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How to read a negative

Moving from digital to film-based photography can be a confusing affair. The developing side of things borders on alchemy and the reversed tones of the negative boggle the mind. There was a time when experienced photographers could look at a less than perfect negative and diagnose just what had gone wrong. It's a bit of a dying art now.

With a little thought, however, it's not difficult to learn the skill of reading a negative so that processing or exposure problems can be identified and avoided in future.

Aside from physical damage such as kinking the film while loading it, there are eight ways a negative can emerge from the fixer less than perfect. I've shown below the range of negatives you're likely to experience.

The first thing to do with an unsatisfactory negative is to check the shadows. If they're lacking detail and there are lots of parts where all you can see is the clear film base then the shot was underexposed. If there is plenty of detail and just a few small, clear areas then exposure is about right. If there are hardly any spots where clear film can be seen then it's a case of overexposure.

Next, turn your attention to the highlights. There used to be a school of thought that said you should just be able to read the words in a newspaper through the highlights of a negative resting on the newsprint and it's still quite a good way of judging good highlight density. If the highlights aren't dark enough then development hasn't been long enough. Highlights that are too dense to see newsprint through have most likely been overdeveloped.

Armed with the information from your investigations, the remedies are self-evident: you'll know whether exposure or development has to be adjusted to achieve a good negative. As I said in the article "Getting a good negative", darkroom printing is a real pleasure with a good negative and a right pain with a poor one!

Underexposed, underdeveloped
Overall density: very low
Contrast: much too low
Shadow detail: completely lacking
Highlights: much too weak

Underexposed, properly developed
Overall density: too low
Contrast: too high 
Shadow detail: lacking
Highlights: too weak


Underexposed, overdeveloped
Overall density: about normal
Contrast: much too high
Shadow detail: too weak
Highlights: too dense and black

                 Correctly exposed, underdeveloped
Overall density: too low
Contrast: too low
Shadow detail: present but thin
Highlights: too weak

                    Correctly exposed and developed
Overall density: normal
Contrast: normal
Shadow detail: normal
Highlights: strong but still transparent

                  Correctly exposed, overdeveloped
Overall density: too high
Contrast: higher than wanted
Shadow detail: strong
Highlights: very black and dense

Overexposed, underdeveloped
Overall density: almost normal
Contrast: too low
Shadow detail: very strong
Highlights: too weak

Overexposed, normally developed
Overall density: too high
Contrast: too low
Shadow detail: very strong
Highlights: too dense

Overexposed, overdeveloped
Overall density: extremely high
Contrast: about normal
Shadow detail: far too strong
Highlights: very black and lacking detail

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Dave said...

This is really useful. Thanks for posting.


Pleasure, Dave. And thanks for your feedback. That's really useful as well.

pietro said...

How is overexposed/overdeveloped about normal contrast? Contrast looks low from the example picture, since everything is dark.


Hi Pietro,

If you could strip away the density you'd find fairly normal contrast underneath.

Bobby Todd said...

Very useful information, thanks for sharing!

yesi garcia said...

If you want to use an overexposed, normally developed negative, how would you print it?


Hi Yesi,

Since your neg is probably lacking contrast, you'd want to use a harder grade of paper. Start with grade three and find the correct exposure time for the highlights. Do a print at that time and check the shadows. If they're not black enough go up half a grade and try again. If too dark, try a half grade softer. Season to taste. :-)

Pavel said...

It is so fabulous to have a site like this in this day and age. Very valuable stuff, and quite inspiring for those others of us who have found, again, the pleasure of film. I think it is the difficulty that makes film based photography so engrossing, speaking for myself, anyways. I count as dear; my little darkroom related victories. Thanks for helping them along! :)


Thanks Pavel. It's also great to have readers like you and others who take the time to say they appreciate the site.

Mark Porter said...

As a beginner film photographer, this is insightful. Thanks!

john Lee said...

I cant tell you how helpful this is! Your site is a godsend!

Anonymous said...

Very useful info. Many thanks for taking the time to post it.

Andre' Wagner said...

this is great!

kosame707 said...

HI, I'm new to film photography and I'm learning by trial and error. However, sometimes there are so many variables that influence the outcome of a picture that it's difficult to pinpoint what exactly went wrong. Your article just solved my most recent problems. Thank you so much for this, it was of great help. Hopefully my next roll will come out much better!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much!
This is sooo helpful.

Anonymous said...

I have what I think is an important question. How were these photographs of the negatives taken? Over a light source? Over a white surface? Once I know that I'll be able to evaluate my own negatives under the same lighting conditions.


Tom H said...

Thanks for this. It is helping me find my feet!

Ronald S. said...

Thanks for this invaluable information. Explains why my daylight (as opposed to night) photographs always looked like they were taken on another planet. One question: when you say that one should be able to see newsprint through the highlights, does it mean that one should be able to just glimpse words showing through or should one be able to actually read them?

Ronald S said...

Thanks for this invaluable info. It explains why my daylight photographs (as opposed to night)always looked like they were taken on another planet. One question: You mentioned one should be able to read newsprint through the highlights. Should one be able to just glimpse the words through them or should one be able to actually read the newsprint? In the latter case, the contrast would be very low?

Bruce Robbins said...

Only the densest parts of the negative - those that would print as white or nearly so - should be too dark to read the letters.

Roy Cross said...

Great examples off all the variations! Thank you for such detailed images. I was wondering what the effect on the overall appearance of the grain was like with the various parameters you've set out here.

JrHare said...

This is an excellent and through breakdown. I teach a Black and White darkroom class at a community college. Would it be possible to use your examples in my lecture on exposure and development?

Thank You

Bruce Robbins said...

Yes, indeed, Mr Hare. Please feel encouraged to do so.

Anonymous said...

I've just developed a roll and it came out great except for 1 photo. It's terribly faint you have to really look in order to see it. Does that means it's extremely underexposed and will print fairly dark? Thanks

Bruce Robbins said...

If the rest of the negs are fine then, yes, it sounds like underexposure. How dark it will print depends on the exposure it gets under the enlarger. It's unlikely to amount to much, though, unless you use a hard filter setting as contrast is likely to be low. The problem you'll face is getting the exposure right. With these thin negs, using a hard grade means that you'll have to use small increments on the test strip as even a couple of seconds (at normal print exposure times) will make a big difference to the print. You might end up with something reasonable but you'll probably use a few sheets of paper trying to get it right and it might be easier to write that neg off. :)

Scott Poupard said...

This is exactly like the 9-negative ring-around that I did in my 1st quarter of photography school 30+ years ago. I used a 4x5 view camera and had large black card and white cards in each photo (all of the same scene). In addition to making contact prints of each negative (all printed at the same settings), we used a densitometer to read the values of each card. The combination of the negative, prints, and densitometer values really drove home the importance of proper exposure and development.

Thanks for reminding me that I need to really look take a good look at my negatives. I get into a habit of doing things the same old way without really taking the time to critique the results the way I should.