Camera Exposure Settings I Use (Film & Digital)

I thought I’d share my exposure settings for how I make photos on black and white Ilford HP5+ negative film and also on a digital full-frame Nikon. Proven ways that work for me. Often without a light meter on a Leica.

First off, you can certainly use (A) aperture priority if you have a camera with that mode. It’s my favorite automatic exposure mode–I pick the aperture and let the camera choose the appropriate shutter speed. It works great for black and white film if you put the ASA dial one stop over what the film box speed is, so for HP5+, I set it on 200 (it’s a 400 speed film) and it’s good to go.

Outside, in (A) mode, I pick a mid-range aperture for street photos, like an f8, and then let the camera go.

Or I’ll use Sunny 16. So simple–light is very consistent from day to day. You set your shutter speed the same as your film speed over f16 in full sunlight and open the aperture from there depending on the light.

~ 1/250 at f16 in bright sun (it’s supposed to be 1/400, but that speed isn’t available but close enough to 400 ASA for Ilford HP5+);
~ 1/250 at f11 in hazy bright/sidelight;
~ 1/250 at f8 in cloudy bright/sunny backlight;
~ 1/250 at f5.6 in cloudy stormy;
~ 1/250 at f4 or f2.8 in anything darker.

Of course, you can modify these combinations–1/2000 (3 stops darker than 1/250) at f4 (3 stops brighter than f16) in full sun for example.

If ever you’re not sure, overexpose. You want something on the negative to work with. Richard Avedon’s photographs were said to be extremely dense–he wanted to make sure not to end up with an unusable underexposed negative. It’s very difficult to lose highlights in a film negative.

Often outside, like for the Longmont Lake Project, I set the camera on 1/250 at f11 and knew I was close to overexposing by two stops from full sun, so perfect for backlight, a stop over for sidelight and two stops over for full sun. All the negatives were perfect.

Inside, the rule is to open up the lens all the way–photograph wide open and as slow as you dare!

In a typical house with good living room lamp lighting or during the day with daylight, you can usually get a good negative with 1/60 at f2. At a bar, which tend to be quite dark, 1/30 or 1/15 at f2 if there’s any light on them at all. If they’re in darkness, 1/4 at f2 might get you something on a negative. Hold your camera steady by placing elbows on a table or the bar.

With digital cameras, overexposing is not a good idea. It’s the exact opposite. If you underexpose by a stop or so, you can always bring up shadow detail, but if you blow out your highlights, there is no recovering them. So, set your digital camera for 1 stop underexposed and use (A) mode. Choose similar apertures as with film–mid-range f8 outside, wide open inside. I use ISO 800 mostly all the time.

I use a full-frame Nikon DSLR and when I make street photos from my car, I use these settings. ISO 800, 1/4000 at f8 with a 28mm f2 Nikon lens, focus set to the center of the infinity mark. Everything is guaranteed sharp and from 6′ to infinity. You need a 1/4000 shutter speed at least to compensate if the subject is moving, plus your own movement in the car.

These were all made at those settings from my driver’s seat.

I keep the digital camera on the passenger seat or in my lap, and I point it out the window when I am at a red light if I see something of interest, or when I am passing something I will expose blind–just point and see what I get in the edit.

In any case, Sunny 16 is your friend outside. With film, use a wide-open aperture and as slow a shutter speed as you dare. People blur if you use 1/30 or slower–save those slow speeds for people you don’t like, you won’t have good photos of them. Or get them to hold still.

With film, get something on the negative–overexposure is not a problem and much more desirable than underexposure. A thin underexposed negative is not much to work with and will result in muddy photos.

With digital, save those highlights, they’re not recoverable.

All my HP5+ film is processed on stainless steel reels in Kodak HC-110 Dilution B for 5 minutes. And my digital work is toned via Lightroom.

Go out and make the work only you can make.

Here’s to good light!

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