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Tips & Tricks

Tips on How to Properly Meter Film

By Christina Blanarovich on March 29th 2016

Metering film is the most common cause of frustration amongst new film shooters. Do yourself a favor and buy an external light meter. The Sekonic L-358 is a great starter; I have the Sekonic L-508 because it allows me to spot meter for black and white film. Internal light meters tend to be wonky. Some work, most don’t or work inconsistently. Your iPhone is not a light meter. Don’t waste your money on apps or cheap meters. Get a good light meter and you have solved half your problems with shooting film. How to meter is a personal reference. Remember that black and white film should be metered spot on with a gray card. Yes, that thing that you learned about in your high school photography class. It’s cheap, so buy five and keep them around. You’ll use them more than you know.

[REWIND: WHAT KIND OF FILM CAMERA SHOULD I BUY?]

christina zen ektar 100 rated at 200 pushed plus 1 Leica M6

Ektar 100 rated at 200 pushed plus 1 Leica M6

Metering for Color Film

Color film likes to be overexposed. How much is your call. If you meter bulb out and straight out (towards the camera in front of the subject’s face), you will get the most accurate metering for the ISO.

You can either rate the light meter at a lower rating (example, you are shooting Fuji 400H but rate the meter at 200 and then use the shutter speed the meter tells you to use), or you can rate the meter at the box speed then go bulb in and 45 degrees down, thus creating the overexposure you want. Or, find any combination in between.

christina zen fuji 400h rated 400 1 contax 645

Fuji 400h rated 400 1 Contax 645

christina zen fuji 400h rated at 1600 pushed plus 2 indoors with strobes contax645

Fuji 400h rated at 1600 pushed plus 2 indoors with strobes Contax645

How do you figure out what works best?

You try it. Starting out, I had a notebook that I wrote down all my shots and settings in. I bracketed and figured out how I like to shoot each film in different light. As with most things in photography, there is no one way. So practice and see what you prefer. Just remember that if you are using an external light meter and have your camera set on manual, then it does not matter what the camera’s internal meter is rated at.

I usually set it to the film I am using anyway, solely to remember what I loaded, but it will not affect your film if you are on manual. Another important thing to know is that the flatter the light, the more you need to overexpose. And if you want to backlight an image, give yourself an additional stop of overexposure to compensate!

christina zen ilford delta 3200 rated 1600 with ocf Canon 1v

Ilford Delta 3200 rated 1600 with ocf Canon 1v

christina zen portra 160 rated 320 pushed plus 1 contax645

Portra 160 rated 320 pushed plus 1 Contax645

Pushing and Pulling Film

Film can be pushed or pulled during the development process. This means the lab is essentially developing the film for a longer or shorter duration. I have never pulled film, but often push film. Pushing film means you are rating it at a higher ISO than the box speed. So Portra 160 is rated at 320 and pushed +1 in development because you are using the standard ISO increases (100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400). Pushing does not add more light! I REPEAT, PUSHING DOES NOT ADD MORE LIGHT. It simply increases contrast and saturation in an image. Yes, you can work in lower light settings, but you still need a good source of light to push film.

[REWIND: WHAT KIND OF FILM STOCK SHOULD I BUY?]

christina zen portra 160 rated at 100 contax645

Portra 160 rated at 100 Contax645

christina zen portra 160 rated at 320 pushed plus 1 (2) contax645

Portra 160 rated at 320 pushed plus 1 (2) Contax645

christina zen portra 400 rated 320 golden hour contax645

Portra 400 rated 320 golden hour Contax645

Please don’t shoot Portra 400 in a windowless room and then wonder why your images look like nasty, muddy soup. That’s not how film works! You also need to remember that once you decide to push the film, you need to PUSH THE WHOLE ROLL. You can’t “change” ISO mid-roll. Pushing black and white film is a great way to use ambient light (if it’s decent) at a reception or a sifter video light. I love videographers at weddings. I slide over to them with a big smile and tell them to light it up. Then I use their lights for my benefit. It’s a win-win. I’ve pushed Kodak Tri-X up to 6400, and it looks great for fun reception photos.

christina zen portra 160 rated at 320 pushed plus 1 indoors contax645

Portra 160 rated at 320 pushed plus 1 indoors Contax645

portra 400 rated 320 indoor contax645

Portra 400 rated 320 indoor Contax645

Film has some interesting nuances that make it seem difficult. But once you master these, it’s quite simple and relaxing to shoot film, even on wedding days with no digital backup! The biggest tip I can give you is just to shoot, shoot, shoot. Get out there and practice. Try each film stock, bracket your metering and write everything down. Shoot in a different light and see how the film does with your style of shooting. You can’t look at someone else’s work and say, “Oh, I like their images so I’m going to buy the camera they use, the film they use and BAM I will look like them.” Just like in the digital camera world, that’s not how it works.

Christina Blanarovich is a film photographer based out of NY. She has a passion for all things Nutella and Star Wars and is nice enough to share both with her husband and two little boys. An avid traveler/adventurer, Christina’s work has taken her to many locations around the world, for both photography and teaching. As a former educator and track coach, she loves helping others explore and reach their potential (and also loves telling people what to do, sometimes in a loud voice). When she isn’t geeking out on film photography, she loves adventuring with her boys, kicking butt in Muay Thai and watching dorky sci-fi shows.

14 Comments

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  1. Maria Sundin

    Wow this post is amazing! So many useful tips! And your photos are gorgeous! I have just started experimenting with film and I have bought a few different rolls. I have understood that color film looks the best when overexposed so last time I think I shoot with Fuji 400h and I rated and measured for half the box speed as I wanted to trick the camera to thinking it was darker than it was. But I’m not sure I understand how you can get so great exposures when you rate above and below so wildly. I mean often times I find myself In a room and there is noway I can keep my shutter at like 30 to get a proper exposure. I then think that if I rate it at 100 instead of 200 then it should allow for more light and I can at least expose at 60. Am I missing something? Any chance you could explain more? Thank you!

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  2. Dave Haynie

    Like many film-era things, it’s easy to pick up a good light meter for not much cash these days. I like the Grossen Luna Pro, which can be had for $20-$40 these days. You can also find the spot and flash meter accessory modules.

    One caveat for this kind of meter: many meters, in and out of cameras in the 60s and 70s, used 1.35V mercury batteries, which were really stable. They’re no longer sold in most of the world, so you have to use another kind of battery. The easy answer is alkaline, but they have a pretty steep voltage de-rating curve as they age, so they’re not recommended. There are adapters for using Silver Oxide cells, which are stable but may run a higher voltage and require re-calibration. I put a checp 1.35V regulator circuit in mine, so I can use off-the-shelf alkalines.

    Doesn’t get much use anymore, but pretty sweet meter.

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  3. Ramon Acosta

    No mention of the sunny f16 rule? If you are shooting in exteriors you don’t need a light meter. Negative film has great latitude, and even some phone apps will be enough. What else? Can I only shoot film with a Hasselblad or a Leica?

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    • robert raymer

      Sunny 16 is a general exposure rule and works for film (positive or negative) or digital. As for latitude, SOME negative films have great latitude, but some others are quite contrasty and clip rather abruptly in highlights or shadows. The key here (I think) is that unlike digital which you can manipulate quite a bit in post, it is helpful to be aware of the characteristics of the film you are shooting if you want to properly evaluate the results.

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Sunny 16 is a great rule when outdoors and shooting exteriors. However, my article was directed a bit more towards wedding/portrait work where that rule isn’t often going to help achieve the look people are after. It is a great rule to know, but learning to use a light meter is essential for portrait and wedding film photographers!

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  4. Eric Sharpe

    … And stick with a film stock to learn it. I made the mistake of buying a bunch of film stocks, and trying to learn their characteristics all at once. Most times I forgot what roll I’d sent to the lab. Practice makes perfect though.

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    • robert raymer

      I would add stick with one Stock+Developer combination, especially for beginners. Just as film has its own characteristics, so does developer, and the same stock can have different looks in different developers.

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  5. robert raymer

    A spot meter is helpful for landscapes, but I have found that I can magian just fine with (lots of practice/experience) just a Sekonic L358. Typically I meter the bright side (natural light) or key light bulb out towards the source then take another reading bulb out towards away from the source in the shadow. This gives me both the “proper” exposure (which I can adjust as needed) and the light ratio. Luckily, the 358 also has an x-sync port so I can wirelessly trigger/meter all my lights. Really a wonderful piece of equipment, and under utilized/misunderstood by many who learned on digital. When I do happen to “need” a spot meter, I do tend to “cheat” and is the spot meter on my D800 to meter if I have it around. It is important to note also that each type of color/bw negative film has its own characteristics and they all very different exposure latitudes so overexposing is not always the best plan . Also, in general, slide film does better when underexposed slightly.

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    • robert raymer

      Lastly, I will say that if you are learning film, it is important to record how you shoot each frame and how you develop each roll if you develop yourself. You can do this the old fashion way in a notebook (I like “Analogbook”, which makes books for shooting and developing, though good old fashioned lined paper works just fine) or with apps for your phone (I use “Holders” for 4×5 and “film Roll” for medium format, with the benefit that “Film Roll” will export all of your data to an .xml spreadsheet). This can be invaluable when trying to remember how you shot a particular roll/frame since film does not have always have exif data available to review, though some cameras can print it on the rebate (black border around the image) above/below the frame.

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    • Ralph Hightower

      I found an Android app, EXIF4Film, that lets one record the exposure settings, film, camera, and lens, and export that info to embed into a JPEG.

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Totally agree! My first article about getting started mentions this point! The best way to learn is practice and patience. Logging everything is essential!

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Great advice. I used a Sekonic 358 for a long time, but found for quick wedding work, the spot meter was incredibly helpful. Kept me moving fast and accurate.

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  6. Ralph Hightower

    Great article! A light meter is one item I want to add. I brought Kodak TMAX 3200 to a concert and was evaluating the lighting conditions as the lights in the auditorium dimmed. I bumped the ISO up to 6400; when the lights finally went out, I maxed out my Canon A-1 at 12800. I instructed the lab to do a +2 push. The grain on the film just exploded. However, that was what I had to go with.

    Christina,
    Know of any labs that do any C-41 push processing?
    Thanks.

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Hi! Sorry for the delayed response… I was moving to a new home! Most of the major film labs do push C-41 film now. However, I use The FINDLab (www.thefindlab.com) for all my film processing. I love them and they push film REALLY well. I can’t recommend them enough! Feel free to mention you heard about them from me! They will take great care of your film.

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