greatest most consistent results. It’s really important to develop a feel for your film stock and that takes time.

    Technically, you can probably just ask your lab to overdevelop (or push) your film a stop. They will very likely have a field for processing on their order form. You can do all of this via your in camera exposure or development. You don’t need Lightroom to manipulate your scans.

  64. Todd Korol
    16. October 2016

    Avedon had very dense negs as well. He knew exactly the look he wanted. Great piece.

  65. Johnny
    16. October 2016

    Thanks for your feedback, Todd. Oh yeah, I’m sure a lot of film photographers have had dense negatives for decades. :)

  66. Jonathan Hunt
    16. October 2016

    Hi Johnny – Your earlier post about how you meter film was a big help to me in getting consistent and usable results, so it’s great to see you are sharing more insights into your workflow. However, after reading through the post a few times, I think there are a couple of things which are going to cause confusion:

    Firstly, I think your terminology differs somewhat from that of many other photographers, and secondly, you haven’t clearly stated your baselines for both exposure and development.

    Here’s what I mean by differing terminology: you rate your Tri-X at half box speed (ISO 200) and have it processed as if you had rated it at ISO 800. You call that 1 stop of overdeveloping because (and I’m guessing here) your baseline is that Tri-X is an ISO 400 film. However, most people would consider that to be 2 stops of overdeveloping, because their baseline for development is the speed at which they shot the film.

    So my question is: am I correct in thinking that, as far as development goes, your baseline for Tri-X is it’s box speed (ISO 400), regardless of the speed you actually shot it (had your meter set)?

    Now, your baseline for exposure… I read through both your articles about exposure again and I’m still not sure what you would describe as a shot that is neither under or overexposed. Here’s how I understand it:

    1. You rate Tri-X at half box speed = 1 stop over overexposure (assuming your ISO 400 baseline).
    2. You take an incident reading in a shadow area = around 2 stops of overexposure (assuming the baseline is a standard incident meter reading from the face of the model etc.).

    This gives a total overexposure of 3 stops.

    You then give it 1 stop of overdevelopment, so the final negative is roughly 4 stops thicker than it would be if the film was shot at box speed and a standard incident reading was taken. Is that about right? In other words, is your baseline for exposure the box speed of the film, together with a standard incident reading (i.e. not in the shadows)?

    I’m guessing the above is correct, but it would be great if you could confirm!

    In an ideal world, we would all have the time and means to carry out these tests for ourselves, but of course most of us never have that chance. Your efforts and generosity in sharing them are much appreciated.

  67. Johnny
    16. October 2016

    Jonathan, thanks for your question.

    I indirectly answered that here, but it’s a good idea to clarify it once more. :)

    You are right, my reference (“baseline”) is always a regular incident reading (not a shadow reading) at the nominal ISO speed of a film (box speed). The same for development times, the reference point is always box speed. For Tri-X 400 that’s ISO 400.

    If a nominal meter reading suggests a shutter speed of 1/2000 for ISO 400, five stops over would be 1/60. A shadow reading results in 2-3 stops of overexposure compared to a nominal incident reading. It doesn’t matter if you rate your film at ISO 100 or if you rate it at ISO 400 and overexpose 2 stops. That’s why I always refer to box speed, it’s otherwise too confusing to follow for people that are just starting out.

    The same applies to my development times. Overdeveloped by a stop simply means that the film was developed for ISO 800 instead of ISO 400, no matter how you rated it in camera.

    Thanks for bringing this up!

  68. Bruce Robbins
    16. October 2016

    Interesting enough but I don’t see anything new here at all.

    Some photographers, notably Ralph Gibson, have been doing this – and sharing it – for decades. Basically, you’re saying “just make sure you never underexpose and give a bit of extra development to be on the safe side. The latitude of modern emulsions will cope.”.

    That’s not an update of the zone system or any great revelation: the zone system guys (not me) know all this and a hell of a lot more. What you’re saying is the advice often given by experienced photographers to beginners. If it helps you get some sort of result you’re happy with then that’s great but it’s hardly a great insight, is it?

  69. Johnny
    16. October 2016

    Thanks for your comment, Bruce.

    Maybe you misunderstood the intention of my article. I do indeed communicate with a lot of younger people that are just starting out shooting film and that are having difficulties getting consistent results and/or the look that they want. Many of these are millennials with a different attention span than many darkroom traditionalists. Traditional darkroom prints are a dying art form and it is very dear to me that we pass this legacy on to a generation of photographers that are used to looking at more images on Instagram in one day than we will have seen in our lifetime. Shooting film or printing in the darkroom doesn’t need to be complicated.

    My wife and I just taught a workshop in NYC with 12 photographers of which the majority were seasoned film shooters that had never printed their negatives before. Most of them went home having made a great analog print for the very first time, many of them are now planning to print regularly. I came to this very late myself and printing in the darkroom changed my life.

    What you took away from the post is technically correct, but it’s only part of what I tried to share. I try to encourage people to relax about exposure and err on the side of overexposure. I also share my own process in detail and explain how I get there for different looks with the same film stock. I share a way to shoot for the scanner and the darkroom with identical results and without having to manipulate (I do not dodge & burn). But most importantly I share a very interesting observation for this approach, namely the expansion of the tonal range and the contraction of the contrast range of a scene. This produces a beautiful rich look across all lighting conditions and prevents highlight loss – without having to compensate in development. The Zone System how it was intended never applied to anything but sheet film, and for today’s film photographers it’s unnecessarily complicated. I’m just speaking it out.

    The reactions to this blog post have been very interesting and the feedback reaches from “this will never work” to “people have been doing this for years”. I am aware that the zone system guys know everything, that’s a given. I have never talked to a traditionalist that doesn’t. I don’t have the time to spot meter a scene because I would be losing moments left and right. But that’s not the point of my post, to each their own. If the Zone System works for somebody, they should keep enjoying it. I’m not trying to educate people who already know it all.

    You are not correct about Ralph Gibson, by the way. Gibson shared that he overexposes, but in fact he exposes for the highlights and overdevelops his negatives. That’s a different approach and it will result in a different look, which you can see if you look at his work. His pictures are all about form and shape, not so much about tonality.

  70. Charlie Lemay
    16. October 2016

    Wow! This is the opposite of what I have found. I want the thinnest possible negative without losing highlight detail in sunny conditions, and find Photoshop very useful in pulling out even more of the detail than a darkroom print.

    I have developed something I call ZoneSimple, which eliminates the need for metering in sunny conditions and have been using it successfully for decades achieving amazing tonal range from scans of Fuji Acros 100 and Ilford HP5.

    Last year I found a way the shoot cloudy and shade conditions on the same roll as sunny, without metering, if we can be judicious about highlights we select within the frame. The two stop overdevelopment of specular highlights resembles the highlight bloom that has come to be acceptable in digital capture, and the light greys that get kicked up can be pictorially quite interesting and acceptable.

    Last Spring I did a series of tests where I pushed 35mm film beyond any limits I have ever tried, and found that exposing up to 1024 times the manufacturer’s recommended exposure can lead to very wonderful images with finer grain and incredible tonal range in the print.

  71. Johnny
    16. October 2016

    Charlie, thanks for sharing your experience.

    Working with the thinnest negative is the preference of very many photographers that regularly print in the darkroom. I don’t have a problem with Photoshop, but I have a different workflow. I send my film off to my lab, they scan it for me and send the negatives back for me to print in the darkroom.

    My results in the darkroom need to be visually interchangeable with my scans, without having to manipulate in either medium. And that’s where my approach really helps a lot. But I am very happy to hear that you have found a method that works so well for you. :)

  72. Thomas Skrlj
    16. October 2016

    Great post Johnny,

    At first, this method doesn’t seem to make sense, but if anything it allows photographers to be a lot more flexible when they are shooting black and white. I think the best thing anyone can do after reading this is to try it out themselves.

    If anyone is curious, here (one, two) are two photos from a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 that I developed and scanned yesterday following this approach (overexposed 1 stop, developed for 800 and scanned on a Plustek 8100). I am very happy with the results. It allows me to finally obtain the tones that I have been trying so hard to achieve.

    I hope more people give it a try to see if it also works for them.

  73. Johnny
    16. October 2016

    Wonderful, Thomas! Thank you so much for sharing your results.

    I like the look and the tonality you got a lot, your pictures are great. It’s really awesome to hear that you were able to achieve the look you were after. And I agree – I think it would be a good idea to just try this and see what happens. What could possibly go wrong?

  74. Marc
    16. October 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Could you let me know why you always open your aperture as wide as possible (f2, f2.8), even to take landscape photographs?

    Thank you.

  75. Johnny
    17. October 2016

    Marc, thanks for your question.

    There’s no technical reason behind that, just personal preference. I like the look, lenses render light differently when you shoot wide open.

  76. Marc
    18. October 2016

    Thank you Johnny, that’s just what I thought… I have started to use Portra film with my Leica and I’m waiting for the results. Thank you again for your help and your particular and sensible approach of photography.

  77. Johnny
    18. October 2016

    Thank you for your kind words, Marc! I hope you’ll like the results. :)

  78. George
    18. October 2016

    Hi,

    I’ve just come across your website and haven’t digested all of your interesting article or the comments.

    I highly recommend the work of John Blakemore, one of the UK’s most respected photographers and a ‘master’ printer but little known. His philosophy and darkroom techniques can be found in his book: John Blakemore’s Black and White Photography Workshop.

    John was my tutor at college many years ago and I had many good hours working in his own home darkroom. He’s a great teacher and passed on so much that has influenced my own and many others work.

    George

  79. Johnny
    18. October 2016

    Thanks for your recommendation, George! I’ll look into it. :)

  80. Paul Schofield
    18. October 2016

    I recently ditched digital completely (except for the odd iPhone pic) because I love the film process so much. I don’t have much time (that’s what I tell myself anyway) so I approach my photography like I approach everything else – I try to keep things as simple as possible; identify a process that works and stick to it. I’ve ended up using T-Max 400 rated slightly below box (2/3rd stop) and processed normally. Sometimes I rate at 800 but don’t push process. I print in the darkroom and I don’t bother scanning my negs anymore (social media used to suck up a lot of time so I stopped doing it).

    I’m telling you all this because I’ve ended up doing my photography in a kind of bubble – I know precisely one person who still uses film – and also because your blog has reminded me how important it is to keep things fresh. Film has ended up being a very nostalgic medium and that is usually how people write about it – doing things the old retro way. You on the other hand write about film as if it’s contemporary – and for many of us that’s exactly what it is. It’s our medium of choice for the right now.

    This post challenging the “Zone System” is interesting because you have the “audacity” to challenge this most cherished of methods by one of the most revered figures in photography. Hats off to you, Johnny. I learnt about it at college and never understood how it applied properly to 35mm, let alone digital. It always made things sound more complicated than they needed to be.

    At the moment (and I’m still pretty green in the darkroom) I print using the split multi-grade method which helps to maintain detail at both ends of the range. You suggested, I think, that your “alternative to the zone system method” helps to improve tonality in 35mm negs and that is something I definitely want to look into. So, you’ve encouraged me to experiment more for which I’m grateful.

  81. Johnny
    18. October 2016

    Paul, thank you very much for your kind words (and your email).

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Film photography can be so simple, much more simple than digital photography even, and so many people like to make it sound so complicated.

    That’s exactly where I am coming from, I think it needs to be fun and understandable. I truly believe that people are scared to challenge their learned ways and that’s why so many photographers think in such a dogmatic way. I think that that’s hurting film photography more than it helps it. We live in 2016, not 1916. If we don’t change our ways (or at least update them) and invite the next generation in, film and the darkroom might die.

    Your process makes a lot of sense in the darkroom, thank you for sharing your approach. I shoot film exclusively too and I couldn’t be happier. My angle is a little bit different because of my workflow. I send my film off to a lab for processing and scanning and they send my negatives back for me to print in the darkroom. I was looking for something that works really well in both worlds.

    Audacity is a good word and I appreciate your feedback in regards to this. I knew this post would challenge a few people and that’s perfectly ok. I am already getting so much feedback from photographers that already tried it and that are thrilled with their results. And that’s all that matters.

  82. Daniel
    18. October 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Thank you so much for the article! I was waiting for it for a long time.

    I have a question about dilution, do you have any say in that when you send off your film? yesterday I shot a roll of HP5, rating it at 200 and developing it in stock XTOL as if it was shot at 800. I haven’t scanned it yet, just previewed them and while the negatives look great, they also look grainier than usual. What’s your experience? Thank you again!

  83. Johnny
    18. October 2016

    Thanks for your question, Daniel.

    I don’t have influence on the development process at the lab, they also work with a stock XTOL solution. Overexposing and overdeveloping does produce more grain, that’s part of the reason why I am doing it. I used D-76 before I switched to XTOL and I like a look that’s somewhere in the middle between these two.

    There’s a sweet spot around box speed where you’ll get minimal grain even with a one stop of overdevelopment. Just shoot a couple of rolls and see how that works out for the look you like best.

  84. Marcel
    18. October 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Thank you very much for your detailed explanations, this works well for me. One question, what if my film is not listed in the development database as ISO 400? How do I calculate +1 stop?

  85. Johnny
    18. October 2016

    Marcel, thanks for your comment and your question.

    That depends on the developer and the dilution, I would start with plus 20%-25% of the development time per extra stop and take it from there. But I’m sure you can find a chart for the film stock you’re shooting.

  86. Daniel D. Teoli Jr.
    20. October 2016

    The Zone System is not dead. At least not for the anal landscapers and still life shooters. I don’t think Ansel would have approved of all the darkroom alteration you do with your film. But, Ansel was a tripod shooter for the most part.

    I looked at your NYC work, so you know how it is with fast shooting – you turn left it is one exposure, turn right it is another. We have to split the difference many times. Many photographers are used to working with pretty perfect files and trying their best to get it perfect in camera. Whereas street/documentary photographers are used to working with imperfect files and making something great out of it.

    When you do street or documentary work, if you come back with 70% to 80% of what you were after, you can still have a winner. We just try and do the best we can… in the blink of an eye it can be gone. No time to even say ‘zone system’ many a time.

  87. Johnny
    20. October 2016

    Thanks for your feedback, Daniel.

    I don’t do any alterations in the darkroom, that’s one of the things I tried to share in this post. I put my negatives on the enlarger, expose the paper and develop the print. That’s it. I often work with very long exposure times because my negatives are so dense, but I don’t have to dodge and burn.

    I couldn’t agree more with you on technically perfect negatives and pictures. So many photographers are obsessing over technicalities – to the point where they forget about making the actual image. I do think it’s important to learn your technical foundation. But then you should try to forget about it.

  88. Claus Watzdorf
    20. October 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Thanks for your post!

    You write about overexposed (lucky me, I checked it) and overdeveloped. The development depends on the box speed or on the metered speed.

    Thanks, Claus

  89. Johnny
    20. October 2016

    Thanks for your comment, Claus.

    Yes and no, I tried to clarify this here.

    It doesn’t matter if you rate an ISO 400 speed film at ISO 100 and apply the settings from a regular incident reading or if you rate it at box speed and overexpose two stops by adjusting your shutter speed or aperture. If you rate a film at box speed or slower and add development time, you’re overdeveloping it. If you rate it faster, you’re pushing it.

  90. Sergio
    21. October 2016

    Okay, I´ve just read this article three times! Hehe… thank you very much for your advice and for sharing your knowledge and conclusions, it was a really interesting lecture. So was reading all the comments by the folks and your answers, really helpful!

    You’ve already explained it but I’m 2-3 steps behind you… ;-)

    So what you mean is, for example, you shoot an ISO 400 roll, rate it at 200 for overexposing it, and then you overdevelop it, processing as being a 800 film? So instead of compensating the overexpose, you add an additional point overdeveloping?

    And, why exactly are you able to shoot in different light conditions on the same roll? I assume that you rate your ISO only once at the beginning of the roll?

    Again, thank you very much for your kind advice Johnny!

  91. Johnny
    21. October 2016

    Sergio, thanks for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Yes, that’s right – you summed it up perfectly. I add another stop in development instead of subtracting it. I rate it Tri-X 400 at 200 and develop at 800.

    I shoot everything from night to bright sunny days like that. For night shots I gain an extra stop because of the longer development times (it’s an ISO 400 speed film after all that’s developed as ISO 800) and the latitude of the film handles overexposure on a sunny day.

  92. Dez
    23. October 2016

    I think we all need to keep in mind that Ansel Adams'”Zone System” was developed back when ASA 50 film was considered “fast” and was conceived with printing on high contrast paper in mind, not scanning. With modern emulsions the Zone System can be considered fairly irrelevant (as Johnny does a good job of showing) and more of a burden than a helpful tool.

    Personally with B&W film, I generally expose for the shadows I want detail in (I don’t mind losing detail in the darkest of areas) and let the highlights take care of themselves. If it’s a particularly contrasty scene I’ll underdevelop by a stop.

    With colour print film (unless it’s Kodak Ektar), I usually overexpose by a stop (sometimes two) to get softer tones and less grain which makes scanning a bit easier.

    With colour transparencies, well, that’s when the spot meter comes out.

  93. Johnny
    23. October 2016

    Dez, thank you very much for sharing your experience and your view.

    That all makes sense, especially in regards to color negative and slide film. Your method of shooting B&W definitely works well. I would still encourage you to try overexposing and overdeveloping in combination and see how you like the results. Especially if you are shooting high contrast scenes.

  94. Nik
    23. October 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    My question/comment is that Tri-X 400 is processed in XTOL for the same amount of time irrespective of if it is ISO 400 or 800. This is as per the XTOL datasheet from Kodak. Are you developing it with a different time sheet in mind? If so, what times would you use?

    Otherwise if you are following the time sheet for Tri-X you aren’t really overdeveloping it in XTOL.

    Cheers.

  95. Johnny
    23. October 2016

    That’s a great question, Nik. Thank you very much for pointing that out!

    You are right, Kodak doesn’t state different times for ISO 400 and ISO 800. The base time for XTOL as a 1:1 dilution at 70°F/21°C in a small tank is 8½ minutes. For each stop you can add approximately 20% of the development time. This brings you to 10¼ minutes for ISO 800, 12¼ minutes for ISO 1600 and 14½ minutes for ISO 3200.

    I don’t develop any of my film at home because of the volume I shoot. My lab develops and scans my work and then sends back my negatives.

  96. Chris
    23. October 2016

    I am also a “Rock and Tree” photographer, using large and ultra large format B&W film since 1987. I know Ansel’s Zone System inside and out, and have employed it with some personal variation for 30 years. I believe Ansel would give you a big pat on the back, as he, like you, was always pushing the limit of his materials to see what they could do. As long as the prints work, why not?

    When I first saw your title, “The Zone System is Dead”, I thought it was just a way to get people to read your article. But after reading your thorough research, and seeing the results, I think your title (though a bit dramatic) may be correct. Though maybe you could say you have helped the Zone System to grow up in the 21st century. :)

    Either way, as someone who has seen digital nearly kill film photography, it is heartening to see young people embrace a most wonderful 100 year old tradition and keep it relevant. Bravo.

  97. Johnny
    23. October 2016

    Chris, thanks so much for your kind words.

    I know your work and I respect what you’re doing a lot. I have a good friend, Gary Briechle, who introduced me to glass wet collodion plates (his medium of choice), and the whole process that comes with it. I found your work by reading up on wet plates later.

    As I mentioned in my article, it wasn’t my intention to say anything negative about Ansel Adams or his legacy. But I do think the Zone System is outdated and I feel it’s very important to update the books to accommodate all of the changes and the development that happened since his time. I agree, he would have very likely updated the Zone System himself by now.

    Thank you again for your feedback. I appreciate it very much.

  98. Charlie Stephens
    23. October 2016

    Hi Johnny!

    Love your article regarding the zone system. I have been using your method of metering for colour, I use Portra 400 and I am very happy with the results.

    When you say overdevelop by one stop is that to increase contrast? If Tri-X 400 in D76 1:1 requires a developing time of 9:45 mins at 20°C for normal processing what is the time for another stop?

  99. Johnny
    23. October 2016

    Thanks for your feedback and your question, Charlie.

    It’s wonderful to hear that you’re happy with your results in regards to color. I hope you’ll feel the same about B&W.

    This question just came up in regards to XTOL. You can add about 20% of your development time per stop. With D-76 (1:1, 20°C) I would go for 11½ minutes for ISO 800.

  100. Vadim
    24. October 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    How do you suggest to use your overexposure technique with slide film?

    Thank you,

    Vadim

  101. Johnny
    24. October 2016

    Thanks for your question, Vadim.

    Please don’t. I mentioned in my post that this will not work with slide film. :)

  102. Mike
    24. October 2016

    Hey, good bit of well written work.

    I think, strictly speaking, you are likely correct. Zone V was just an arbitrary starting point and your “darkest” point in the image is just as valid and usable.

    In my opinion the real genius of what Adams did with the Zone System was a quantification of values and the idea to pick an arbitrary midpoint to start from. I suspect Adams would have greatly approved of your approach as he seemed to like pushing the boundaries of the medium.

    While the technical knowledge in his books is dated, it shows the importance he put into understanding the limitations of his media. The concepts used in the Zone System are easily adapted to modern digital and film stocks.

    I agree a technical update is in order, but the technical point is just how you manage and develop light flux into your medium, digital, film and/or print. The philosophical point of the Zone System is alive and valid as ever, the path from visualization to an end artistic result.

  103. Johnny
    24. October 2016

    Mike, thanks very much for your feedback.

    It’s interesting to hear what you think about how Ansel Adams would have felt about all of this. Chris Erin mentioned that too and so did many people that sent me emails me over the past couple of days, who either knew him personally or talked to very well accomplished printers that learned from him.

    I am not even close to being on the same level of experience with any of these people, but I honestly think that’s why I have a different perspective on many things. I wouldn’t have questioned any of this if I had 25 years of experience in the darkroom. I know a lot of the technicalities from the scanning process and much of this can be applied to the darkroom too.

    One of my very points is that I do not believe in the philosophical approach of the Zone System. I think getting as much information onto the negative as possible and using its limit without having to think through it all frame by frame disconnects the technical approach from the artistic result. That’s a very important part of simplifying the whole process. You get the technicalities out of the way and focus on the look you would like to achieve, applying a very simple and straightforward approach to metering, exposure, development and printing.

  104. Martin Tran
    25. October 2016

    Hello Johnny!

    I found this article to be really helpful! I’m taking a traditional black and white photography class at the moment and thought I’d read up on the zone system. I’m still utterly confused by it but reading this makes a lot of sense.

    My photos have always been rated at box speed, exposed for shadows and developed at box speed. The images have mostly come out grey and dull throughout. Just about the only time I get a great scan or darkroom print is when I take a backlit portrait. I’m excited to try your method of overexposing and overdeveloping.

    I do have one question though. How is it that you effectively have ISO 200-800 on a single roll and development?

  105. Johnny
    25. October 2016

    Thanks for your comment, Martin.

    Some things make a lot of sense when you have a good technical foundation and a lot of experience, but they can be hard to understand and frustrating when you’re just starting out. It takes time to learn how a scene translates and how light and exposure affect your final results. I think it’s very helpful to be experimental.

    The ISO range I am effectively using with Tri-X 400 is even broader than what I mentioned in my article (more like ISO 12.5 – ISO 1600). Film is generally very sensitive to underexposure, but faster emulsions have a lot of overexposure latitude. If I shoot in low light my effective rating is somewhere between ISO 800 and ISO 1600. In these situations overdeveloping the whole roll is effectively a one stop push. If I shoot in bright sunlight and hit my shutter speed limit, I just overexpose and let the latitude of the film handle that (both overexposure and overdevelopment).

  106. Lucian Dandea
    25. October 2016

    Hello Johnny,

    Love your article and your blog.

    I have some beginner questions. :)

    1. I shoot with a film camera usually using Tri-X 400 film in 35mm. I want to understand better how to meter for the shadows in the streets using external incident meter. I don’t know if I understand it right. If I have light and shadow scene I place my incident meter in the shadow or shadow the dome with my hand. If I only have shadows (cloudy day), do I just use the incident meter and measure the light as it is? How do I meter in this way for night shots?

    2. From what I understand, you rate your film (Tri-X 400) at ISO 200 and develop it for ISO 800. But if I want to shoot at ISO 800 using the same logic I will rate my film at ISO 400 and develop it as is ISO 1600 film and so on?

    Thank you very much.

  107. Johnny
    25. October 2016

    Lucian, thank you for your question.

    A cloudy day doesn’t mean that you only have shadows, you have diffused light. If you don’t have a shadow, you can just create one with your hand. Please refer to this blog post in regards to metering. Have a look at the comments too, we discussed about every possible scenario. :)

    And you’re right, that’s exactly how I shoot Tri-X. If you would like to apply the same logic for a different rating, that’s how you would approach it. But I don’t think this would be necessary. If you need more speed for night shots and have a dedicated roll just for one lighting condition, there’s no reason to approach it like that. You would just rate your film at ISO 1600 and push it two stops or rate it at ISO 3200 and push it three stops.

  108. Bernard
    25. October 2016

    Hello Johnny,

    Thank you very much for this extremely useful article. I will follow your advice for my next films.

    I have two questions:

    1. I don’t have a incident light meter, but I’m used to using a 18% grey card. Couldn’t I read the grey card and consider that it’s zone VII?

    2. I use Rodinal 1:100 with stand development, i.e. one hour for box speed. Any idea of the possible result with your method?

    Thank you very much.

  109. Johnny
    25. October 2016

    Thanks for your comment and your questions, Bernard.

    If you’re using a grey card and assign the reading as zone VII you would underexpose your image. You would have to assign it as zone III instead to overexpose it. But I recommend using an incident meter over a reflected meter with a grey card. The only thing you have to consider is how much light falls onto your subject. Have a look at the blog post about metering that I referenced above and the comments.

    I haven’t tried this with stand development but I see where you’re coming from. Let me know if you try it, I would be curious to see the results. I’d venture a guess that it would work well for slightly overexposed negatives but not as well for very dense ones. That’s where overdeveloping opens up the highlights instead of blocking them. Stand development might compress them even more.

  110. Sven Kräuter
    26. October 2016

    Hello Johnny,

    thanks for writing this up – it is very helpful indeed.

    I find it highly interesting that we have so many fundamental truths in photography which at times do not reflect the recent or even not so recent progress in paper, film, sensors or lenses. A different topic that kind of suffers the same fate: hyperfocal distance scales on modern lenses.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing your findings – they will make a lot of lives easier I’d say.

  111. Johnny
    26. October 2016

    Thanks for your feedback, Sven.

    I completely agree. Many people are afraid to take a risk or to question fundamental truths, even just by experimenting. But that’s not a new problem. And it also reflects in any type of artistic work, look how homogeneous Instagram looks. Creating means taking a risk, recreating means making a safe choice.

    Glad you found the post helpful. :)

  112. Nuno Benavente
    26. October 2016

    Hey, thanks for the nice read!

    I’m tempted to try your overexpose-overdevelop technique but it sounds so risky!! Don’t you blow out your highlights?

    I consider my darkroom work to be more important than the work with my scanned negatives on the computer, so I wanted to ask you which is the workflow you think is better for your negatives – darkroom or scanner?

    Thanks!

  113. Johnny
    26. October 2016

    Thank you for your comment, Nuno! Glad you enjoyed the post.

    No, you don’t blow out the highlights. I get way more highlight detail with this method than I do with normal exposures, especially with difficult light and high contrast scenes. A lot of people tried it since I published this post and wrote me that they got really great results too. Just risk one roll, give it a go and see what happens. :)

    I consider both workflows equally important, personally. I was looking for something that works well on the scanner and in the darkroom. As I mentioned above, you get longer exposure times on the enlarger but the results are exactly matching (without having to dodge and burn).

    I’m at the point where I can tell how my final prints will come out when I receive my scans from the lab. I don’t even make contact sheets.

  114. Nuno Benavente
    27. October 2016

    Thanks for your answer Johnny, I will give it a go!

    Another question: when you’re using an ISO 400 film and you overexpose by 1 or 2 stops and then you develop for ISO 800. Wouldn’t developing for box speed considered to be overdeveloping too (since you overexposed) and wouldn’t that be a good way to take the first steps in this technique?

    Thanks and sorry if this causes any confusion!

  115. Johnny
    27. October 2016

    Thanks for another question, Nuno.

    I tried to explain that here. The point of reference is always the nominal ISO rating of a film. Overexposure does not require pull processing to compensate, so processing the film as normal wouldn’t be considered overdeveloping.

    If you communicate with a third party, for example a pro lab, you always refer to box speed. That’s universal around the world. It would be confusing to tell them that you exposed your film as ISO 200 and want it developed as ISO 800. All that matters for a lab is the nominal value and how they should develop in relation to that. In this case you would just tell them “+1”.

  116. Joe
    27. October 2016

    Johnny,

    Thankfully there are many wonderful, talented photographers that are happy to share their technique and encourage people to shoot/develop/print film.

    There are unfortunately also a load of pious, pompous egomaniacs happier to criticise and condescend than encourage. Happier to measure the quality of their photos with a densitometer rather than artistic values. The film equivalent of the measurebators every other photography forum is overflowing and afflicted with.

    Keep up the great work!

  117. Johnny
    27. October 2016

    Thanks for your feedback, Joe.

    I’m aware that there are many different types of photographers (and people). I try to stay away from unproductive technical banter and I don’t engage if someone gets personal. It’s not helpful for anyone. :)

  118. John
    28. October 2016

    Hi,

    What about camera and film calibration? I found that made an enormous difference.

    Tri-X 400 35mm with both my Nikons was ISO 640 but with the Hasselblad it was only ISO 320 for what Kodak was selling as exactly the same film.

    What was your starting point for colour negative? I found the whole thing of calibration for colour negative way more complicated than for transparency film.

  119. Johnny
    28. October 2016

    Thanks for your question, John.

    I don’t worry about film calibration. I probably didn’t make that clear enough in my post, but I am not a very technically driven person. I only think about technicalities to get them out of the way. The exact ISO rating also doesn’t really matter with how I shoot.

    I am not trying to achieve clinically reproducible results with no variance. I enjoy unpredictability – and imperfection. Everything I tried to share is about encouraging people to be experimental, get to know their film and use their tummy feeling.

  120. Steve
    30. October 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Great article. I only shoot film and whilst I haven’t followed your method to the letter, rather I’ve taken what I wanted and will try the rest in the future, but I’ve started overexposing my film.

    The results have not only been great but the process has loosened up my shooting and pushed exposure (excuse the pun) down the list of things I dwell too much on when shooting.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Steve

  121. Johnny
    31. October 2016

    Steve, thank you very much for your feedback.

    It’s so great to hear that you found this helpful and most importantly, that it helped you achieve great results while making your shooting more relaxed.

    Awesome! :)

  122. Steffen
    1. November 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Great post and something I generally agree with – meanwhile your pics have a great bite to them that makes me wish I had more time to go out, shoot and get in the darkroom!

    I noticed you mentioned that your print times can get very long. However, a 9 minute exposure for that great image of the dog running through the woods is surely pushing the paper in terms of reciprocity failure. Meanwhile at that length of printing time, you may, unless you regularly test, encounter fogging from the safelight which will then actually lower the contrast of the print!

    With that in mind, I’m not sure what +1/+2 pushing achieves over moving up a grade or two when printing (or indeed using split grade filtering and forgetting about judging which grade to use in the first place). Have you noticed that this latter approach does not achieve the look you want?

    I definitely agree about a dense neg being a good neg in any case. Darkroom prints make it all worth it!!

  123. Johnny
    1. November 2016

    Thank you very much for your contribution, Steffen. These are good points.

    I found that reciprocity failure is a non-issue with longer exposure times in the darkroom (I would imagine it is with very short times). Even if that were the case, you have to test strip anyway for a final print, which would address the issue.

    You are right about potential fogging from the safelights close to the enlarger, which I turn off for longer exposure times. I should have mentioned that in my post.

    Split grade printing is definitely the way to go for difficult negatives, but I haven’t had the need to use it for my own work due to the compression of the contrast range that I’ve mentioned. The push/overdevelopment helps in the darkroom and on the scanner. My main concern is achieving consistent results in both worlds without the need for manipulation to match the other. That means a straight scan and a straight print without having to manipulate the contrast for either one.

    It’s wonderful to hear that this made you want to shoot and print in the darkroom. :)

  124. Steve Burge
    2. November 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Thanks for this article, and also all the others. I have found them very useful over the past few years, as I’ve rediscovered my love of photography.

    For B&W I found I was drawn to the “charcoal and chalk” look of Ralph Gibson’s images. I believe he would overexpose and overdevelop. I then found that your exposing for film tutorial from a couple of years back gave me the confidence to adopt a similar approach to colour film, but without the overdevelopment.

    So I started to use a consistent basic and simple exposure (and focus) approach, as I had inherited a Rollei 35 with a dead meter. To my surprise I found I could have exposure and focus preset and (literally) dialed into the little Rollei, so that all I have to do is pop the lens, compose and shoot. I now apply the same “rule of thumb” to every camera and format.

    Portra 400 and TX400 for clear days: f11 and 1/250th as a baseline. Then 1 to 3 stops more exposure depending on cloud cover & whether subject is in shade. F2.8 and 1/30th indoors. For focus I will normally centre the lens between 2 and 3m and then toggle a little if I also need infinity in focus.

    It’s surprising how consistent the negative density is and how few times the exposure is “incorrect”. More so than when I was relying on a meter. I’ll still miss for plenty of other reasons, but seldom exposure. It also meant I started to get a consistency of look regardless of the camera used (including digital) which was a surprise and immensely satisfying. And this “look” is very much how I now see the world through 50 year old eyes: one subject at a time, slightly faded colours, bi-focal and life is black or white… certainly different to the Velvia look of my 30s. ;-)

    Thanks again for the articles and the great work.

  125. Johnny
    2. November 2016

    Steve, thank you so much for your comment and for sharing your experience.

    It really makes me happy to hear that you are enjoying what I share, especially reading that it helped you find your own way of shooting and your own look. That’s wonderful. :)

    What you are doing is exactly what I always try to encourage: find what works for you and develop a tummy feeling about how to get there without making it more complicated than necessary.

    Consistency is very important to me too and you are right, you’d think that an in-camera meter would perform better than your subjective judgement after a little bit of practice – but it really doesn’t. Being consistent in camera is also very helpful if you work with a lab, you make their life a whole lot easier too. That’s what enables them to give you the best results they possibly can with every job, not just occasionally.

  126. Avital Nathansohn
    4. November 2016

    Good to see that overexposing film and then overdeveloping doesn’t lead to burning all the shadows but leads to nice contrast. Did you try using R09 or HC-110 as well?

  127. Johnny
    5. November 2016

    Thanks for your feedback, Avital.

    I did not try R09 but I tried HC-110. My two personal favorites for Tri-X are D-76 and XTOL.

  128. David Harlan
    7. November 2016

    Hey Johnny,

    I love your work and your blog posts! I’ve shot Portra 400 and Tri-X for years and love them both. For some reason, I’ve found myself lately shooting a mix of all sorts of black and white films. After reading your post, I’ve decided to give Tri-X the exclusive try again and I have a load of it coming from B&H tomorrow. I like that I will be able to expose the same for color and black and white.

    I am curious as to how you have your lab scan your negs. Your black and whites seem to have a nice range to them with good shadow detail. Are you having them scan for the highlights to preserve them? Your color images appear to be brighter but still with great detail. Do you scan them differently?

    Finally, I often push my black and white film. If I normally rate my Tri-X at 200 and develop normally. When pushing the film two stops in development, would you rate it at 800?

    Thanks. :)

    Dave Harlan

  129. Johnny
    7. November 2016

    Thank you very much for your kind words and your comment, David.

    It’s the same for me, Portra 400 and Tri-X are my two favorite film stocks and I’m so glad that they are still in production and readily available. Tri-X can give you so many different looks based on how you shoot and develop it. I think it’s important to invest in learning a film stock and I’m happy to hear that you’re doing just that.

    You are absolutely right, RPL scans my B&W film darker than my color film. They scan both for the scene/subject but give preference to the shadows for my color work and to the highlights with my B&Ws. You don’t lose the highlights either way, but I like my color work bright and airy and my B&Ws dark and moody.

    I usually try to leave a stop buffer when I push, so ideally I would rate the film at ISO 800 instead of 1600 and push two stops.

  130. David Schmaus
    9. November 2016

    “I fall in love with B&W more and more every day. Be it delicate and refined shot at box speed with medium format, which I like to equate to classical music, or gritty, grainy and beaten up by overexposure in 35mm, which looks just like rock ‘n’ roll to me.”

    YES! As I was reading each paragraph I was getting more and more excited. As my wedding season winds down I am so excited to explore and experiment, to get in the darkroom and to create images.

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!

    David

  131. Johnny
    9. November 2016

    David, that’s awesome to hear! Thank you very much for your feedback.

    I’m really excited that you’re excited! I’m sure you’ll enjoy it a lot. I think it’s so great and important that you are leaving room for personal work and things that refuel you creatively besides your commercial work.

    Have fun! :)

  132. Simon
    11. November 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    A friend of mine works for Harman Technology (better known as Ilford). We discussed your article and he confirmed that your findings are correct.

    Faster films have multiple layers of coatings that differ in speed. This extends the range of exposure and density. You are using multiple layers, which compresses the upper third and expands the lower two-thirds of the curve, giving you a better tonal gradation and a more effective range for scanning and printing (but requiring a longer printing time).

    Ilford FP4 has an exposure latitude of eight stops, I linked one of their data sheets. You are also right about slower films having less latitude. Pan-F has less latitude because it has fewer layers of silver halides than FP4.

  133. Johnny
    12. November 2016

    Thanks very much for your feedback, Simon.

    That’s a great contribution! Thank you. As mentioned, I have tested this with other B&W (and color) film stocks and I found the same, faster emulsions handle overexposure way better. For many people this feels counter intuitive at first, but you are right, it makes perfect sense.

    Tri-X is my all time favorite B&W film stock, I think it’s the most versatile emulsion on the market. But I know from experience that other stocks have plenty enough latitude to handle this. I still recommend starting out with an ISO 400 film, there’s just a little more leeway for mistakes.

  134. Marc
    16. November 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    I’m not really sure to be right but in my mind the Zone system had been done to help photographers to get the right exposure with very large format cameras (9×13 and more). I have worked with this kind of camera in the eighties and nineties. Great results but we have only to plan frame by frame… we took the first one, processed it and correct the second one, and the others.

    It was expensive for the client and I do understand that some photographers want to expose their film as correctly as possible and several frames were very heavy to bring in your backpack! Anyway, I never used the zone system, we metered the light at different places, shadows, light, palm of the hand etc. and we prayed!

    Thank you again Johnny… sorry for my English… as you know I’m French!

  135. Johnny
    17. November 2016

    Marc, thank you for your comment.

    Please don’t apologize for your English. You should hear my French! ;)

    You are right, I know that especially large format photographers try to get their exposures spot on and there is nothing wrong with that. I am just suggesting to approach this differently.

    If you spot meter a high contrast scene you’re always making compromises. I’ve just seen a negative that someone shared on social media a few days ago where the deepest shadow areas had zero density. These negatives don’t scan or print very well. If you expose for the shadows with an incident meter, you avoid problems like that.

    I don’t try to encourage people to be sloppy, the opposite. You have to do your homework and learn how to expose properly for each lighting situation with each film stock. But you do get better results with the technique I suggested, because you are making use of everything your film stock is capable of – and not just part of it. It’s like a RAW file – the more information your negative carries, the better the print (or scan) will turn out.

  136. Marc
    17. November 2016

    Thank’s for your help Johnny… I’m very impatient to hear your French! Thank you again to give me a second photographer’s life!

  137. Johnny
    17. November 2016

    Haha! Thank you very much, Marc! :)

  138. Bram
    18. November 2016

    After reading this post I tried overdeveloping and pushing for myself but I ran into some problems. I shot some Ilford HP5+ @1600 and tried to overdevelop it +1 stop. But now there are repetitive streaks originating from the sprocket holes on my negatives.

    This is a consequence of too much agitation if I understand it correctly. But I used the standard agitation times (first 30 seconds and then 10 seconds every minute). Is it wise to use less agitation when overdeveloping film to compensate for the extra development time? Like 10 seconds every 2 minutes for example?

    Thanks in advance,

    Bram

  139. Johnny
    19. November 2016

    Thank you for your question, Bram.

    Pushing or overdeveloping shouldn’t cause problems. This is very likely linked to the development method used. What I see often are usually surge marks (agitation with too much force) or bromide drag (not enough agitation).

    I had a look at the picture of the negatives you sent me and in this case it looks like bromide drag. It was a little hard to tell, but if I saw that right there is also part of the negative that didn’t develop at all, which would point to there not being enough developer in the tank.

    If I home develop, I agitate for 5 seconds initially and then for 5 seconds every 30 seconds.

  140. Art
    24. November 2016

    Will your exposure method work with stand development?

  141. Johnny
    24. November 2016

    Art, thank you for your question.

    Someone had asked about that here. I haven’t tried it. I think it would work for slightly overexposed negatives but not as well for very dense ones.

    Let me know if you give it a shot!

  142. Sierra Jackson
    26. November 2016

    I’m buying both of those Ansel Adams books and going to learn the zone system in detail! :)

    Love your article. I’ve used your system over the summer and every time I exposed for the shadows, I was usually +4 stops. For 35mm film, it was so over exposed… I couldn’t fix it in the darkroom or on the computer. BUT for medium format, it worked like a charm! I still need to practice more and maybe learn the zone system in better detail, so I can compare your ways of exposing to Ansel Adam’s way. I loved this article!

  143. Johnny
    27. November 2016

    Thanks so much for your feedback, Sierra. I didn’t know you had tried this when we talked last. Awesome! :)

    You should definitely buy Ansel Adam’s books, it’s amazing how much knowledge he had and how much he was about every little detail of his process. His dedication is incredible and I really enjoyed reading them.

    How much overexposure metering for the shadows translates to depends on the scene, you should end up between 2-3 stops. Medium format film has more latitude and is easier to scan, but I often overexpose more than 4 stops and never had problems with 35mm (neither in the darkroom nor on the scanner).

    I’m sure I can help you to get good results with both formats. I’d love to hear what film stock you shot and have a look at your negatives. :)

  144. Marcel Sauder
    27. November 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    Recently I shot over 120 Rolls of Tri-X in 135 with this method and I’m quite happy. It’s not so much different from what I did in the past, everything is just more clear to me now. So your blog is helpful for me.

    One big question remains, if I use a Jobo CPA-2 processor it’s rotation instead of agitation. Is there anything you can suggest about that? With 135 I think it comes out good but for medium format I feel there are lines and borders coming out which makes the film nearly unusable. Still not sure if is because rotation.

    Any ideas on that?

    Regards,

    Marcel

  145. Johnny
    27. November 2016

    Marcel, thanks for your feedback and your question.

    It’s good to hear that this method works so well for you. 120 rolls is a lot of film, awesome that you’re happy with how they came out.

    There should be no difference between processing medium format and 35mm. Continuous rotary agitation comes closest to the dip & dunk processors that my lab uses for my film. If anything, you should be able to get much more consistent results than someone agitating by hand (which is one of the main reasons why I have a pro lab process and scan my film, the other one being the volume I shoot).

    I would try to back trace this – maybe start checking if the Jobo is set up correctly, if the mechanical components work right, if the times are correct etc.

  146. David Schmaus
    27. November 2016

    Hi Johnny,

    I know I commented previously but I just wanted to follow up. I know you have been thanked many times for sharing your information but once again I want to thank you and also stress how very important I think what you are doing is honoring the original way and educating people like myself who want to really love the “analog” way of what we are creating and slowing this part of our life down.

    I have started my own test to help educate myself this morning, shooting Tri-X 400 @ box speed. For the first frame I spot metered the shadows putting them in Zone III. For the second frame I took an incident reading for the shadows. I was usually 2-3 stops over using the incident reading.

    I developed using HC-100 and it’s amazing how much information is there in both frames. These were contrasty scenes and all the info is there. Anyways, ordered XTOL and will experiment with overexposing and overdeveloping in hopes to getting more contrast.

    I have a few questions. Are all the images in this post home developed and scanned and was the combination of overexposure/overdevelopment just a choice to see how it would turn out or were there other reasons?

    The second questions is how are you determining what “correct” exposure to give you a baseline to overexpose? I am guessing a incident light reading at box speed in the main light and not the shadow?

    Thanks again!

  147. Johnny
    27. November 2016

    Thank you again for your kind words, David.

    Yes, 2-3 stops over is correct. But reflective metering is generally less reliable, especially in challenging lighting conditions.

    I had mentioned it here, if you spot meter a high contrast scene “properly” you’re usually making compromises. The contrast range of a scene can be so high that you will lose shadow information (no emulsion/density in the darkest parts of the image). That takes from your results and it’s not necessary.

    None of the images here were home developed or scanned. I work with a pro lab, they develop and scan all of my film and send back the negatives for my darkroom prints.

    I’ve touched on my reasons and the history of this approach in the article. I did a lot of experimenting and testing to achieve a certain look for my work. I also shot a couple of projects in a broad variety of lighting conditions without being able to change rolls (the biggest one being a 365 project that I shot entirely on film). Putting all of this together and needing a workflow that works for the scanner and in the darkroom brought me here.

    You are absolutely right about the baseline. I tried to share that here.

  148. Heinz
    27. November 2016

    Johnny,

    I am glad I ran across your website. I hadn’t realized that I was still thinking in digital terms until I read your posts. I had been shooting Tri-X at 800 and developing in Diafine. I am definitely going to try shooting it at 200 and developing at 400 in HC-110 to see the results.

    Any suggestions as to what film is best for shooting with flash indoors with flash bulbs?

    Thanks,

    Heinz

  149. Johnny
    28. November 2016

    Thank you for your comment, Heinz.

    Developers can have a strong influence on the film speed, which will greatly affect your results. Diafine has a couple of very interesting characteristics and you might be surprised about how similar the results will look.

    Sorry, I have no recommendation in regards to flash photography.

  150. Lauren
    8. December 2016

    Loved this article, Johnny! Thank you for sharing this.

  151. Johnny
    10. December 2016

    Thank you, Lauren! I appreciate that.

  152. Ana
    13. December 2016

    Amazing, amazing read. You’re my lifesaver!

    I’m about to head down to Sydney and shoot under the sun with Tri-X 400, but I wanted to get good shadows, a nice grain and a good fade in my photos. I’m planning to do rate it at 100 and develop it at 800 (so 2 stops overexposed, 1 stop overdeveloped).

    Does that sound alright? Hopefully I got the calculation/logic down! Thanks for this sweet article!

  153. Johnny
    13. December 2016

    Ana, thanks very much for your comment.

    Yes, that’s how I would shoot it. If you’re into visible grain and strong blacks, that’s exactly what you will get. I recommend testing with different variables for yourself, just to see what will give you the exact look you’d like to achieve.

  154. David
    14. December 2016

    Hi Johnny!

    I’m new to photography and have a question about this article that I hope you won’t mind answering. You mention a few times that you can shoot Tri-X 400 at 200 and then meter for the shadows and then develop normally. So… could one conceivably shoot the same roll of 400 at both 200 AND 400, develop normally and get good results?

    FWIW, I’ve got a roll of 400 half shot right now in my M6 and would like to shoot the rest of that roll as you suggested, but I’d hate to lose half of the pictures.

    Thanks for the articles and the site. I’m learning a lot from you.

  155. Johnny
    15. December 2016

    Thank you for your comment and your kind words, David.

    Yes, you can without worries – I do that all the time. Have a look at the exposure bracket, “0” would be 400, “+1” is the equivalent of 200, “+2” would be 100 and so forth.

    Let me know how you’re liking the results!

  156. Jim
    21. December 2016

    I just tried your method with Ilford FP4+ (exposed for shadows with incident light meter set to ISO 125, developed @ ISO 250). I cringed in horror as I watched the development time go past the recommended 8.5 minutes to 12 minutes for XTOL 1:1.

    The negatives came out dense, but certainly not “bulletproof”. They scanned (via DSLR) nicely and required very little tone curve manipulation in LR to bring the blacks and whites to where I like them to be. I’m very pleased with the results.

    The photos are certainly less flat & gray than with normal exposure and development (I’ve typically exposed as above, but developed at N-1 as per the zone method).

    This method is certainly worth experimenting with more. Thanks!

  157. Johnny
    23. December 2016

    Jim, thanks so much for your feedback.

    It’s great to hear that you got such good results! Thank you for including the link to your pictures. I’ve received so much positive feedback on this method over the past weeks and almost all of the photographers that have tried it love their results because they require so little work and adjustments.

    If you overexpose 2-3 stops per my recommendation and overdevelop a stop, you won’t get bulletproof negatives. They’ll be noticeably darker than with normal exposure but not black (like mine, depending on how I shoot).

  158. Roque Nuevo
    28. December 2016

    Thank you for such a thoughtful article and for following up with such thoughtful responses to the comments! You’re a very generous person!

    To further exploit your generosity, could you comment on my process? I’m not sure if I understand you at all well:

    My process is such that I use reflective metering in the shadows and then stop up (underexpose by two stops to make the exposure). I use a Gossen Digisix meter, which gives readings in Exposure Values, so that if the shadows meter at, say, EV 10 (e.g. f2/1/125), I’ll make the exposure at EV 12 (e.g. f2/1/500). This will place the shadow on Zone III and make it look like a shadow (relatively darker), won’t it, because it will receive less light than otherwise? I use reflective metering because it seems that what’s important is the light that gets into the lens, not the light falling on the subject. I don’t understand why you prefer incident readings.

    I like ISO 100 film, like Silvermax, Arista EDU, Agfa, or Rollei Retro 80s because they seem to have more contrast, which I like. I develop in Rodinal, which seems to give a higher ISO than HC-110. Therefore I can expose a roll at ISO 100 (box speed). I don’t use XTOL mainly because it’s so many times more expensive than Rodinal or HC-110. D-76, although it does give “box speed” exposure, seems dull to me because I like grain for the sharpness and I don’t think it can be used for stand or semi-stand development. I scan my negs with an Epson Perfection 500 with all the “auto” controls off and I correct the contrast with Aperture.

    So, am I in your ballpark? When you say you’re exposing for the shadows, is the above what you do, aside from using an incident meter?

  159. Johnny
    30. December 2016

    Roque, thank you for your questions.

    Your method will bring you pretty close to box speed, if I understand it right. So not really in the ballpark in regards to how I meter and expose.

    Underexposure won’t make your images darker, it produces thin negatives without sufficient density which results in muddy tones and washed out blacks. Have a look at my blog post about metering for more information.

    The only reason to underexpose is in combination with pushing your film in development – if you’re shooting in conditions where you don’t have enough available light (for example at night or indoors). If you prefer darker results with B&W (I do too), just scan or print your final result darker, but save the negative.

    I prefer incident readings because they’re far more accurate than reflective readings. They yield more consistent results, especially in difficult light (e.g. back lit scenes, strong contrast, fog, snow). One method evaluates how much light is falling on your subject, the other method tells you how much light is reflected by it. You can easily try this for yourself.

    I think development is as important as your film choice and there is no right or wrong, just personal preference. My workflow is geared towards working with a pro lab and my choices in regards to the development process are limited if I don’t develop at home.

  160. Jake
    7. January 2017

    Hey Johnny,

    Could you let me know what film stocks you’ve already tested your method with? I have a few expired black and white film stocks and would like to contribute to your list.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    Jake

  161. Johnny
    8. January 2017

    Thanks very much for your comment, Jake.

    So far this has been tested with Tri-X 400, T-Max 100, T-Max 400, Acros 100, Neopan 400, Neopan 1600, Delta 100, Delta 400, Delta 3200, XP2, FP4, HP5 and Pan F Plus 50. I will post more results and comparisons shortly.

    I would appreciate your feedback on other stocks a lot. Thank you for offering help! :)

  162. Andreas Carstensen
    9. January 2017

    Hi Johnny,

    Thank you very much for this and your other posts!

    I have a question regarding your cheat sheet for Tri-X. You write in the text that it’s 2-3 stops overexposure, but if I calculate it from the Sunny 16 Rule it seems more like 4-5 stops overexposure (except maybe for the indoor and night time exposures). Am I missing something? I calculate from a sunny base exposure f/16 @ 1/500. And then you overdevelop by 1 stop… can you even see through the negs? :)

    Also what is the +2 on the night time?

    Best regards

  163. Johnny
    9. January 2017

    Andreas, thank you for your kind feedback.

    I think my cheat sheet might be a little more confusing than I thought. :)

    You are right, my metering method results in 2-3 stops of overexposure and that’s my recommendation for all B&W film stocks. For my own work I shoot Tri-X and I often overexpose way more than that (4-5 stops, depending on the look I’d like to achieve). So this is a general recommendation vs. my personal preference for my own work. The “+2” means push two stops.

  164. Axel Weber
    10. January 2017

    Hi Johnny,

    I just read the translation of this blog entry in a German B&W magazine.

    I’m a hobby photographer and (re)started shooting film two years ago. Shortly after, I started developing without really knowing how to control the process so that the images look as desired. I read far too many articles with too complex information and faced too many opinions what presumably might be the ideal workflow.

    Your article really encourages me to experiment further and of course to try your pleasantly easy tips on metering and exposure. The pictures above look awesome, great tonal values & contrast. I will definitely overexpose AND overdevelop my next roll of film and see what will happen.

    Just for me if I got it right:

    I shoot an ISO 400 film as if it was ISO 200 and develop it as if it was a ISO 200 or even ISO 100 film, which leads to an “overexposure” for both processes?

    Last but not least a huge compliment on your writing style. I’m so glad that I found the article so that I replied a blog post for the first time in my life – honestly!

    All the best.

  165. Johnny
    10. January 2017

    Thank you very much for your kind words Axel, I appreciate your feedback.

    I agree with you, there are many articles out there that are written by professionals with a lot of experience for other professionals. That’s often very unhelpful for beginners.

    If you would like to try this method, you would shoot an ISO 400 film at ISO 200 (or ISO 100) and develop as if it was exposed at ISO 800. So basically more exposure in camera and longer development times.

    I’m looking forward to hearing how this worked for you!

  166. Kariyadi
    15. January 2017

    Hi Johnny,

    Thanks for this great recommendation. I shot Tri-X 400, Neopan 100 and T-Max 100 in the past with normal metering. I always got faded blacks as a result.

    Last week on a family trip to Spore I shot 2 rolls of JCH StreetPan 400 using your method, 2-3 stops over and +1 push. I got similar result as yours. Great contrast, deep blacks and 3d punch on those pictures. I like it so much.

    I’m so excited to shoot again with other film stocks. Again, I thanks a lot for your article!

    Best regards

  167. Johnny
    15. January 2017

    Kariyadi, thank you for your feedback and for sharing your experience.

    I’m so happy to hear that you got such great results! I hadn’t tested this with StreetPan 400 yet. If you’d like to share some your images please feel free to do so. I’m sure you’ll love the results with other film stock too. :)

  168. Tal
    18. January 2017

    Hi Johnny… another great article, thank you!

    Love your colour work and love the look you achieve for your b&w work.

    For years I was trying to get that classic b&w film look with digital, through manipulation, that after years of doing this decided why not just shoot the real thing… so after having read your metering article a couple of years ago, I shot my first b&w rolls of Delta 100/400 and TX400.

    When I received my negs/scans/prints back I was disappointed as the blacks were not the way I had envisioned them and there was no tonal range to speak of… I metered just as you had described for your colour work, at half box speed and with an incident light meter in the shadows, and yet my results were flat. I obviously manipulated the scans using Silver Efex, but felt that I was cheating, again. I wanted that look from my negatives straight out of the camera.

    So my search continued, in forums, looking at other peoples work, asking questions and receiving vague replies, like it was a magic art and anyone who was achieving the results I desired was not willing to share their secret. I appreciate that experimenting/trial and error are part of the process, but what is the harm in sharing or teaching?

    Anyway, I turned to Uncle Ansel and his book “The Negative”, and got my head around the Zone System which seemed to make a lot of sense, but which I found out would still not yield the “look” I wanted straight out of the camera, but that the image would further need manipulating during the printing process! But I don’t have access to an enlarger or print developing room, although I have correctly exposed negatives should I wish to print and manipulate them one day.

    I have a fridge full of undeveloped film which I have shot over the last year which needs developing. I plan to do this myself at some stage. The rolls are all TX400, 35mm and 120 rolls, shot at ISO 200/400/800 and 1600 using the Zone System with a spot meter reading for the shadows and bringing them to zone 3/4 as required, as well as some rolls using the previous method of an incident light reading taken in the shadow area. The initial idea was to develop the rolls shot at 200/400/800 all at ISO 800 and the rolls shot at ISO 1600 at ISO 1250. The rolls pushed to 1600 were shot slightly overexposed by 1-2 stops to retain detail in the shadows and the idea that I would develop at 1250 so as not to “block up” the blacks. Would this work?

    Fast forward to the publication of your “Zone System” article, and the penny finally drops, you were exposing for the shadows as per your metering article BUT overdeveloping (which wasn’t mentioned in said article I hasten to add :D) by one stop!! BOOOOM!!!

    I love the look of your b&w images, as that is the look I have always been drawn to, beautiful blacks and lovely tones. SO thank you once again for sharing your method, it is extremely helpful and I have a lot of respect for you giving up your time in doing so, and giving so generously.

    And finally… you said in the comments that you often overexpose by 4-5 stops to achieve a certain look. Do you still develop at 800? What look are you hoping to achieve from overexposing so much, I’m assuming the blacks won’t be so black?

    Most of your images in the article are generally 2 stops overexposed and developed at ISO 800, I’m sure you’ve mentioned this somewhere on this page, but if the light is low, or quite dreary as it is in the UK currently, and we are shooting TX400 at 800 or 1600 (to have a decent shutter speed), what speed would you develop these rolls at to give a similar result i.e. deep blacks and good tonal range?

    Tal.

    P.S. Sorry for the overly long message.

  169. Johnny
    19. January 2017

    Thanks very much for your feedback, Tal.

    I can relate to much of what you wrote, I think getting B&W just right is a lot harder than color negative film and it requires a lot more practice. There are so many more variables to consider and there’s a lot more to learn.

    You are right, I didn’t mention the push in my metering blog post because it was written for color negative and not B&W film. I touched on a lot of things in the comments, though.

    If you applied my metering method, you shouldn’t have gotten flat results. My tummy feeling is that this might have been a scanning issue. I like to push/overdevelop my film a stop but that’s by no means crucial and the difference is relatively subtle.

    What you are planning in regards to the film you’ve shot should all work. Personally I wouldn’t develop film shot at ISO 1600 at ISO 1250, but that’s just my personal preference. Maybe do one roll at a time and have a look how they come out so that you can make adjustments. You won’t block up shadows or highlights either way.

    When I overexpose 4-5 stops I still develop at 800. How the images come out depends on the lighting condition of the original scene. In muted light I get a wonderful soft tonal gradation and in direct sunlight I get a lot of grain, strong blacks and a lot of tonal compression.

    I can’t give you a general recommendation for any lighting condition because I decide that per scene with the final image in mind. But I usually overexpose at least two stops and push/overdevelop one stop.

  170. Peter Toubro
    23. January 2017

    Great and very interesting post!

    I have a few questions though:

    In one of your sample pictures you write that it is “overexposed by 1 stop, overdeveloped by 1 stop”. Does that mean that you’ve shot it at 200 and developed it as a 800? And also with 4 stops, overdeveloped 1 stop = shot at 25 and developed as 800?

    How would you expose and develop if you want to keep the film speed at 400? How would you expose and develop if you want to push the film? I often shoot at 1600 or 3200. How would you generally develop in order to get more density? Temperature and such?

  171. Johnny
    24. January 2017

    Peter, thanks for your feedback and your questions.

    You’re interpretation of the example images is exactly right. My point of reference is always box speed, I’ve explained that in more detail here.

    If I shoot at box speed I still overdevelop by a stop. If I push, I usually build in at least an extra stop. For ISO 1600 I would ideally shoot at 800 and develop at 3200 (one extra stop on either side), but that really depends on the available light.

    I usually don’t develop my film at home and don’t change the temperature. I just overexpose in camera and ask my lab to change the development times accordingly.

  172. Elan Cohen
    26. January 2017

    A little late on this, but this is a fantastic article. You have a gift, the gift of teaching. This is a well researched piece.

  173. Johnny
    26. January 2017

    Thank you so much, Elan. That means the world coming from you. Thank you for taking the time to read it. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  174. Ruben
    7. February 2017

    Hi Johnny, I just come across to your blog and this article help me so much during my practice developing my own B&W films. Thanks…

  175. Johnny
    8. February 2017

    Ruben, thank you for your feedback. Makes me very happy to hear that! :)

  176. Stefan
    9. February 2017

    I think this is pretty much what Richard Avedon did. I read about it in an article, he exposed his film at about half box speed and had them developed even longer than recommended (I think one example was Tri-X @ 200 in D-76 for 14 minutes).

    Overexposed AND overdeveloped, but it gave him the look he liked.

  177. Johnny
    10. February 2017

    Thank you very much for your feedback and for sharing the link, Stefan.

    You are right, that sounds like a similar approach. I can relate to getting positive feedback on the technical quality of my prints but seeing raised eyebrows from conventionalists when I share how I got there.

    The darkroom techniques talked about in the article are very interesting. A rich tonal gradation with very punchy blacks is exactly what I like in my work too, but achieving this in the darkroom has become a lot easier.

    I often spend a whole day in the darkroom to make just one “perfect” print. It sounds crazy, but it’s so rewarding. Thanks again for your comment!

  178. Roman
    14. February 2017

    Hi Johnny! Thanks a lot for this!

    But how does overexposure work with night shots? I shoot TX400, set my aperture to 2.0, set my M6 to ISO 1600 and even then, at night time in town, my in-camera meter often tells me that exposure for the shadows requires 1/8th of a second. That is already really close to my handheld limit. Setting the same film to ISO 200 (half box) would make it about impossible to shoot without a tripod…

    How do you overexpose when there is barely enough light to just expose regularly? :)

  179. Johnny
    15. February 2017

    Roman, thanks for your question.

    I’ve touched on this a few times in the comments, have a look here and here. If I don’t have enough available light, I don’t overexpose. But I usually push a stop more than the film was rated for.

  180. Riley J.B.
    27. February 2017

    Hey Johnny,

    I read this back when you first posted it but only tried it just recently now that my Rolleiflex is back. I shot Ilford HP5+ at 200 and developed at 800… it looks awesome!

    Unrelated to your post I wanted to share: Kodak HC-110 can be used forever. I used some that was expired by a year and open for 3… no issues. Worked as if it was new.

  181. Johnny
    28. February 2017

    Thank you so much for stopping by and letting me know, Riley. :)

    That’s wonderful to hear! I’m glad that this works so well for you. Thank you for your contribution in regards to the developer.

  182. Lorenzo Lietti
    2. March 2017

    I am with you 100%… only one question: do you, then, always shoot wide open at f2?

  183. Johnny
    3. March 2017

    Lorenzo, thanks for your question.

    Yes, I almost always shoot wide open. I love how light renders when you don’t stop down, especially with lenses that are not technically perfect.

  184. Angela
    4. March 2017

    Hello! What a wonderful post as usual. I have read through many comments and I just want to make sure my understanding is plain and clear so I don’t ruin my next roll of film. :-)

    Assuming Tri-X 400,
    1. Rate box speed as 200 on the camera
    2. Meter for shadows (or if I’m just eyeing it – look at darker parts of my scene, and make sure to overexpose a stop or whatever needed so that they aren’t so dark – to be plain)
    3. Send film to lab (say Richard Photo Lab) and ask them to develop it at ISO 800
    4. Ask them to overexpose when scanning? Is it best to give them reference photos for the look I’m after?

    It’d be so much easier to be in the lab myself but it’s not widely available in my area! I am so thankful you went through this process on our behalf.

    Thanks again! Your insight has not only created beautiful work, but also the inspiration for others to create beautiful work, too.

  185. Johnny
    6. March 2017

    Thank you for your kind feedback, Angela. Glad you found this helpful.

    Your steps 1-3 are about right, just make sure you meter properly until you are really sure you know how to get there. With most labs you can just note “+1” for a 1 stop push (since they won’t know how you rated your film).

    The adjustment for brightness of an image during the scanning process is called density correction. Exposure only refers to the amount of light reaching your negative.

    If you work with RPL you can reference a Color PAC of a photographer you like for a certain look or give them a visual reference. But with any lab I would recommend talking with them first and giving them a visual so that they understand your preferences from the start.

    In regards to ruining your next roll: I can’t recommend testing enough. To consistently achieve the same look isn’t easy and it usually takes many attempts and rolls of film to get it right. What I share here on my blog is meant to provide a starting point – not a shortcut. :)

  186. Ross Attix
    9. March 2017

    Hi Johnny,

    I found this discussion very late, but am glad to see it is still active. I love that you took the time to research and explain all of this very technical stuff. It is an eye opener to read and digest. And the look you are getting in your prints is really great! Thanks for sharing this with us.

    I have a question which you touched upon here when you said,… “The reference of what I share here is always a regular incident reading at box speed, not a shadow reading. A shadow reading results in 2-3 stops of overexposure.”

    My question is partly about terminology, and partly methodology. Let’s assume the subject is getting reflected light so we don’t get sidetracked with sunsets, etc. You mentioned a few times about rating the film at half the box speed (so overexposing by 1 stop baseline) and metering the shadows. From your comment in quotes, you are not taking reflected readings of the shadow areas, correct?

    It seems to me if the photographer sets his/her meter at half the rated ISO, and then takes an incident reading of the scene, the shadow areas will already be getting an extra stop of exposure. Then depending on the circumstances, if it would seem that maybe there was a reason to favor those darker areas even more to preserve detail, additional exposure could be added. By such method the exposure would still only be maybe 2 stops over the rated speed?

    I am trying to be sure I am understanding your suggestions for metering and arriving at an exposure setting.

  187. Johnny
    10. March 2017

    Ross, thanks very much. That’s great to hear!

    You are right, I use an incident meter. I linked an earlier post that explains my metering method in more detail.

    Preserving shadow detail in the final result isn’t my main concern, it’s mainly about getting enough density on the negative in all areas of the image. All available modern film stocks have enough exposure latitude to handle this without concern.

    Have a look here how I got to the point of reference. How much overexposure a shadow reading translates to always depends on the contrast range of the scene. This method usually results in 2-3 stops of overexposure.

  188. Sam Park
    11. March 2017

    Beautiful work Johnny and thank you for being both generous with your knowledge and honest in your writing and photography – it shows.

    I’ve been a long time digital photographer – well as long as there has been digital capture, which hasn’t been that long – and I can appreciate your methodology and process to your art.

    I’ve also tested countless different exposures, different lighting and post-processing work for my digital work to try to create what I had envisioned. I’ve recently switched to film and have come to a similar conclusion as you – film has a tremendous amount of exposure latitude. I’ve done similar over and under stop test shots and I originally thought that my shutter timing was off because it was hard to believe what I saw coming from the digital side. But truth is in experience and in doing.

    Success is built on a million failures and without going out there and constantly testing, pushing personal boundaries and respecting that inner truth in all of us that pushes us to our own artistic endeavors there is no growth – at least that is my belief. For any nay sayers, I suggest you go out there and try for yourself.

    In the last few years I’ve also sold all my professional Nikon digital gear and have been working with a Rollei with a single Zeiss T* 1.4/50 lens that originally belonged to my father. Film is new to me but the process is the same. Experiment, learn and respect your inner truth.

  189. Johnny
    12. March 2017

    Sam, thanks very much for your feedback. That’s very kind of you.

    I love what you said about truth being in experience and doing, I completely agree with you and I think there’s no substitute or shortcut when it comes to learning your craft. You need to understand the technicalities first to be able to forget about them in the creative process.

    And as for the naysayers, it’s always easier to knock something down than to build it up. :)

    A wonderful contribution, thanks again!

  190. Scott Mahr
    12. March 2017

    Hi:

    I wanted to simply say I appreciate the time, effort, talent, and sincere gratitude for sharing your knowledge. I challenged myself to lose the “spray and pray” digital hack mentality that I have accepted in my “photography”. I purchased an OM2-n and lenses and a month later was hooked and with a 503. This isn’t about the gear… my point is I dove in blind and came across your site and genuinely believe it has provided great navigation and a wealth of knowledge that I knew I lacked.

    Lastly…back to the gear: It clicked for me when I could set the shutter and aperture and look though the back of a Hasselblad and actually see what each aperture and shutter speed combination did. I am so used to digital menus and too many buttons that I never really could understand. Add in the information you provided and a lot of foundation and
    education has been realized. Thanks!

  191. Johnny
    13. March 2017

    Scott, many thanks for your kind feedback. Makes me super happy to read that you’re enjoying shooting film and the whole process so much.

    I have to say though, spray & pray is not a digital-only phenomenon. I’m not sure how many film photographers would truly take their time if money wasn’t an option. And on the flip side, I know a lot of photographers that mainly shoot digital and that are very deliberate in their approach.

    But I agree, you can’t take a technically sound picture without educating yourself a little bit first. A purely mechanical camera doesn’t think for you and I believe that’s a good thing. I enjoy this experience too – all you work with is aperture, shutter speed and a focus ring. That’s it. :)

  192. Aaron Tyree
    21. March 2017

    I think for me, while there are many useful confirmations and liberating encouragements in this post, the things that stands out most to me in all of it are the first and second comments at the end of the post. You two have something very special. You’re lucky you are on the opposite side of the country or I’d be bugging you guys all the time. Carry on Mr. Patience…

  193. Johnny
    22. March 2017

    Aaron, I don’t have much to say except for thank you very much. I do feel very lucky to share my love for photography with Rebecca.

    If you’re ever in Maine, please don’t forget to say hi. :)

  194. Dave
    25. April 2017

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge, Johnny.

    I was wondering what you think about DSLR scanning and such. There’s also a new mobile app called FilmLab. Do you expect the results to be useable?

  195. Johnny
    25. April 2017

    Many thanks for your kind words and your question, Dave.

    I’m generally not a fan of home scanning unless you own pro-grade lab equipment and know how to use it properly. Scanning film is a completely different skill set than shooting. It requires a lot of color sensitivity and experience. Flatbed scanners, for example, are made to scan documents and not film.

    DSLR scanning is the most questionable approach out there for many reasons, one of them being the lack of density correction. Taking a picture of a negative is not even remotely comparable with a scanning a negative. It combines the disadvantages of both worlds (film and digital).

    I believe a film scanning app will have similar issues, but I think it’s a very creative idea. I’m sure it’ll be a fun way to produce digital contact prints and previews.

  196. Patrick
    13. June 2017

    I think the zone system still has a place – especially with slide film. I mainly shoot color negatives, and it seems like following the box speed avoids some of the color shifts and other problems. Although I do like the high key look that some people get when metering in the shadows.

    It would probably be hard to print a really dense color negative, since there is not a lot of contrast control in a color darkroom printing process. I’ve only done limited color printing because it is such a pain. However, the results from real optical prints are really nice, and it would be a nightmare to dial in the filters with really over-exposed negatives. I would imagine that there would be a color cast in the highlights or shadows.

  197. Johnny
    14. June 2017

    Patrick, many thanks for your feedback.

    This post specifically addresses shooting B&W film and it also covers my personal approach and technique. I wrote about my experience with color negative film in a separate post, in case you’re interested. The high key “pastel” look many photographers like for their color work is mainly are result of the scanning process, not overexposure.

    If you overexpose color negative film a lot, the overall palette gets warmer and you will introduce more contrast. Color shifts are usually a result of underexposure.

  198. Kristian
    4. July 2017

    Hi Johnny, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, I finally understood “metering to the shadows” thanks to your blog.

    I will definitely give this method a try but am still a but unsure of how to develop. I develop my films by myself and I have received great results with Caffenol developers (don’t know if you heard about this approach to develop your B&W film in a liquid made of instant coffee and Vitamin C).

    I normally expose my T-Max 400 at EI 800 or even 1600 and with this developer I get very fine grained and well exposed negatives. Now I am a bit uncertain how I should handle all this, even when I read the comment of Mike from 11. October 2016, where he states that a different developer changes the speed of a film significantly.

    So should I rate T-Max in Caffenol-C-H as a 800 speed film and to overexpose it should I rate it at 400 (it’s D76 box speed) and then lengthen the development times?

    I would appreciate it very much to get an idea from you.

    Best regards,

    Kristian

  199. Johnny
    5. July 2017

    Many thanks for your kind feedback and your question, Kristian.

    I have heard about Caffenol, but I have no experience with the process. I only use commercial developers (for consistency) and won’t be able to help you with a recommendation.

    My suggestion would be to experiment yourself and see what works for you. If you’d like to, please feel free to share your results.

  200. Gene Tan
    2. August 2017

    Hi Johnny, thank you for all the work that you have been doing. I’ve learned a lot from what you have done and look forward to hearing and seeing more in the future.

    Quick question though, in terms of overexposing and overdeveloping with Tri-X and/or HP5, are you seeing more and larger grain than if you were to expose (box speed) and develop regularly?

    Best regards,

    Gene

  201. Johnny
    3. August 2017

    Gene, thanks very much for your kind feedback and your question.

    You will see more grain when you push, overexpose (significantly) or overdevelop B&W film and depending on the variables, the grain can get bigger and even clumpy. But as I mentioned above, the developer and your processing have a huge influence on the results.

    I like grain and I like a lot if it depending on the look. I’ve gotten excellent results with XTOL and D-76 and the grain never looked excessive to me.

  202. Jiske
    10. August 2017

    Hi Johnny,

    A great read. I am a mere beginner and just bought a Nikon FM3a.

    I am going to start with a Nikkor prime 50mm lens. And I want to shoot just B&W.

    What kind of film would be great and forgiving for a beginner?

    Thanks!

    Jiske

  203. Johnny
    10. August 2017

    Thanks for your question, Jiske. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    You picked a great set up, I started shooting film on a Nikon FM2 with a 50mm too. I would recommend Kodak Tri-X 400, it’s the most versatile B&W film out there and it can give you so many different looks depending on how you shoot and process it.

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy your journey! :)

  204. Jiske
    16. August 2017

    Hi Johnny,

    Just a quick follow up question, because I’m a digital girl going analog. :)

    I am going to start shooting in Spain this summer and it’s very bright there. The Tri-X 400 is for some darker settings. So what setting would be best, to start with, on my camera? 200 or 800 and why. I just don’t yet get the logic in it all.

    I know of the first couple of rolls some will be good and some won’t. It’s trial and error for a newbie.

    Thanks in advance again for your response.

    Jiske

  205. Johnny
    17. August 2017

    Thank you, Jiske. Have a look here, this post will make a lot of things I wrote about more understandable.

    If you’re just starting out, I would rate Tri-X 400 at 200 (half box speed) and meter for the shadows. Save the experiments and a more adventurous approach for when you’re familiar with your film stock and know how it will respond to different lighting conditions.

    If you are shooting in darker settings, you can push Tri-X to 1600 or even 3200 if needed. But again, I would save that for a later time.

    Have fun!

  206. Leo
    19. August 2017

    Dear Johnny,

    Thank you for your tips and beautiful photos on your website. I now understand how to expose B&W films according to your method: rate 1/2 box speed, expose for the shadow and overdevelop +1.

    I have a question about pushing film. If I rate a 400 speed film at 1600, would I simply overexpose in camera and ask the lab to develop +2? I usually push my B&W film (HP5+) at 1600 for both daytime and nighttime shooting and the results are inconsistent. I do get more grain and contrast that I like, but sometimes also underexposed negatives.

    Just wondering what your thoughts on exposure for pushed film. Thank you.

  207. Johnny
    22. August 2017

    Leo, thanks so much for your kind feedback.

    If you rate an ISO 400 speed film at ISO 1600, you are underexposing it two stops and have to compensate by pushing it +2 stops in development (or, as you mentioned, tell your lab you would like it developed at +2).

    If you are getting inconsistent results, I’d start with your metering approach and maybe build in an extra stop to play it safe. So either rate the film at 800 and push two stops or rate at 1600 and push three stops.

  208. Jim
    8. September 2017

    I’ve just acquired a 4×5 and use a Pentax spot meter. What I have read is that I should measure the darkest shadows in which I want details and open the exposure a stop or two (zone 4 or 3). Are you suggesting it might be better to just use the measured exposure (presumably zone 5)?

    Thanks in advance.

  209. Johnny
    9. September 2017

    Many thanks for your question, Jim.

    What you read will work, it’s just a different approach. I generally recommend overexposing 2-3 stops and using an incident meter over a spot meter. Have a look here if you like, the comments are also very helpful. I think I remember one from you too! :)

  210. Michael
    10. September 2017

    I just found this post. This is basically what I learned in a David Vestal workshop in the 1970s – that one should mess with exposure until one could reliably get the kind of prints one wanted. I have always liked a lot of shadow detail, and have gradually learned that I like negs without any clear areas. If I get that, I can make a nice print.

    B&W film has amazing headroom, and I use all of it (one of my pics I often show in this regard had 17-stops, measured, range, and the print has detail all the way across). In silver, this can be a pain to print, but possible; scanning, it’s a cinch to handle, so why throw away all that possibility?

    As a result of the Vestal workshop, I shot Tri-X at EI 250 for years. Now I may often figure that exposure, and if I can afford it, I give another stop for good luck.

    I guess the Zone System works if you want to develop every shot individually and can’t bear to use anything but #2 paper, and view that as a personal accomplishment that’s important to your self-image, but I haven’t ever lived in that world.

  211. Johnny
    12. September 2017

    Thank you very much for the great contribution, Michael.

    I agree with you, not throwing away all that possibility is exactly my point. I also made the experience that very dense (“bulletproof”) negatives become a lot easier to print.

    How easy they are to scan also depends on the machine you’re using. I really enjoy so much having found a recipe that works equally well in both worlds.

  212. Simon
    17. September 2017

    Really great post, Johnny. I am a big fan of your blog.

    The first time I read this (last year) it was a bit a confusing, but once you put it into practice it started to make sense to me. What helped me a lot was just try, try, try, and try. :)

    Because I didn’t wanted to waste a lot of film (read “money”) on this journey, I used my digital camera in manual mode along with my Sekonic meter at first and I took a lot of notes. Not necessarily for the results but just trying to understand the method and how to apply it on different kinds of lighting situations. This all helped improve my film photography a lot.

    I just wanted to thank you for that! Keep up the great work.

  213. Johnny
    18. September 2017

    Simon, thank you very much for your comment. That’s so wonderful to hear.

    That’s really a great idea! I often recommend something similar in my workshops: if you’re shooting on a budget, just start guessing your exposures and double check with a light meter. You can train your eye that way and add the shooting part in later when you’re able to guess within a 1-2 stop range.

    And I completely agree with you, there simply is no substitute for practice. Just shoot as much as possible and learn along the way. :)

  214. Andrew
    1. October 2017

    I’ve just recently started shooting film and have been trying to come up with a reliable metering technique that will give me a negative that will be printable in the darkroom and give me a good, consistent tonal range. I’m less interested in scanning for online use, but I don’t want to preclude it.

    There is a LOT of information online describing metering techniques and the confusing thing for a newcomer to film is that everyone seems to have a different methodology. It seems like some advocate elements of the Zone System where you meter for the darkest shadows for which you want to retain some level or detail and then underexpose two stops to place them in Zone III – letting the highlights fall where they may. Then there’s the approach along the lines of yours that advocates overexposing in order to ensure the retention of shadow detail. There’s also some who seem to advocate exposing for the highlights much like one does for digital. I suppose there’s no wrong answer, it all depends on the results one is trying to achieve.

    Given my limited knowledge, retaining good negative density seems to make sense if one cares about shadow detail so I’d like to try your approach. My question (finally!) is, how important is it to overdevelop in your approach? I believe you said you do it to get more grain/contrast, but I’m wondering if the 2-3 stops of overexposure produced by rating at half box speed and then metering for the shadows would be a good start. My concern is obtaining a negative that is so dense that it is difficult to print in the darkroom. Your example of 9+ minutes seems like a super long time – I was watching a video online in which a master printer commented that he was making a very long exposure at 1m 45s!

  215. Johnny
    1. October 2017

    Thank you very much for your feedback, Andrew.

    You are right, there are so many different schools of thought and many of them seem to contradict each other. I had the same problem when I started out, that’s why I try to help fellow film shooters getting started.

    My metering approach is simple and easy to comprehend, especially if you’re new to film photography. It will give you consistently good results. A lot of people like to make shooting film sound very difficult while it can be really easy and fun, without much of a technical overhead. It’s important to have a sound technical base, but it’s not rocket science.

    Just to clarify this, I recommend overexposure mainly to shoot in an exposure range that will prevent underexposure by utilizing the latitude of color negative and B&W film. It’s not only about shadow detail.

    If you’re shooting B&W and scanning the film is secondary, there’s nothing wrong with trying to expose for the shadows and developing for the highlights. This method will yield negatives that are fun to print in the darkroom. But they likely won’t give you great results on the scanner without manipulation.

    This post has two parts if you read carefully, one describes my general findings and a recommendation (rate your film at half box speed and meter for the shadows) and instructions how to replicate my personal approach (for a gritty/grainy look with strong blacks push/overdevelop a stop additionally).

    And yes, you are absolutely right – my exposure times in the darkroom are super long. But the results are worth it to me and it also saves a lot of time in the long run because I don’t have to dodge and burn.

    My best advice would be to shoot and experiment as much as you can. You’ll learn quickly if you develop your own negatives and print them in the darkroom. Just try different things and see what works best for you.

  216. Jim
    1. October 2017

    Can you explain why larger film formats have more latitude?

    Let’s pretend you take the exact some image on 4×5 as 35mm-ish. True, there should be much higher tonal resolution for a given part of the image – there is more surface area and statistically, you should get a denser/smoother distribution of tones, which has a very large effect on appearance and detail – to me this is really the MF or LF “look”.

    But that should not change exposure latitude, or density per unit exposure. As far as I know, the data sheets don’t differ between formats.

    What am I missing?

  217. Johnny
    2. October 2017

    Many thanks for your question, Jim.

    I’ll try to keep my answer as unscientific as possible. ;)

    There are multiple things to take into account. In theory you are right, if the film stock is technically identical, the exposure latitude (as in “densitometric sensitivity”) per surface area shouldn’t change. But you don’t have the same surface area per scene with large format vs. 35mm film.

    With large format you are utilizing a lot more material for the same scene while you are simultaneously using much longer lenses. The amount of light hitting the film in a large format camera is not identical to 35mm. Please also see many manufacturer’s recommendations in regards to f-stop compensation for bellows extension.

    Similar optical effects come into play on the scanner and the enlarger too, for this reason grain appears to be much larger with a half frame negative vs. a negative from an 8×10 large format camera. The further you break this down to smaller formats, the more scene will have to be handled by a smaller film strip.

    Furthermore Tri-X as a sheet film is different than Tri-X in 35mm. Kodak won’t tell you this, but please try it for yourself. Cut a strip of sheet film up and use it in a 35mm camera for a comparison vs. a roll of 35mm film. You will see that the film stock is not identical.

    There are many more things affecting this, anti-halation layers, the base density being different due to different surface treatment for different formats etc., which can make up to almost a full stop difference.

    Comparing film formats is a little bit like comparing bottled Coke with fountain Coke. Yes, both is the original Coca-Cola recipe. But you can still taste the difference.

  218. Stefano
    9. October 2017

    Well, 9 minutes exposure for a wet print! That’s a lot of time.

    Congratulations for your findings, Johnny. Now I’ll shot few rolls to compare my base setup (Tri-X @1600, metered for shadows, semi-stand development in R09) vs. yours. I don’t scan any black and white negative, so my only option is to wet print. I’ll let you know…

    Just a question: are you following the exposure setup as seen here in this post? (sunny 1/1000 f/2, cloudy 1/500 f/2, etc…) or are you metering each shot for the shadows?

    Thanks in advance!

    Cheers

  219. Johnny
    10. October 2017

    Many thanks for your feedback, Stefano.

    You are right, 9 minutes is a very long time. I’m excited for you to try this and I can’t wait to hear back how you like the results compared to your usual darkroom approach.

    Yes, the cheat sheet is usually how I expose my film. But how I shoot depends a lot on the light too. I usually don’t carry a meter with me anymore (unless I need to know a precise reading for a blog post).

  220. Robert
    11. October 2017

    A step chart has 21 steps in it, the Zone System utilizes 7 of them. It’s an abbreviated method to give good coverage of the linear center third of the entire curve. Applying the Zone System with modern film stocks is a waste of time.

  221. Johnny
    11. October 2017

    Thanks very much for your feedback, Robert. I appreciate your contribution.

  222. Sevad
    12. October 2017

    This is certainly one way to work but it’s not the only way and definitely does not produce the highest quality possible from the materials. It’s been known for decades that over exposure reduces resolution and increases grain. If you want the sharpest, finest grain results from your film then you have to give just enough exposure to capture the shadow detail you want and no more. Then you have to develop for the right time to get the highlight density you want. Anything other than that will mean less sharpness and more grain. If you’re not bothered about sharpness and grain then I can see your method having a certain appeal – especially for beginners.

    However, what you’re writing about isn’t new: Bruce Barnbaum has been advocating the placement of shadows on zones four or five for a couple of decades. However, he reduces development to keep highlights printable in the darkroom without resorting to lengthy burning in of skies and the like which only leads to ever more obvious grain. Ralph Gibson made his name doing something similar starting 40 years ago although he was actually chasing a grainy, contrasty look which isn’t to everyone’s taste.

    So, if you don’t want to learn how to expose properly for the shadow detail you want and develop appropriately so you don’t get 9 minute print exposures (!) and you’re not bothered about getting the best resolution and finest grain from your materials then carry on!

  223. Johnny
    12. October 2017

    Thanks for your comment, Sevad.

    No, I’m definitely not bothered by minimal grain or maximum sharpness. If I was, I would probably shoot large format and a very slow film stock – or maybe prefer digital. I love imperfections in my B&Ws and in my prints.

    Quality is a very subjective term, though. I think about photography as an art form, for me a photograph is good (or of high quality if you like), if it makes me feel something. The technical approach is secondary to me and I simply don’t feel accomplishment if I make a print that’s technically perfect but feels soulless.

    What you describe is the classic darkroom approach. Photographers regurgitate it over and over for decades without wandering off the beaten path or experimenting much. That’s what I’m trying to encourage, be bold and try something new. Maybe it will open doors for you that you weren’t even aware existed. Accept failure as part of the growth process instead of repeating a dusty old “gold standard” over and over.

    As I said above, my exposure times in the darkroom are very long. But the results are worth it to me and with my workflow it saves time, because I don’t have to dodge and burn. This is especially helpful if I’m making many copies of the same print.

    By the way, I don’t claim that I invented the wheel and I’m sure others have tried aspects of my approach before me. But please take the time and try this for yourself before you judge something by the book. We all need to stay open minded in order to learn new things.

  224. Jil
    12. October 2017

    Johnny, your patience is admirable. :-)

  225. Johnny
    12. October 2017

    Haha! Thank you kindly, Jil. :)

  226. Teddy
    16. October 2017

    Johnny,

    Nice article, and thought provoking.

    The zone system isn’t dead, wrong or outdated, it’s either not correctly understood or it is far more complex than needed and the concepts can be greatly simplified.

    As a counterpoint:

    As you may know, you can’t change the ISO speed of a B&W or color neg film. Tri-X has an ISO of 400 in D-76, and that won’t change. Delta 3200 has an an ISO 1000 in D-76 and you can’t change that either. The point being is ISO speed is derived by a precise method, if you get a different number you are doing it wrong.

    If Kodak put anything other than ISO 400 on the box of Tri-X they would be lying. What they could do is make a suggestion on how to rate the film, which is what they did with T-Max3200 (an ISO 1000 film), and Ilford did the same with their delta 3200 another ISO 1000 film. But in the case of Tri-X or other general purpose films what recommendation should they make?

    You might argue this is just semantics, the point being the ISO speed isn’t the recommended speed at all, just the speed determined by the ISO testing method.

    Kodak could repack their Tri-X film in a new box, maybe call it JP-200… it would still be an ISO 400 film but with a recommended EI of 200. It would have better shadow detail, hardly noticeable increased grain, and slight reduction to its all ready very generous overexposure latitude.

    It’s also worthy to note Ansel used a different Tri-X than that you are using in your roll and 35 cameras, it has an ISO of 320 and the big difference being how it handles highlights! Though in many cases I am sure you would get excellent results if you rated that film with an EI of 160.

    None of this is meant as faint praise, it’s nice that your kind enough to share the EI and development info you are using in your work.

  227. Johnny
    16. October 2017

    Many thanks for your comprehensive feedback, Teddy.

    We don’t have the slightest disagreement here. I am certainly not expecting that Kodak goes an relabels all of their film stocks now because I like to shoot and process my B&W film differently than they recommend. And you’re right, the nomal ISO rating (“box speed”) doesn’t change (different developers can have an influence on the nominal value, but that’s for another day).

    I think you might have missed the point of my article, especially in regards to ISO speed. I refer to box speed as the minimum nominal value that will give you good results. I am well aware that this is oversimplified, but it’s important to share that it’s perfectly ok to interpret the box speed of any color negative and B&W film as a recommendation and not a fixed value. Just as you noted correctly, manufacturers do this with their own 3200 film stocks too.

    Just for clarity, I specifically mentioned that Ansel Adams was shooting a different Tri-X back in the days. And even today’s Tri-X sheet film is, contrary to popular belief, not identical with 120 or 35mm.

  228. Teddy
    17. October 2017

    I should have added for correctness that with B&W negative film you can change the ISO with a speed enhancing developer, one manufacturer foma ‘cheats’ by providing ISO rating in a speed enhancing developer (Microphen).

  229. Johnny
    17. October 2017

    Thanks, Teddy. I appreciate your contribution.

  230. Andrew
    24. October 2017

    I decided to give this approach a try with my last roll of Tri-X and I was a little underwhelmed with the results, especially when printing in the darkroom. As I expected, getting enough detail in the highlights was a challenge, although it hasn’t required exposures anywhere near the 9 minute range.

    The film certainly retained detail in the overexposed highlights but it took some doing to coerce it out of the negative on the enlarger while retaining sufficient shadow information. I ended up making some split-grade prints and that made the process somewhat easier. That’s not something I saw mentioned in the blog post or the comments but could be helpful if you intend to follow this approach.

    While I think the approach advocated here makes things simple and could prove useful for beginners, it could lead to some frustration if you intend to make wet prints.

    Going forward I think I’ll go with the more typical approach of exposing for the shadows and pulling a bit during development to tame the highlights. I think that will produce negatives that will make wet printing more enjoyable.

  231. Johnny
    25. October 2017

    Thanks very much for your feedback and giving this a try, Andrew.

    If your exposure times under the enlarger aren’t significantly longer, I would try giving the film even more density. The effect I am describing will give you an effortless result without hot highlights or the necessity to split print.

    If you’re mainly into making wet prints in the darkroom and scans are secondary, this approach might continue to frustrate you though. As I’ve mentioned, the exposure times will get very long.

  232. Stefano
    30. October 2017

    Johnny,

    thank you very much. Even in direct sunlight with 1/500s at f/2 there are details recorded in highlight spectrum! It’s true, very grainy results as well.

    Now I know that 6 stops overexposure do not affect the image at all. Don’t know if it will be suitable for my kind of photography, but I admit that this approach is VERY freeing.

    Cheers to you!

  233. Johnny
    31. October 2017

    Stefano, thank you for your feedback.

    I’m very happy to hear that you’ve tried this method with good results. 6 stops of overexposure will affect the image, please have a look at the exposure bracket I provided.

  234. Richard
    23. November 2017

    Great article, Johnny. I tried your approach with HP5 400 (rated @200), spot metered the shadows, and told my lab +1. Impressed with the results – is this the correct approach?

    The images were about 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop overexposed – would it make sense to rate the 400 at 250 or 320 instead? Thanks.

  235. Justin
    1. December 2017

    Having read Ansel Adams’ “The Negative” from cover to cover, I had to conclude that the Zone System as described in the book is by no means dead, but it is only useful in a VERY specific context. That is, the ability to expose and develop individual frames separately from each other. Roll film of any size cannot do that, unless you want to take several blanks in between each shot, make careful records, and cut your negatives very carefully in the dark.

    Conversely digital, which can isolate its frames, does not respond in the same way to light in the first place, and the adjustments Adams made at both the developing and printing phase cannot be directly related to the way digital images are processed.

    Being a combined 35mm film and digital shooter, what I find the Zone System useful for is understanding and compensating for the fact that a camera’s meter calls everything zone V, and if that meter is reading smack-bang in the middle of the field rather than being whole-frame or loosely centre-weighted, you’d better be prepared to make some significant adjustments.

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