Benefits of ample exposure in black and white film photography: Or, let there be light
I am a photography enthusiast with an interest in imagery sustained over decades. I find there is no end to the learning about photography’s artistic and technical aspects. I have learned that knowing what to do is not enough: in film photography, good execution is critical.
In this brief article I will review black and white film’s (B&W) capacity to absorb remarkable amounts of exposure, beyond what many photographers think is possible.
A film photographer can be confident that development of B&W film, if managed properly, can control ample exposure. Sufficient exposure leads to richer tonalities in the image which consequently reveal depth and dimensionality. Images made with insufficient exposure display a flatness in the photo.
A photographer who chooses to use B&W film does well to learn the Zone System, a method for systematic exposure developed years ago by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. The System is well documented in various sources — one of the best is The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum) It provides a way to use a light meter to drive a desirable exposure to gain sufficient details in the darker areas of the scene where details are wanted. Study of the Zone System is best achieved by a detailed write-up which can be found in Chapters 8 and 9 the Barnbaum book.
Photographers are familiar with stops of light. Many would say that a B&W image can absorb ten stops of light since photo paper spans ten stops. But film itself can record well beyond ten, even up to 16 stops. We’ll examine methods to make use of those higher stops.
In a nutshell, the Barnbaum recommendation for B&W film is to place the darkest area of the image where you want to see detail in Zone IV (or even higher). Often, these areas get placed in Zone III which puts the development too low on the development curve, the so-called toe of the curve. Tonal differences cannot be adequately achieved when Zone III is the choice.
When using a spot meter, please realize that a light meter will always return a Zone 5 result. Consequently, a photographer must apply judgment as to which zone should be selected. So, if a scene has a dark area where detail is desired, the exposure for that area should be adjusted to move that dark area to Zone 4. I.e., reduction of exposure by one stop is needed.
Film manufacturers often assign nominal ISO ratings higher than those that are warranted. So, for a given B&W film, what ISO should be used on the light meter? The answer can’t be generalized because of variations of film, developer, even local water. Personal testing should be done. Actual ISO values can be as low as half of the nominal ISO. Of course, choice of actual ISO has a direct bearing on a proper exposure. A starting point for development times can be found at the Massive Development Chart.
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One well-known method of contrast management is to reduce the amount of development time when it is known that there are higher zones that could be regarded as over-exposed. The lower zones (i.e., the darker areas of the image) develop themselves based on exposure and not development time. No matter how much development time is given to the lower zones, at some point they will cease to develop further. The higher zones (i.e., the brighter areas of the image) develop themselves based on time and it is the higher zones that can be manipulated to whatever level of contrast is desired.
One less known method to manage contrast is Barnbaum’s two solution compensating solution which I have found to be a capable way to bring back exposures with very high zones or when a softer look is desired. A more complete description is found in Chapter 9 of his above-mentioned book.
In general terms, here is how I apply this method. Basically, two development solutions are prepared: the first is a somewhat denser developer solution; the second, is a very dilute solution. The film is in the first solution for three minutes and then tank is drained. The second solution is added, and film develops for seven more minutes. Agitation is 15 seconds on the minute mark except for continuous agitation for the first minute with the first solution.
I would say my appreciation of the benefits of ample exposure began when I made a repeated and intensive study of the Barnbaum text. There is a large amount of content to this practice beyond what is possible in this short article. If interested, see the Barnbaum book for a complete discussion.
My work in film has settled into B&W film exclusively. I shoot digital if I want color. (A photographer who wishes to intervene for reasons of color film contrast management in the development process will find limited opportunity.) While I have shot with ILFORD films, my films of choice are Kodak T-MAX 100 and, if a higher speed is necessary, Tri-X. I would say about 80% of my work is in 120 format, 15% in large format, and 5% in 35mm format. Since 2013, I developed my films with Kodak XTOL, a fine developer. About a year ago, I changed to Kodak HC-110 for its convenience. I have experience with Pyrocat-HD which has some stellar properties. I had two bad experiences with Pyro as the developer exhausted itself prematurely on two different occasions. (I understand that the Pyrocat HD formulation with glycol has a much longer lifetime.)
I now digitize my film negatives with my DSLR camera, a macro lens, and Kaiser Slimlite Plano lightbox. I find the quality to be high and the process is faster than scanning with my Epson scanner. I use Negative Lab Pro as my first step in digitization and then work within Lightroom and Photoshop to complete whatever edits I choose to do.
I share here a selection of my B&W photos. Most are recent but two photos date from my Army days in Germany almost 50 years ago. While I like these old photos, I can see they are somewhat underexposed and would have benefited from more exposure.
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