Introduction to Black & White Film Photography

Lesson 8/29 - Metering For Black & White


Introduction to Black & White Film Photography


Lesson Info

Metering For Black & White

Metering for black and white. The most important thing you will ever get in your life is a meter. Because all of your calibration, and it can be your in-camera one, I would not recommend your iPhone, because your will change every 18 months as you change your phone. The meter is what you're calibrating. The meter is making the decision on what all the placements are. So when I'm making my meter exposure, I'm going to use the meter, and as soon as I know what this meter can do, I now can use this across everything. I know what the meter sees and how the meter's going to respond. The film is rated at 400. It means the manufacturer has said that the structure of the grain, the contrast, and its ability to capture photons of light is set for 400. This overrides that. This also makes those decisions. So if I want to overexpose, underexpose, I make those decisions with the meter. Now, for black and white photography, I'm going to meter. So the cool part is, my meter says that wall, that wall...

, that, that, that, that, that, all is zone five. So if I take a white wall, meter it, set my camera, take a picture, wall is gray. I meter a black wall. Take a picture. Wall is gray. Black and white world. It's even more so. Gray, gray, now there will be a little tweak here and there, but it's going to be gray. So I have to make the decision about metering, and this is the language we use. I'm going to meter something, and then I'm going to place my exposure. So I meter, and I place. So I'm going to meter, and what's my most important shadow is zone three. So I'm going to meter, and I'm going to stop down two. So I've metered, and now I'm placing my exposure into zone three. So if I meter and it says F8 at 1/16th of a second, and I stop down two, I go to 1/25th, 2/50th of a second at F8, I've now told the camera to let in two stops less light. And this is where everybody starts to freak out, because they're like, wait a minute, wait a minute, I just metered, and now you're telling me it's two stops less light? Okay. I metered my most important shadow. I don't meter the highlight in stop down two. I don't meter middle gray in stop down two. I pick my most important shadow, and stop down two. What happens in film, then, is all the other tones respectively fall in their place. This is why the zone system's so cool. Once I say what zone three is, if I meter the world again, and I'm like, oh, that thing right there is one stop difference from zone three, that's going to print zone four. If that thing is two stops different, it's going to print zone five. If it's three stops different, it's going to print zone six. I have to go in order. I want to be able to be that person who's like, and if it's seven stops different, it's ten. The zones respectively fall into place. If I put the meter in five, everything falls into respective place. But because I want that detail, I've got to fall back in and hit my respective mark. If you can get your head wrapped around that, you're going to have so much better results with your black and white film, because what you're doing is you're saying this little part of the world, this little part of the picture, I want fully rendered shadow texture in. I'm going to make sure I nail that. I'm going to get that. If I can get that, then when I go to print, I know I'm going to have that in my image. To get that, I got to stop down two. So when I meter, I stop down two. Now, all stops are equal. I can change my shutter speed, I can change my F stop. You cannot change your ISO. We're going to cover that in a second, but you're not going to have that option. So it's the shutter speed, F stop change. Okay. So one of the questions that comes up a lot is, well, that's fine and dandy, but how do you know what to meter? So I have some of my less than interesting photographs, but they are highly illustrative for this piece. I've learned that if I put up really cool photographs, then people are like, "Wow, that's a really nice photograph," And I'm like, "I'm trying to explain zone three." And they're like, "So where did you take that?" And I'm like, "Zone three." And they're like, "Was that in Africa?" And I'm like, "Zone three." Okay. So. This is Carmel. Just south of Carmel in California, for those of you who have to know. Okay, so I come across this scene, I've got fog coming in, I've got this little mountain range over here. I look at this, this piece over here, I want to be able to hold all my detail. So I want to look at that, and I want fully rendered detail in that spot. That's my most important shadow. I'm going to take my meter, and I'm going to point it at that. Now, this is a reflective meter. It means I can point, light's reflecting back, and it reads the meter. This, if you're a landscape person, you want. Because if not, I got to walk all the way over there, and I've got to take my incident meter, and be like (beep) or my camera is seeing the whole image, I've got to walk over there and stick my camera, so the only thing it sees is that meter, and then I have to walk all the way back. Okay. If you've been a landscape person, and you go to Yellowstone, you're not allowed to touch the buffalo. You want to photograph a buffalo, you can't walk up to the buffalo and be like, "Hold still." I mean, people do, and then they get gored, and then everybody gets yelled at. But you just can't go up and do that. So find you a spot meter. Sekonic makes one that has both in there, so you can get one of those. But anyway, I'm going to meter that, whatever the meter reading is, I'm going to stop down zone three. The next thing I'm going to do, though, is I'm going to meter my most important highlight. So in this case, it's this little wispy level of clouds that's up here. Because I need to know the difference between my shadow and my highlight, so I know how to develop the film. So if I meter that, and it says oh, there's five stops difference between here and there. So my meter goes one, two, three, four, five. Where's my cloud end up, then? Zone seven. Zone three, zone four, zone five, zone six, zone seven. Remember, a stop is a zone. So am I going to have fully rendered texture in my clouds? Yes. That's what zone seven does. If I decided I wanted that to be brighter, I could plus the development. So I can manipulate this thing with the developer, but I got to anchor that first. Okay? Here's your other piece of black and white. You see this beautiful, very subtle color shift? That's the other part about this that I loved. I was like, oh, that's just a gorgeous piece, I can get in there and manipulate that. In the world of black and white, tones, colors compress, because the tonal value is the same. So you can't rely on, if you meter and you're like, those are the same. They're probably going to be really close to the same. We're going to talk about some ways to help coax some contrast out of that later today, but this is one of the hardest parts of black and white photography. Because I look at something, I'm like oh, red shirt, blue shirt. Those are completely different. Then I take a photograph and I'm like, those are exactly the same, because the tonal value is the same. So this is one of the other pieces to learn, but I like this example, because that hillside just completely compresses onto itself. Okay, we take a look at this next one. Night scene, Vancouver. What I want to make sure I can get is a little bit of the difference between that backpack and that jacket. If I can see that, that's a zone three rendering. If the hood goes into pure black, I'm okay with that. So I'm on the street now. Zone system, I've got all this stuff to think about, and I have to count, no, I want fully rendered detail there. I meter that and stop down two. Next thing I need to know is this is the most important highlight here. This is not. That's gone. I'm going to have to burn, I'm going to do a lot of weird stuff with that. So that's going to ride. But this, because I'm on the street, I got 30 seconds to get this shot maybe, so I'm going to meter that, stop down two, and then I'm going to quickly meter that to see how far apart is it. And I'm just going to write that down. Umbrella, six stops. Umbrella, seven stop. Umbrella, three stops. Doesn't matter what it is, I'm going to write it down, and when we talk about development, we'll talk about how to control that. But I want to meter here, because that's my most important shadow. Is this my most important highlight? Or is the delicate texture in here? Okay, now, you could decide that this is your most important highlight. That's cool. That's your decision. This is the art side of the photography. You could also be like, nope, it's her hair. If this disappears, there's enough stuff here I think people can figure out that's a backpack. I'm okay with that. I want to make sure I get her hair. Now, the reason I made the decision between those, is I stood there, and I was like oh, her hair's lighter than the backpack. If I get the backpack, I automatically get the hair. I can always darken the hair and burn the hair, I can make the hair darker. So I made the decision to go with the backpack there. And there it ges into black and white, and we get just a little bit of the separation of the shoulder pieces there. Okay, this next one, just a plain little simple, abandoned gas station out in eastern Washington. In this case, it kind of screamed to me to go monochromatic. Because with the exception of the yellow and blue, it was already kind of monochromatic. But I loved the texture in the wood. So it was that little bit of texture. So I wanted to make sure I held that texture. So from a placement standpoint, I got to hold that texture. Zone three is the minimum texture. Zone four has texture, zone five has texture, zone six has texture, so I just got to make sure that I don't lose the texture there, but I also want to see the details in the window back here. So if I look in the window back there, I'm like, well that's darker than what's out here. So if I placed this in zone three, I would have lost all the detail in the window, because that would have gone into zone two and zone one and zone zero, and back down off the bottom of the scale. But by placing this in my three, I then get the texture of the wood. And then these two I can monkey with with filters. But then I end up with basically getting to hold my little subtle texture details here, and hold my details on the window. Okay, does that make sense? Okay. This is the hardest part of getting good results with black and white film. We're so ingrained with just, I can go out, I can make some decisions, point my camera, and let it kind of figure things out. You will get reasonably good results with your black and white work by doing that. But if you want to kick up to the exceptional work, you've got to get in control of that placement. There is no way around it. And if when you look at photographs, whether you're looking at Paul Caponigro, whether you're looking at Helen Levitt, you're looking at Emma Jean Cunningham, you look at Diane Arbus, doesn't matter who you look at, the beautiful, gorgeous work, it was all about can I control the film to get ultimately the image I want? Now, from a street standpoint, so a lot of people talk about the zone system, well that's a lot of work. So I'm going to go out and do street photography. I love street photography. I'm like all in on it. I like to annoy people. So I'm going to go out and do my street photography. The other thing that working with film has forced me to do over the years, is I've had to learn to see light. I've had to learn to watch and observe light. And when I talk to my mentors and my photographer friends who have been doing this for 40 or 50 years, I'm always enamored, because they're so fast. They're like, get a camera, and they're like, click, click, click, click, click. Joe McNally, because he's so fast with the flash, Joe's like, well I've been doing it for 40 years, and I've learned to see what the light does. So when I shoot, and I'm like, oh, that's not what the light does that I want, I create the light that I want. It's because he's learned to see volumes of light. The zone system works the same way. When you start to teach yourself how to see light, it becomes very easy to implement this. So if I'm going to go out onto this street, and I'm going to walk down, and I'm just going to go out, and I'm going to meter a shadow. Cool, that shadow, volume of light, zone three, set my exposure. Where's the highlights? Okay, that's kind of a bright highlight, that's kind of a bright highlight. I average those, and until the quality of light changes, I don't worry about remetering. But to do that, I have to observe the light. I have to pay particular attention to the light, and so if I'm walking down and I turn a corner, and I start walking, and I'm like, okay, the light's different here. Meter. Change. And walk until the light changes. So it's not every single time I'm doing that. Now, if I'm out in the nature, and I'm in landscape, and I've got hours, I'm going to meter. I might wait for the light to change. But in fast-moving street work, you got kids running around. I don't know if you noticed, but they don't stop for you to be like, "Let me figure out zone three, everybody stop, stop. "Nobody move, don't drop that cake yet." Okay, you don't have that option. But if you just get a little bit ahead of it, and start to see light. Now the trick I have for that is, like I said, your meter's your best friend. Meters work in a lot of different ways. They'll tell you an EV, they'll tell you a shutter speed F stop relationship, but start to guess. So I like meter the chair, and I'm like, hmmm. My meter measures in EV's, which then translate to shutter speeds. So that's an EV of three. I look at the floor, and I'm like, oh I bet that's a seven. Oh, seven and a third, so close. Okay? Start to use your meter, and start to figure out what are relative brightness values, what are relative darkness values. That's how you start to teach yourself to see light. It's similar to learning how to make a camera. People want to know, why can you shoot at an eighth of a second? Because I stand there and practice over and over. That's what the digital camera is good for. Not roll film. Digital camera to practice how to hold still. You practice the skills over and over again. You build the muscle memory. Seeing light's the same way. That gives you the manipulation of the zone system. That lets you get out and do whatever kind of things you need to do.

Class Description

The world of black & white photography is more than just “black and white.” With film photography you can control and create dynamic and detailed images that are timeless. Photographer, artist and educator Daniel Gregory will demonstrate how black and white photography can allow you to be more creative with your work. He’ll show the different types of film and how to meter for black & white as well as how you can get into the development process. This class will be your introduction into truly creating a photo from capture through print in the most hands on way.

You’ll learn:

  • Types of Film and how they impact the overall look
  • Zone System Basics
  • Metering for Black & White Film
  • Film Chemistry and development techniques
  • Safety and Storage for working with chemicals
  • Scanning your own negatives
  • How to push and pull film
  • Advanced exposure techniques and utilizing the zone system
  • Get hands on with your photography by learning to shoot with black and white film and learn techniques that you can bring into your digital workflow that ultimately will make you a stronger and more confident photographer.



    I am really fond of Daniel Gregory as a teacher. He does a great job. To me, his enthousiasm, his passion for and his dedication to film photography are infectuous. It's great that CreativeLive makes place for film photography and for such a pro teaching it. It can never do so enough for me. Thanks. I am a fan.


    This is an excellent course and Daniel is a great teacher! I'm coming back to shooting film and darkroom work after 20 years away. I have some wonderful film cameras sitting in my cabinet and I decided I wanted to use them--so I have decided to shoot BW with film, and shoot color with my digital cameras. I will develop the BW film myself and scan and print digitally. This class is perfect for me!


    Daniel is on fire! He gets better as the day gets longer. This is like being read a book by the author all in one day. Almost zero wasted words. Really intense—way beyond an intro course—and I loved every bit of it. Thanks, Daniel, and thanks, CL!