Dream Camera 101: Overexposing Color Film

In the notes of my previous post about film developing at Richard Photo Lab, digitaltoanalog asked my reason for exposing the Kodak Portra 400 at 200 (that is, setting the ISO meter reading to 200 and thereby overexposing the film by one stop) and whether the lab pulled it (developed it for a shorter amount of time).

I’ll answer the easier question first - no, the lab did not pull the film.  I instructed them to develop the film normally.

I had three reasons for overexposing the film:

  • Conventional wisdom.  In my film photography class, my teacher told me that the best way to shoot color film is to set the meter to half the box speed.  This ensures that detail is not lost in the shadows. 
  • Experimentation.  Despite the general rule above, through my own experimentation, I found that I do not always want to overexpose my color film.  Actually trying for yourself different films shot at different exposures is the only way to learn.  For example, I preferred to shoot Kodak Portra 400 NC regularly, due to its warmth and somewhat muted colors.  When I shot my first roll of this new Portra 400 at box speed, I found that I did not like it as much because the look was a little too straight forward for my taste.  I found myself importing a lot of the photos into Lightroom to bump up the exposure.  (Any time I have to adjust my photos in post-production, that is a huge neon sign that I need to instead adjust how I shoot the film in the first place.) Which brings me to my third and final reason…
  • Personal preference.  I generally prefer my color photos to have a light, airy and pastel quality.  I especially wanted that look with the photos of my best friend’s outdoor wedding.  While I could create that aesthetic by shooting Portra 400 NC at 400, I knew from past experience that I would have to let a little extra light in the new Portra 400 to achieve the look.      

When I got my film scans back from the lab, I was happy to see that overexposing the film created the look I was going for.    

These concepts can be applied to digital shooting, but in my past experience with digital, highlights blow out a lot when overexposing, and it ain’t pretty, so a digital shooter should be more careful.

{Photo of Chicago daffodils taken with Rolleiflex TLR and Kodak Portra 400, exposed at 200, developed by Richard Photo Lab.}

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