To Overexpose or Not Overexpose, That Is the Question (for Film Photographers)

For film photographers, there are few (possibly no) other topics that are as truly misunderstood or overhyped than the topic of "overexposure."

In this video, Kyle McDougall does an excellent job going over some of the basics of negative film and details just what happens when you meter for a different ASA than box speed. Indeed, there is a lot more to it than most might think. In a previous video, Kyle shared the results of an exposure-testing experiment for Kodak Portra 400

As you may recall from a previous article discussing specific topics in film photography, the idea of "overexposure" is very much misunderstood and, in my opinion, misused. The fact of the matter is that negative film is made in such a way that the presented box speed generally indicates the speed of the film with the widest exposure latitude. In addition, it is sometimes considered the fastest a film can be metered for while still producing desirable results. For those that really love contrast, however, they may disagree with this sentiment. Either way, intentionally metering for an ASA that differs from box speed should be done with purpose to achieve the desired results. 

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you purposefully "overexpose" your film?

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Don Althaus's picture

Always shot Tri-X and HP5 at 320 and Plus-X at 100. FP4 was usually pretty good at 125.

mark wilkins's picture

Shooting jobs on chrome was a serious juggle with fractional over and under exposures... and on top of that pushing and pulling 1/3rd to half stops after your snip tests was standard. Are you under age 40? If so your probably thinking...WTF is he talking about?

J Riley Stewart's picture

Good lessons here. As an aside, I wonder how many film photographers realize the creative power possible during the scanning process. Nailing down the adjustments possible during scanning is far, far more useful than film exposure or development (pushing/pulling). If you use a scanning lab, this power is out of reach, of course, because they will likely resort to using their own presets, which assumes your film and shooting workflow is just like everyone else's. We all know how the early masters used darkroom techniques to creatively render their negatives into beautiful images. Well, the scanner is today's equivalent. Or, you can get a full spectrum scan done and do the creative parts in software, of course. Point is, if you think those technically crappy negatives are due to the photographer, you may be wrong. It might just be how the negative was scanned. Getting and learning how to scan negatives is, imo, just as important as getting and using a camera. Truly. More about this topic here:

Rodney Johnson's picture

I agree that learning to scan is important, but that isn't the sole reason one fractionally adjusts exposure to get a better negative. Once upon a time getting a good negative was all about the wet print. The reasons to compress or widen tonal range by coordinating exposure and development (dependant on lighting and subject) are to more easily create the desired wet print with a minimum of burning and dodging. The Zone System being the pinnacle of this art.

El Capitan's picture

With all respect, if your negative is underexposed, you’d be hard pressed to recover shadow details no matter what scanner you use. Negative is not a raw image.