Returning to using a DSLR this month has reminded me how much more precise one has to be when exposing a digital sensor.
It’s also made me realise how much easier I had it when shooting film.
The vast majority of film I used was consumer grade colour negative film – Fuji C200 and Superia 100, Kodak Color Plus, Ferrania Solaris 200, plus rebranded variations.
Virtually all of these had the same exposure latitude of -1/+3.
What this means is even if you expose one stop under or up to three stops over the ideal exposure, you’ll still have a very usable negative.
Put another way, if you were shooting at an aperture of f/5.6 and the ideal shutter speed for the optimum exposure was 1/500s, you’d still get a decent image if your shutter speed was 1/1000s (-1 stop), 1/250s (+1), 1/125s (+2) or 1/60s (+3).
In my experience too, this was often a conservative guide.
I recall shooting a roll of ISO800 film in a Pentax compact camera, then at the end of the roll realising the film canister had no DX coding. The camera relied on this to set its ISO automatically, and if I couldn’t read the DX code, it defaulted to ISO25.
The difference between ISO25 and ISO800 is five stops!
But the pictures still came out pretty acceptable.
Because of this I generally leaned towards a stop overexposing anyway, giving me more flexibility – or in other words putting me closer to the middle of that -1/+3 stop latitude.
This amazing flexibility of colour negative film meant not only that any cameras with less than spot on metering were forgiven, but also that I could still risk another couple of stops wider on aperture in bright sunlight when the shutter speed of the camera had maxed out.
Which was very useful for someone who greatly enjoys shallow depth of field.
I have a basic grasp of exposure, and think I can tell when something is too over or under exposed, but with film I rarely had to call upon this understanding.
With digital exposures though, I’ve found it’s nowhere near as forgiving.
With a camera with a decent AE (Auto Exposure) system, you’ll probably rarely notice these tighter exposure tolerances, as with film.
With the majority of digital compacts I’ve used, as long as I’ve been careful with highlights (by avoiding brightly back lit scenes, and using -0.3 exposure compensation to further take the edge of), I’ve not thought much about exposure.
But returning to a DSLR – and especially when trying to use a range of different types of lenses with different levels of metering automation – has really highlighted (pun intended!) the fickleness of digital sensors.
I know many shoot RAW which has more tolerance, and they can then adjust the exposure in post processing.
But I’ve found time and time again, shooting RAW isn’t for me, so this isn’t a route I want to explore.
With JPEGs, the upside is their speed and convenience. The downside is it seems far more imperative to get the exposure right.
To illustrate the (lack of) exposure latitude of digital – to myself and you – I decided to take a series of photographs with my Pentax K30 DSLR that emulated the exposure latitude of colour negative film.
This was not a highly scientific experiment, more just a casual attempt to see and understand the outcome of varying exposure with a DSLR.
So I simply used the exposure compensation button to take pictures at -1, 0, +1, +2 and +3 stops.
Here are the results, and my notes beneath each.
On the upside of this digital intolerance perhaps is that you learn to be more precise and get the exposure right more often from the outset.
On the downside, this takes additional learning and practice and multiple shots that perhaps you aren’t interested in investing in, and would rather just shoot with usable exposures more often than not.
I think I’m more in the downside camp currently, than the upside.
So if you do shoot colour negative film, be thankful of this wonderful exposure latitude, which means you rarely have to think too much about getting a perfect exposure, the film will cover any minor shortcomings.
If you shoot digital and the vast majority of your images are exposed well, then congratulations on choosing a great camera, and/or having the skill to get the exposure right yourself manually.
What are your experiences of exposure latitude with film and digital photography?
Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
Thanks for looking.
Share this post with someone you think will enjoy it using the buttons below.
See what I’m up to About Now.