Overexposing film

When one switches from shooting digital to shooting color negative film for the first time, one aspect that they tend to have the hardest time adjusting to is the ability to overexpose their photos. With the wide exposure latitude that color negative film affords, one can get pretty good results even if they were to overexpose their photos anywhere from 1 to 2 stops (and depending on the lighting sometimes even 3 stops). For someone who had started out with digital and have never shot film before, this may be a bit difficult to accept as even a 1 stop overexposure on your digital photos can ruin the exposure. With respect to color negative film (not black & white or slide film), more contrast and saturation is added to a shot when you overexpose it. In addition, one of the main differences between professional films and consumer-grade films is that the latter is equipped with more contrast and saturation to begin with. Given such, you may not want to overexpose consumer color negative film by more than 1 stop under normal circumstances, since you may introduce a little too much contrast and saturation to your photos. However, as photo interpretations are subjective and depends on personal taste, one may actually like or want to create photos with highly saturated colors. It’s just a matter of what look you’re after really.

The two photos below were all shot on Walgreens 400 ASA film, which is really just Fuji 400 Xtra (a consumer-grade film), and were overexposed by 1 stop. With photos where direct sunlight is illuminating the subjects, you really don’t need to overexpose much. However, when you do so, the contrast and saturation gets kicked up.

The following photo was shot in open shade, away from direct sunlight, and overexposed by 2 stops. Under conditions where the subject is out of the sun, you can often safely overexpose your film by 2 stops and get good results. Overexposing the photo below helped to open up the shadows.

The two photos below were shot during an overcast day without any direct sunlight and both were overexposed by 2 stops. On consumer film, this really helped to give the photos some extra pop (probably a bit more than I would’ve liked, but it’s really just my personal taste. I tend to go for more natural looking colors).

The photo below was overexposed by 2.5 stops on an overcast day. Overexposing film while shooting on a wide open aperture can also help to give you pastel colors, like it did for the Mini Cooper below.

The two photos below were overexposed by about 3 stops and shot wide open on an overcast day. The colors get even more pastel. Some film photographers really like this effect.

Back to a 2 stop overexposure…

So overall it’s pretty fun what you can do with film. You really do need to play with it to learn how much overexposure you can introduce based on various lighting conditions (e.g., direct sunlight, open shade, back-lighting, etc.). There are lots of different film stocks out there, but over time film shooters usually settle on one or two films they love the best and perfect the look they want to achieve with those films. It’s pretty cool, and I do hope more people will give film a try. If you’re on a budget, pick up some film from Walgreens and have them process it for around $8 just to experiment and have some fun.

show hide 10 comments

September 8, 2011 - 6:14 am

Anne The two posts about exposures were really informative! Thanks a lot for posting them.

September 8, 2011 - 11:49 am

terrini No problem. I hope more people would give film a try!

September 13, 2012 - 9:56 am

Rose Love this , Thank you so much. I am planning on giving some film a Go. But did you spot meter ( In Camera ) off the shadows ( The darkest Point ) and then overexpose that by 2 stops? With Digital I meter off the highlight and over expose 1 stop.

September 13, 2012 - 12:38 pm

terrini Yeah, for most of my shots shown I metered for the shadows (although not necessarily the darkest point if there’s a portion of the photograph that’s close to pitch black) and then overexposed by 1 to 2 stops depending on the lighting situation (i.e., direct sunlight, backlight, etc.). With film you should definitely meter for the shadows due to its latitude, while with digital it would be better to meter for the highlights instead.

July 6, 2013 - 1:29 pm

Yumi I agree with Anne, your posts about overexposing film are quite helpful. I just got back into shooting film and want to try this with my next roll. Thanks so much, love your blog!

July 6, 2013 - 2:33 pm

terrini Thanks Yumi! I’m glad you’re getting back into film. Try overexposing your next roll and see what happens. I’ll check your blog for the results soon!

October 12, 2013 - 1:38 am

Bea Excellent post. I’m about to try the Fuji Superia X-tra 400 and this gives me an idea of what to expect. Thank you so much!

October 12, 2013 - 11:30 am

terrini You’re welcome, glad my post helped. Unfortunately Fuji Superia is getting expensive these days.

May 11, 2014 - 11:04 pm

susie Thank you so much for this insightful post.
I’ve been trying to find out how to achieve the ‘pastel’ look and after much research I think I’ve figured it out! Can’t wait to get my film developed and see how it turns out :]

May 12, 2014 - 12:23 am

terrini Thanks Susie, I hope you get the look you’re looking for. The best color negative film to achieve the popular pastel look when overexposed is probably Fuji Pro 400H, but it’s way expensive these days. For consumer films, Kodak Ultrax 400 seems to have pretty neutral colors.

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