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Photography Question 
Brett M
BetterPhoto Member Since: 1/22/2008

Determining an Underexposed Negative


whenever I do a shoot, I usually shoot on 35mm and then get 4x6's at a crummy place like wal mart, just to see them before I have them enlarged, reprinted, etc.

I got my prints from wal mart and the quality was a crappy as usual, which consequently made me unable to judge the film exposure.

i had the prints enlarged (65 bucks later) and it turns out that the film was underexposed.

my question is:
How can I tell if a negative in underexposed before learning the hard, expensive way?

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3/15/2008 6:43:59 PM

Pete H
BetterPhoto Member Since: 8/9/2005

Looking at the final result from a photo is not a indicator of proper exposure.

Even Walmart runs film thru standard processing..not pushed or pulled.

You should be able to "look" at the negatives for standard density and contrast values in determing under or over exposure.

If your eye is inexperienced in this, buy a densitometer.

all the best,


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3/15/2008 7:02:47 PM

Christopher A. Walrath
BetterPhoto Member Since: 4/25/2006
  Pete is spot on on this one, well, kind of. Your eye is your best judge as to whether you got your exposure right. But I would move using your eye earlier than negative densities and put it to good use on your camera during exposure. You already use film which moves you WAY up in my book. Now study exposure. Buy a hand held off-camera light meter and learn it forwards and back. Go so far as to learn the math behind photography. Don't know why, but as much as I have studied photography over the years I can almost 'see' different relationships math-wise. It's like freakin' 'Rain Man' or something.

But what I'm trying to say here, Brett, is to acquaint yourself with photography SO MUCH that you know it second nature, you do without having it interfere with your creativity, and you will know it so well that you got your exposure right that it won't take Wal-Mart to tell you otherwise. STUDY. STUDY. STUDY. Make yourself better. Make yourself wiser. At some point you may wish to study sensitometry but you don't need to go right out and buy that equipment right now. It'd be like me going out and buying an airplane because I can't see into the next yard over the fence I built. There are easier paths to take and more logical ways to get us from point 'A' to point 'B'. And learning, even more than you already know, the how's and why's of photography are your first major steps to becoming a more complete photographer.

Some ideas. If you shoot color films bear in mind the these films can be very unforgiving. Exposure latitude is the amount of detail to either side of proper exposure that will still be recorded on a negative/slide (ie. highlights and shadows). Color films generally have only about a three stop range of exposure latitude if you are shooting color reversal films (slide films). Color negative films have a little more of a cushion, about 5. Black and white negative films can be much more forgiving but you still have to be close. They have an exposure latitude of 7-9 stops. Much more room to work with.

Exposure bracketting. I don't practice this except in extremely low light and long timed exposures because they can be difficult to get right, no matter how good you are. But exposure bracketting is kind of like laying down a good cover fire in hopes that your enemy will be distracted enough that you can get out alive. Well, maybe not that drastic. You shoot your subject at the indicated exposure from your reading. Now if you're still not sure, you decrease exposure by one stop and shoot again. Then move back to your original exposure setting and increase exposure by one stop and fire a third frame. This will ensure you get decent exposure for a tricky important shot.

Buy one book and all of your problems will be solved. (I just love the sound of that). Not really, but it is the book that showed me the most over the years. It was written by Ansel Adams and it is entitled 'The Negative'. Exposure, the Zone System, natural and artificial light, filters and even film processing. It's all here and is laid out in a concise and easy to learn manner. This is my photographic BIBLE.

Godd luck, Brett.

Thank you

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3/16/2008 6:55:34 AM

Gregory LaGrange
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/11/2003
  It's something you'll have to learn by doing until you get a feel for what you shot and how it should look on film.
Reading is important, but it still needs you to do the film so you can see what different types of shots should look like.
Like learning to judge a properly exposed night shot.

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3/16/2008 7:08:29 AM

Mark Feldstein
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/17/2005
  There's a lot of great stuff here that's been said. Film-based B&W photography can be incredibly artistic and versatile. Rather than trusting your film to Walmart or anyone else for that matter, you might consider processing your film yourself. All it takes is a film tank, a couple of chemicals and some water. Being able to control the process will help you control the final results. And you can take your self-processed film to any reasonably competent lab (Walmart not being one of them) for printing either prints or contact sheets.

Also, as Chris said, while practicing is important, experimenting is just as important. You'll find (and I hope pleasantly so) that controlling your exposure, learning how to visualize how the film sees the scene will help you produce top quality results. And to help you visualize that scene, having and knowing how to use a hand held light meter IMHO is equally important.

Then add knowledge of how contrast filters help in the process, how to expose for say shadows and process for highlights, seeing light and shadows and learning exposure latitude of particular films AND the right combination of developer to use with which films will also help you learn a lot.

As for bracketing, even when you really get a handle on the process itself, you may find yourself wanting to bracket exposures. Personally, I don't see anything wrong with that at all. I do it myself regardless of format I'm shooting in at the time. Film is the cheapest commodity we have I think, and a couple of extra frames here and there is a good investment in avoiding reshoots and if you keep accurate exposure notes while learning, can also help teach you the nuts and bolts of the process.

Enjoy the learning curve. Alot of people here at BP would disagree but IMO it's well worth the time and effort. Also check out Great info on shooting b&w, processing and equipment.

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3/16/2008 12:53:05 PM

Alan N. Marcus   Hi Brett,

It will be most difficult to express in words, instructions that will help you improve your skills to make visual assessments of your negatives. However; the correct exposure is generally defined as the least exposure that produces an image with tonalities and or color intensities desired by the photographer while retaining adequate shadow detail.

I advise you to procure an inexpensive slide sorter (under $25). These are illumined viewers made of milk colored plastic with shelves to hold slides. While designed for slide sorting that will hold negative strips. You can make such a viewer by procuring milk glass or opal glass or plastic at the hardware store. Replacement diffusers for florescent light fixtures are inexpensive and excellent for this task. Cut a sheet of milk plastic and illuminate from behind. You are making a light table to lay-out your negatives. Once the negatives and prints are viewed simultaneously, you will soon get the hang of it. The best light will be a mixture of florescent and incandescent. Allow 60 watts incandescent to intermix with 40 watts florescent CW (cool white). This combination (ratio) yields a high color index needed for photo inspection.

A word about quality: I speak with more that 50 years experience evaluating all categories of photo lab work. All labs, even the high-status pro labs, have good and bad days. Without question, all of the mass merchandising photo labs invest enormous resources into their quality control effort. Their employee training is first rate; their equipment is top of the line. Generally they never falter as to the quality of their product. In all likelihood a mass merchandising photo lab will out perform all but a handful of their entrepreneurial counterparts.

Alan Marcus

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3/17/2008 8:02:29 AM

Christopher A. Walrath
BetterPhoto Member Since: 4/25/2006
  Yeah, dude, I just started eveloping my own film about a month ago. And why the h-e-double-hockey-sticks didn't I do it sonner. I love it. I got started for about $350. And that included the lion's share of my film for the year, chems, small gear, S/S tanks and reels for 35mm and 120. You just don't know what you're missing until you catch that first whiff of fixer.


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3/17/2008 7:47:49 PM


BetterPhoto Member
  If you are going to use wally world (sic) to process your film, Write color correct on your envelopes in the special instructions section. This even goes for black and white film. If you would like cepia tones, write add cepia. They may not like it, but will usually honor your requests.

Have fun and keep shooting,
Mark H.

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4/1/2008 10:57:27 PM

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