Basic Visual Assessment of a Negative

In this Digital Age more people are rediscovering Black and White Photography not just electronic manipulation of the digital image but using Film and wet processing.

I made the following notes many years ago to introduce my students to the basics of visual assessment of the negative. Time spent familiarising yourself with what a 'average - good' negative should look like will help when you undertake the fine tuning exercises.

More detailed and quantitative assessment can be made using an enlarger and a light meter or one of the many photo spectrometer/densitometres like the ColorMunki which are now available at a fraction of the price they were a few years ago thanks to advances in microprocessor technology.

Also the experience gained printing will help to guide you to produce 'good' negatives.

The NEGATIVE is the archival record of the Scene.

A PHOTOGRAPHER is one who is familiar with the limits of the equipment, material and processes and is able to evaluate a scene in terms of its brightness and tonal values; it may be that he/she needs to take more than one shot due to these limitations in order to capture sufficient information; as well as insurance for unforeseen problems. This differs from the practice of 'Bracketing' which is born from the "I don't know" or at best "not sure and and haven't the time to find out" philosophy of pop-ography.


A 'Good' Negative is major step in helping you achieve either:

As close a fidelity in the Print to the Scene as possible.

Or the best interpretation of Your Concept in the Printed form.


Scene >>>[Exposure/Film/Development] >>> Negative

Negative>>> [Exposure /Materials/Printing] >>> Image

Ansel Adams book 'The Negative', is a good starting point for further reading on the subject and 'The Zone VI Workshop: Fine Print in Black and White Photography' by Fred Picker a student of Adams.

Remember we have negatives over 100 years old, they have proved their worth as an Archivable object let us hope that Digital Objects will have at least the same longevity.



The Negative - Assessment

To check Exposure:

Look at the negative and ask:

Is the lightest area of the main subject the same as the division between the frames or edges of the negative if so then the Negative is:

Under Exposed

If the lightest area is considerably darker than the unexposed strip then the Negative is:

Over Exposed.


To Check Development:

Use a piece of clean glossy white paper with strong black text such as the RPS Journal

Place the negative over the text and view in a strong light.

If you can see the text through the darkest areas of tone then the negative is:

Under Developed.

If you cannot see the text at all then the negative is:

Over Developed.
( if you can just make out the text when you move the negative then it's about right)



The lightest areas should just be slightly denser than the unexposed division or edges (Shadow Detail check)

If you have not recorded any shadow detail then you cannot print what is not there! it is best to err' on the side of slight over exposure.

You should just be able to see the print through the darkest areas. (Highlight Detail Check)


A few additional points:

Always produce a test negative for each type of film/developer combination so you have a standard against which you can make comparisons. (Ref: The Negative Pt ll Producing Test Negs)

Always check the edge markings (frame No's and manufacturers name) they should be visible and bold and the background transparent.

If the subject area of the film is transparent and:

A. no edge markings are visible then you: probably forgot to put the developer in, or considerably under developed it, or used exhausted developer, or used fix first!

B. the edge markings are visible, which means the film has either:
i. not received sufficient exposure, check: Aperture, Shutter speed, and film speed settings , is the exposure meter working correctly is the film being wound on or
ii. you developed an unexposed film by mistake

If the film is dense and the edges and strips between the frames are also dark then the film has probably been fogged when you loaded it into the developing tank if the density appears in strips In the case of 35mm film it may have been fogged by light entering the slit in the cassette- always leave tongue of film out it helps to block the slit as well as to identify film
in the case of roll and sheet film fogging extending from the edge may be due to dark slide slit light trap being worn.

Keep a record of exposure and subject details for each film exposed, in a note book and number the film. Or if you are developing film you can write details on the wrapping of 120/220 roll film, there is a strip on 10x8 and 5x4 holders ( if using sheet film then take a roll of masking tape and a pen)
In the case of 35mm always leave the tongue showing, to write on, if you have no pen or pencil, fold it a few times. if you completely rewind the tongue and don't have an extractor handy use masking tape or wrap it in a strip of paper on which to write details or scratch cassette before you place it in the container. if you are using the camera on auto say so and if using a studio camera and exposure meter identify which camera and meter you are using.



© Phil Gee Archive 1980 - disc 1 Phot-1 Neg-assessment


These notes are a guide based on our practice you should ensure that you follow your organisations recommended Health and Safety practices.