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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leica M2 + Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 (Kodak Tri-X 400 in XTOL, overexposed by 5 stops, overdeveloped by 1 stop)
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.
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.
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.
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.