The "Gray" Area in Exposure Settings...


TPF Noob!
Nov 26, 2005
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so when i've been shooting lately, i've found that i like to deal with absolutes. in that, i use a really open ap or really closed. and if the metering tells way different i'll correct. but i began to wonder...

having the luxury of a digital camera, i can shoot stepping up or down in as small increments as i wish and see the results immediately. however i wondered how people using film cameras can find the sweet spot in the "Gray" area of the settings?. for example, my shutter speed can go from 1/4000 of a second to bulb. i mean sometimes a faux pa and i correct it. but i was wondering how people using film cameras (and digital too for that matter), can find the exact settings they need on a dime?
Well, when I shot film, I had to fully trust my meter..either in camera, or external. After shooting film for a long time, and knowing how certain films are, you can easily figure out where you should be based on your camera, lens, film, and lighting conditions. With film, I personally paid much more attention to all of that than I do with digital. With digital, I know I'm able to instantly see my results, so I don't pay quite as much attention. Obviously, if I'm in a situation where I don't have the opportunity to take a shot and check my histogram, I do pay attention. Digital has made me lazy....however I still know the basics, which is important.
Well you typically have an automatic sweet spot at sunny 16. But yeah, i either shoot at 5.6- or at 22+. Occasionally i'll shoot at 16 or 8, but rarely anything else.
A good 35mm or 6x6 will give you at least 1/2stops on the aperture. 5x4 and 10x8 will give you at least 1/3 stops.
You take a highlight reading and a shadow reading to get the dynamic range of what you are doing and adjust lights/reflectors to get the balance how you want it then peg the exposure where you want it (even when shooting outdoors).
Shoot some Polaroid to check.
Shoot your film.
Get a clip test done by the lab and assess. Then tell the lab how you want the film processing.
Or at least, that's how it was done when I was working as a pro.
(And it explains why we got paid so much :lol: )
Using B&W film as an unpaid amateur [with a deep respect for the pro's]:

1. Standardize exposure meter/camera/film/development.

2. Determine exposure for shot [gray card, shadow/highlight, etc. as modified by experience.]

3. Make decision on aperture/shutter speed [DOF vs. 'freezing' motion.]

4. Set camera and shoot. Bracket if uncertain about exposure or to explore DOF/motion effects.

I don't recognize a 'sweet spot' as such. There's a range of options for each shot. Choice depends on the expected final print.
Histogram works well for me. Generally if I open 1/3 of a stop I will have a good file to work with. Film is sort of the same. I would shoot 400 asa at 320 because I knew my camera (for a lot of different reasons) needed that extra 1/3 of a stop to produce a "good" exposure. Test a variety of lighting and exposure settings to figure what works best for your camera and most used lens. If you have access to a densitometer that is the way to go. The idea is to rely on the meter reading so that there is not too much playing around with the exposure. This will give you freedom to experiment with ƒ stop and shutter combos. Personally I try not to bracket.

Meter readings and grey cards are important. Mandatory in my commercial biz. Experience will help you to figure out the "sweet spot" with out those tools. Allowing you to find the exact settings on a dime.

On one hand I miss clip tests and Polaroids. On the other; I am thinking of getting a laptop for the commercial end. That is the wave of the future.
The breakthrough for me was realising how my camera's meter works (i.e. it sees the world as 18% grey). Then reading about the zone system and working out what that meant for me as a roll film user. Expose for the shadows (I can do that) and develop for the highlights (that's the next step, which means film tests to pin down my personal film speed and development preferences). And I need (well, want really) a spotmeter, to make it easier to measure the dynamic range in a scene and decide where I want to place my deepest shadows.

Fun, ain't it?

When using film be it colour or B&W, there are three easy ways to get an 18% grey reading - (1) meter off your hand (2) meter off Grass (not the smoking kind) (3) meter off concrete, like the sidewalk. Alternatively bracket the shot i.e. shoot 1 stop either side of the meter reading (for film) or 1/3 stop for transparencies (slide) - one of the shots will be 'perfect'. I'm probably the 'oddball' in this group because I refuse to use Digital. Perhaps as a 'purist' and as a professional photographer for the last 30 years, to me Digital Imaging is exactly what it says - it is not photography. While post production is necessary with Digital, giving all sorts of 'benefits' in manipulation etc., this is also available with film, once it is scaned - the real problem at the end of the day is whether the client who is paying usually a relatively high fee, is receiving a 'true' photogrpah or a Digitalised Print. Photography is a learned and acquired 'art' over many years. Some become famous as a result of their 'skill'. I wonder in years to come who will be famous as a result of computer generated images? Would anyone pay $1million for a Rembrandt painted by numbers?
It works just like digital. You shoot photos, you see how they turn out, then you go shoot more photos, and see how those turn out, and so on. It just takes hours or days to see how the photos turned out (unless you're using Polaroid). After you do it enough you know what works for you in certain situations.
Terence said:
When using film be it colour or B&W, there are three easy ways to get an 18% grey reading - (1) meter off your hand (2) meter off Grass (not the smoking kind) (3) meter off concrete, like the sidewalk.

Generally I find that the back of my hand needs a stop more than 18% grey, the palm of my hand a stop and a half, although of course this is after a long dark winter and by August these numbers may have changed!

Terence said:
I'm probably the 'oddball' in this group because I refuse to use Digital.

I wouldn't bank on it Terence. Some of us have even given up digital and gone back to film.

I've found my lawn (when healthy) is zone 5 and my hand zone 6. Where I live concrete sidewalks are pretty bright, at least zone 6, and often brighter.

I'm going back to coating and processing colloidian plates in the field. Film makes photography too easy, and now any jerky can do it. ;)

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