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Expose for the shadows the right way…

"Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights"

I think this was one of Ansel Adams' famous quotes but I might be wrong about that. He certainly formalised the procedure beautifully, creating a scientific and repeatable way of achieving this technique. And I see this quote banded around a lot online but, I'm afraid, incorrectly. 

As happens a lot in these days of the internet, these very important techniques get confused. Let me explain what it really means.

Expose for the shadows the right way…

Firstly, it's important to understand our film and paper. The end product of black and white work in the darkroom is photographic paper which has around 5 stops of latitude. That is to say the film, ultimately, can only reproduce 5 stops of detail, from the darkes
t shadows to the lightest highlights. Remember, this is detail held in the negative that can be reproduced on paper. In Ansel Adams' terminology that detail is held in Zones 3 through to Zone 7. Anything darker that Zone 3 starts to become just detail-less black and anything above Zone 7 starts to become detail-less white; there might be perceptible texture in these outlying zones, but no detail. 

And here's the cruncher, if we exposed just for the shadows i.e. took a meter reading of the shadows and set that on the camera, we'd be pushing the highlights way passed Zone 7, the place the last highlight detail resides, right up to Zone 9 which is featureless! No, "Expose for the shadows" actually means take a meter reading of the shadows and set the camera to two stops down from that. In Ansel Adams' terminology we place the shadows in Zone 3.

Here's an example:

I meter the shadows and get F4 at 1/125s

I set the camera to F4 at 1/500 (or any combination such as F8 at 1/125)

This then is the correct way to expose for the shadows.

Check out this where I go into more detail…

Till next time, keep firing those shutters!


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