How to "Read" Your Film Exposures

It's time for another episode of our video series just for film photographers: Richard Photo Lab's Film Snap! Each episode covers a bit of must-know film wisdom in just two minutes or less...

We'll be done in a snap!

In today's episode, let's take a quick look at how to analyze your color or black and white film negatives to see how exposure correlates to your final image!


Hey there, and welcome to another edition of Richard’s Film Snap! A bit of must-know film photography wisdom in two minutes or less. We’ll be done in a snap!

Exposure if EVERYTHING when it comes to film photography.

Light is how you capture an image on film in the first place. How MUCH light you capture has the biggest effect out of any variable on how your final images appear after film processing. That’s why being able to “read” your negatives and understanding the influence of exposure is so important.

So, let’s take a closer look at those negatives!

The appearance of your negative is referred to as density: how transparent or opaque the exposed image is.

The dark areas of your negative are actually the light areas in your final image and vice versa. The denser your negative is, the more light that hit it.

An ideal density for a negative will have a good amount of detail in the highlights or the dark areas of the negative. AND the shadows; the light areas of the negative.

The more detail you have throughout the image means the more flexibility the lab has in the scanning process to give you the high quality results you’re looking for.

An overexposed negative will look dark.

For some photographers, minor amounts of overexposure can be an intentional stylistic decision that increases saturation and contrast. However, extreme overexposure will give you increased grain, low contrast, and dull, gray highlights. That’s because the lab scanning your film has to reduce the overall lightness of the scanned image to preserve the midtones, and avoid a blown out image.

An underexposed negative will look transparent, because not much light hit it while shooting the film. And that means there isn’t much information for a scanning machine to interpret from the negative. Underexposure will reduce the overall brightness and color vibrancy in your image.

When taken to the extreme, underexposed images are dark, very grainy, have low contrast and muddy-looking color shifts.

And that’s what you need to know to understand how your exposed negative creates the look of your final image.

Wasn’t that a snap?

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