Film Photography

The mysteries of exposure and film exposure latitude

I thought it was a shame I hadn’t shot my Nikon F2AS in a long time, so I put some film through it recently. The meter led me to shutter speeds that seemed slow for the full-sun conditions, out of line with Sunny 16.

I shot four subjects twice, once using the F2’s meter and once using the my phone’s light meter app. The app consistently had me expose two additional stops!

I shot Ilford FP4 Plus through my 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom Nikkor lens (which I like less and less the more I use it). I developed the film in Rodinal 1+50 and scanned the negatives on my Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II using VueScan. I brought the scans into Photoshop where I unsharp masked them all, corrected perspective if that was necessary, and on one shot toned down the highlights, but otherwise left them alone.

There are so many possibilities in any scene, from how you expose it to how you develop it to what you do with the negative in printing or scanning and post-processing. These pairs show it well. The F2 metered shot is first in each pair. In this first pair, I like the second shot more for its better definition in the houses, and the more silvery reflection in the pond.

Reflected houses, overexposed
Reflected houses, underexposed

In this pair, I prefer the second shot again for its rich, smooth tone in the tennis court surface and the better definition in the houses.

Tennis net, overexposed
Tennis net, underexposed

In this pair, I like the first shot better for its slightly better shadow detail. The first photo is the one where I toned the highlights down slightly in Photoshop. The path was a little washed out in the original scan.

Path, overexposed
Path, underexposed

In this pair, I like the first shot better for its slightly better shadow detail and its better definition in the sky.

Lowe's, overexposed
Lowe's, underexposed

What do you see in these photos? In each pair, which do you like better?

I think to some extent what we’re seeing here is the good exposure latitude of FP4 Plus — these are all technically decent photographs. Also, what we all like in a photograph is subjective.

After I finished this roll I checked my F2’s meter under a bunch of lighting conditions and couldn’t reproduce the odd meter readings I was getting. Soon I’ll mount a lens I know and like better, probably my 35mm f/2.8, and shoot this F2 again to validate the meter’s functioning.

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Film Photography

How to set exposure on old manual cameras

When you want to use an old manual camera, you need to set exposure yourself. Exposure is essentially the amount of light that reaches the film when you press the shutter button. Too much or too little light, and you won’t get a good image.

You need to set two settings:

  • Aperture, or f stop, which is the size of the hole the light passes through. This is a number like 1.4, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22. The smaller the number, the bigger the hole.
  • Shutter speed, which is how long to let the light pass through. Your camera will have shutter speeds like 500, 250, 125, 60, 30, 15; or maybe 200, 100, 50, 25. That’s the fraction of a second the shutter will pass light onto the film. 200 is 1/200 second.

But I’m going to give you two easy shortcuts: use the Sunny 16 rule, or use a light-meter application on your phone.

There’s a lot to know about exposure. But if you experiment using these shortcuts, I’ll bet you’ll learn a lot about exposure on your own!

The Sunny 16 rule

On a sunny day, you’ll get a good enough exposure when you set the f stop to 16, and the shutter to the inverse of your film’s ISO. If you’re using ISO 200 film, set the shutter to 1/200 or close to it.

If the day isn’t sunny, you can still use the Sunny 16 rule. Just change the f stop according to this table.

ApertureLighting conditionsShadow quality
f/22Very bright sunDark with sharp edges
f/11Slight overcastSoft around the edges
f/8OvercastBarely visible
f/5.6Heavy overcastNot visible
f/4Deep shadeNot visible

Until I got the hang of Sunny 16, I printed this table and taped it to the back of my manual cameras.

Your film’s ISO might not line up perfectly with your shutter’s speeds. Sometimes you can fudge it and be okay. For example, if your film’s ISO is 125, the 1/100 shutter speed is close enough. For ISO 200 film, a 1/250 shutter is close enough.

Kodak Pony 135 Model C

Most color negative films tolerate a lot of overexposure. Notice how the shutter-speed scale on the camera pictured above is 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/300? If you’re shooting a common ISO 200 color film like Fujicolor 200 or Kodak Gold 200, there’s no shutter speed close to 1/200 for Sunny 16 shooting. What I’d do is use 1/100. This will overexpose the film, but the film can take it. It will look great.

Or just choose a film with an ISO that is close to an available shutter speed on your camera. For the camera pictured above, you could choose something like Kodak T-Max 100, an ISO 100 film, and shoot at 1/100.

Light meter apps

Your other choice is to download a light meter app to your phone. I have an iPhone and I use myLightMeter. I paid for the Pro version, but there’s also a free version that works just as well.

Most of these apps work similarly: tell it what ISO your film is, aim your phone at your subject, and tap the Measure button. The app will give you an entire range of f/stop and shutter-speed settings that will give you a good exposure.

In the screen shot, the f stops don’t line up perfectly with the shutter speeds for the scene I metered. Close enough is good enough — most films don’t require exact exposure settings to get a good image. As long as you’re close to one of the settings the meter gives you, you’ll be all right. Based on the meter readings in the screen shot, if my camera has 1/250 as a shutter speed I’d choose f/8 and it would work well enough. On the camera pictured above, I have 1/300, so I’d use that.

Many cameras let you set the aperture anywhere between f stops. If yours does, you can choose a shutter speed your camera supports and then set f stop according to the meter. For example, say your camera has a shutter setting of 1/100. On the meter screen shot, the dot to the right of 1/125 will be about 1/100. Notice that dot is about 2/3 of the way between f/11 and f/16. Set your camera’s f stop about 2/3 of the way between f/11 and f/16.

From time to time someone will leave a comment on one of my camera reviews saying, “I just got one of these cameras. How do you set exposure on it?” I’ve answered that question enough times that I’ve decided to write this post, which I can just link to from now on.

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