Here's something you'll never read in a photography book -- "Don't believe a word you are about to read -- check everything out for yourself. You'll be a better photographer, as a result."  Photography is so full of myths and misconceptions that it is surprising the field has survived. Especially in the area of exposure and development, there are a thousand approaches and most of them are wrong. The rest are so confusing you need to be a mathematician to appreciate them.

Most exposure guides start out with an explanation of how to expose the film. They then move on to how to develop it. This is followed by a discussion of exposing the photographic paper and finally developing the paper in the darkroom. On the surface, this seems like a logical progression. But if you take a minute, you will see that this process is ripe for photographic inaccuracy and photographer frustration.

The best negative is a combination of exposure and development, given your unique equipment, conditions and personal preferences. As if this situation was not complicated enough, every author has a different approach to finding this "best" negative.

Most books tell you to start out with an exposure test to determine the best ISO for the film you are using. They recommend a series of exposures at various ISO settings. The film is then developed using the time recommended by the manufacturer. While this approach will help you determine the best exposure (ISO) at that specific developing time, it will not determine what is the best possible negative. Chances are the best negative, for your equipment, is achieved at a different developing time than what the manufacturer recommends.

You might be asking, "Why not first set the ISO to a specific setting, and just vary the developing time to determine the best developing time"? In fact, there are some books that suggest this approach. They tell you to pick an ISO and vary the developing time. This approach is a little more complicated than the first because you have to use different rolls of film (one for each development time). This approach will help you find the best developing time at that specific ISO but, again, not the best negative. Chances are the ISO that will give you the best negative, with your equipment, is not the one you chose -- even if it is the ISO and development time recommended by the manufacturer.

So, how do you know what the best ISO and developing time are?

There are also books that tell you to vary the ISO AND vary the developing time at the same time. This is the most complicated approach, since you'll have different rolls of film for different development times, and different exposures on each. While this approach is an improvement, you will quickly find that there are several drawbacks. Let's run through an example. Let's say you choose a film and expose it at four ISO settings. (in reality this is far too simple an example, but it illustrates the problem). Let's also say that you have four development times to try. You'll end up with 16 negatives. If you think that one negative is going to jump off the page and say, "I'm the best one!", you're wrong. There will be several that look equally good to the naked eye.

But you're not done, since a negative is not your final objective -- you want a print.  To be sure which negative is best, you need to complete the process --  you now have to make prints. Again, this varies with your particular circumstances.  For example, the same negative will not produce identical prints on different enlargers, or even with two different enlarger lenses.  So one negative will be best for you, and a different one will be the best negative for the guy across the street.  It's something your favorite author neglected to mention.

Just as the film exposure (ISO) depends on how the film is going to be developed, finding the best film development varies with the exposure of the paper. In other words, in order to determine the best developing time for the film, you have to know what the paper exposure will be.  You could take all the various ISO/development combinations from your film tests and run each negative through varying paper exposures. In our example, let's say that you will try four different paper exposures for each of the 16 negatives. This brings us to 64 paper exposures.

You might realize, at this point, that in order to determine the best exposure time for the paper, you need to know the best developing time of the paper -- just like with film. Throw in four paper developing times for each of the 64 pieces of paper and you are up to 256 prints. What a waste of time and paper! This approach is basically one step above trial and error. There has to be an easier way!

There is. Let's start with the film. If you want to determine the correct ISO for the best negative (however you define it), you first need to know the development time for the film. So determine the development time of the film first! With this already chosen, determining the ISO is one simple test.  

But if you want to determine the correct developing time for the best negative (however you define it), you need to know the exposure time for the paper -- given your enlarger and lens. So determine the paper exposure first! Once again, with this already chosen, determining the development time is a few simple tests.

And, of course, if you want to determine the correct paper exposure for the best print (however you define it), you need to know the development time for the paper. So determine the development time for the paper first! With this already chosen, determining the paper exposure is one simple test.  Visually, it looks like this:

The point is this.  If you are searching for optimum results in your prints, what happens after you make the exposure is just as important as the exposure itself.  You can control the events after the exposure to whatever extent your time, money and interest allows.  The more elements you control the better your results will be.  At this point, you can select the extent you are (or want to be) involved in these POST-exposure processes.  ANY involvement will help assure that all your exposure efforts are not wasted.


1. I don't process my film.

2. I process my film, but do not make prints/enlargements.

3. I process my film, and make prints/enlargements.

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