Overexposing Film

March 26, 2014

Belle Lumière is beyond excited to introduce Brittney Zambrowicz, owner and photographer of Smitten Imagery.   She is a crazy talented, Texas-based photographer who specializes in creating simple, honest portraits full of light.  Brittney also recently started a side blog called Little Strides, Happy Adventures on Film.  Of course Belle Lumière fell in love with this project, not just because it has everything to do with film, but because she also includes a section on education and photography tips.  I absolutely love when another photographers are open to sharing and helping.  It makes me love that person that much more.  Being the amazing person Brittney is, she was kind enough to put together an educational article for those of you who are just starting your film journey or just feel a little stuck in the process.  I know from experience the tips Brittney shared with us below completely changed the way I shoot film and the results I have had in return.

You know how to work it yet?” a friend asked, nodding to my freshly unpacked Mamiya 645.

I sat beaming amidst a heap of Styrofoam peanuts. “I’ve been doing my research.

In this case, “doing my research” meant ogling beautiful film photos, skimming a few articles, and hoping my digital photography knowledge would be much more helpful than it turned out to be. I understood the obvious differences between film and digital photography, just not how much I would need to change my shooting style when ditching my DSLR to work with a medium format camera.

Even after exposing properly using my in-camera light meter, I received many dark frames from my first film roll. I quickly realized I needed to technically overexpose my film to achieve the bright, sun-kissed look I love. Whereas overexposure of digital photos causes loss of detail, film retains detail in highlights impressively well. Whether you hope to flatter the skin of your subject or simply love the look of creamy tones, you can achieve beautiful results by overexposing your color film.

To overexpose your film, I recommend two easy techniques:

1. Rate your film at a nonstandard ISO

Each roll of film is manufactured at a certain ISO rating, or sensitivity to light. The higher a film’s ISO rating, the more sensitive it is to light and the less light required to properly expose a frame.

When you rate your film at a lower ISO than it was manufactured at, you are exposing your frames as if your film is less light sensitive than it is in actuality. Technically, this means you’ll be overexposing your roll. Different film stocks look better exposed at different ISO ratings, so it’s helpful to run a few test rolls of difference stocks at different exposures to see what look you prefer.  For example, I find Fuji 400H can be overexposed more than Kodak Portra and still look gorgeous.


2. Use a handheld meter to expose for a dark part of your frame

If you want to gain even more control of your exposure, you can also use a handheld light meter. To ensure darker portions of your image are overexposed, meter light on a dark part of your frame and use this reading to expose your image in manual mode.

If you’re not ready to buy a pricey professional grade light meter, there are smartphone applications that measure light fairly accurately. Investing in an application or professional light meter will hugely increase exposure consistency of your frames.

Keep in mind there are other factors that will affect the tones in your images and overexposure doesn’t invariably equal dreamy tones. Below are a few examples of other things that influence the coloring of your frames.

  • Processing and scanning hugely impacts the look of your images. For instance, developing time and temperature of the chemical bath during processing can have major consequences on the outcome of your film. Find a knowledgeable, skilled lab that is willing to work with you to understand the type of tones you want.
  • Shooting conditions also substantially affect tones. Colors abundant at your shoot location can cause unwanted color casts. For creamy, pastel coloring, try shooting in areas with neutral coloring (e.g. a field of wheat grass, buildings with light grey stone, beaches, etc). Quality of light also determines the appearance of your color tone. Generally, open shade with even, radiant light produces beautiful, soft tones!
  • Additionally, film stock used will affect contrast, grain, sharpness and color of your images. If you’re unsure what type your prefer, experiment with a few different options to see which stock is best suited for your photography style.

Happy overexposing!

Struggling with getting the look you are aiming for? 
Not sure where to start when it comes to film??

Well Belle Lumière has you covered!!  If you are looking to jump into film and want to skip the cost of trial and error that comes with self teaching (trust me it gets expensive when film is involved) then you will want our film guide “Your Film Journey!”

And we have a special just for you, since you did the digging to find this article.  You can grab up “Your Film Journey” and become the film photographer you were born to be.  You can grab it up for only $47, normally $97 & less then the cost of three rolls shot, processed, and scanned. Which it will save you!!

Learn more by CLICKING HERE


  1. Dylan McKeever says:

    I had a question about how you would develope the film. I haven’t seen this when people talk about overexposing film. If your shooting an ISO 400 film rated at 200 are you developing for ISO 400 or 200? I wanted to know how to get that awesome film look back from the lab.



    • Brittney says:

      Great question, Dylan. When I expose my 400 film as if it is 200, my lab develops it the box speed of 400. If it the film was “pulled” in development (developed as if it was a lower ISO of 200), the resulting frames would be technically properly exposed rather than overexposed. Thanks for the great question and good luck shooting! Don’t get discouraged if you have to play around with exposure a bit to get the look you love.

      • I’m sorry Brittney but I have to disagree with you. Technically speaking pushing and pulling are not the same during taking the shooting process and the development process. Richard’s Photo Lab best describes the differences here Dylan, http://www.richardphotolab.com/blog/pushing-and-pulling-film-the-ultimate-guide

      • daniel says:

        Just wanted to start off by saying what an amazing article this is, very informative and I am learning so much from just reading it. I am trying to get into medium format film and this is very helpful.

        I do have a couple questions about rating film. Can I use the ASA dial on the back of the camera and set it half box speed and expose for the shadows or would you recommend leaving that alone and use a handheld meter setting it to half box speed and expose for shadows?


  2. Dylan McKeever says:

    Thanks that makes sense when people talk about exposing film I’ve rarely seen them talk about developing and scanning.

  3. Imogen says:


    Thanks for the tips! I wondered if you ever use portra 400, if so do you over expose to 200 or do you leave it? This learning lots at the mo!


  4. Santosh says:

    I’m slowly getting the hang of shooting film and have started to love the process. So much that I’ve stopped shooting digital.

    I’m traveling for a couple of weeks and taking a bunch of Portra 400s with me. I’d a question regarding the rating. I’m using a Nikon F4 and I can and will change the film speed dial to 200 so that the film is overexposed. But can I change it to 400 for a shot or two in between depending on the conditions and then switch to 200 or let it remain at 400? The film will be developed at the rated ISO only (400) by the lab. But I am confused about this workflow. All the forums I’ve searched for talk about Push and Pull mostly. No one seems to have had this query.

    Any help with this will be appreciated.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Belle Lumiere says:

      Santosh, I can try and answer your question but I do not know a lot about pushing and pulling as I don’t use it. That would be a great question to call your lab up and ask them about 😉

      As far as changing the ratings all this is doing is over exposing your film, your not changing the film at all. Just the way you are metering. So changing it back and forth is not going to change the way your film is developed just how you meter. Does that make sense?

      • Edward says:

        Sorry, but you cannot switch the ASA rating for just one frame. Once you have changed it, it must remain for all the frames you have available. Also, the ASA setting is done AT the time of loading the camera, not whenever you decide to over expose or under expose. On most film cameras (anyway) there is a dial known as the “EV” dial. This is where you can adjust the exposure of the frame without affecting the ASA setting. One more way to affect exposure is to meter normally, and then set the aperture to a higher number than the camera suggest if you want to over expose the frame. Let’s say the camera suggests f/5.6. By setting the aperture to say f/4, you effectively double the amount of light hitting the film. Setting the aperture will require you to also set the time the shutter is open. You need to use your camera’s manual mode. Hope this helps.

        • RicD says:

          Yes, you can change the ASA for each frame: almost all cameras have a manual ISO, or ASA dial. Changing the ASA on the camera impacts the camera light meter. Changing the ASA setting will have the light meter auto adjust for either more or less light. If you are shooting aperture priority the shutter speed will either increase or decrease, same with shutter prioity the meter will auto adjust the aperture to increase or decrease.

          Though you can adjust your ASA for different frames there is not any good reason for doing that. Remember, the film will be developed for the stated ASA. If you say “oh, I will adjust the ASA from 400 to 200”, then when shooting manual leave that dial alone. Instead adjust your shutter or aperture setting; in other words learn your reciprocals. When shooting in one of the priority modes and your camera has a exposure compensation dial move that.

          Photography is quite simple, really is, sadly folks make it much more complicated than it is. There are three settings (1) ASA (ISO) chose the film speed you desire leave it there, (2) shutter, (3) aperture. Set those three, compose, focus, shoot how simple can that be. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy.

    • George William says:

      Since in this case you would just be over exposing the film and taking advantage of the films exposure latitude yes you can switch back and forth mid roll. All we have to do to get this effect is add more light, no pushing or pulling of the film is required.

  5. Benjamin Kim says:

    Hello, I have a question for overexposing film. I feel that overexposing pics from film is very different than digital. http://www.35to220.com/camera-reviews/mastin-labs-fuji-400h-pack-lightroom-preset-review

    How much should I over expose the film for great tones and color?

  6. Ben says:

    Hello, I have a question. Should I put iso from 400 to 200 and then measure the light with the light meter for standard iso film?

  7. Rennai says:

    I’ve just started playing with film (after lots of research), and this post has been so helpful! I have a question I can’t find an answer to anywhere though. I’ve heard portra 800 looks great at 800, 640 or maybe 400. I have a roll in I started rating at 400, can I switch it halfway through to 640? Everything I read says no, but if I have the intent of overexposing at a full stop and then a half stop, and meter for 400 then 640 accordingly, and process at 800, why wouldn’t I be able to?? Wouldn’t it be the same outcome as if I had two separate rolls, one rated at 400 and one rated at 640, metered accordingly and processed at 800?

    • sepp says:

      Yes – if you plan to develop at box speed anyway, you can alter your exposure rating mid-film
      No – if you plan to go full push/pull ie develop at the ISO you shot it at actually – in this case you should stick to one ISO for the whole film… unless you plan to mix both and experiment 🙂

  8. Traci says:

    So unbelievably helpful! Wonderful tips from an extremely talented artist.

  9. Steve says:

    Very good article but one question:

    Do you set your light meter to 400 or 200?

    • Tamara Lewis says:

      I am wondering this same thing. Which ISO do I enter into the light meter? Do I put in 200 or do I put in the box speed of 400 (Fuji 400h)? I have been trying to get this question answered in a few differently places with no success. Thanks!

      • Belle Lumiere says:

        Hello Tamara and Steve,

        You would put in the light meter what you want to rate your film at. If you want to rate, for example, Fuji 400 at 200 iso. Then you would put 200 in the light meter. If you want to rate Fuji 400 at box speed, then you would put 400 in the light meter. So what ever you want to rate your film at is what you put in the meter 🙂 If you have any other questions feel free to email in, sometimes it’s hard for us to catch all the post comments 🙂

  10. Ruben Gerardo Duran says:

    Hi…if I am shooting a 400 iso film , and I want to overexpose it shooting it at 200 iso , where do I need to do my metering , in the shadows too, or just anywhere ? Thats my only doubt….thanks…Ruben.

    • Daniel says:

      You would meter the shadows and that can bring your over exposure by another stop or two typically. I’m new to all this too but that’s what I’ve been hearing. Correct me if I’m wrong.

      Good luck,

  11. Martin Tran says:

    Do you use incident or reflective light metering when exposing for shadows? If it’s incident, do I position the meter over the shady part of the frame?

  12. Anghel Gabriel says:

    Do you use 80 2.8 or 1.9?

  13. Trevor Crump says:

    Hello! What type of scanner are you using and could you share briefly your scanner workflow? Thanks!

  14. Connor says:

    I’ve got a nikon fa, and it’s got EV -/+ on it. I was wondering can I use EV to overexpose and not use ASA to overexpose instead. Like pulling.

    But would I still have to develop say fuji400 at 400 other then develope at 200?

    Also can I switch different EV-/+ throughout the film?? And develope at 400.

  15. Ferhan says:

    A great little article. I shoot fuji400h and stick 200 iso in the light meter when trying to achieve a good exposure and also measure under the chin on the model. I shoot with a Mamiya RZ67 and develop at home. I don’t get the look I’m after most likely due to the developing stage so for my next roll I aim to send it off for some pro treatment. Thanks for this article.

  16. ANTONIS says:


  17. Belle Lumiere says:

    Hello Antonis.

    It actually does not matter what ISO you put in your camera. Unlike digital you can not use your camera to change the ISO. The ISO is dictated by what film you are using. So if you are shooting Fuji 400. Your ISO is 400 no mater what. You can’t change that. If you want to overexpose your Fuji 400 then putting 200 into your light meter is one way to do this. But keep in mind, again, you are not changing the ISO of the film. You are simply using a trick to get a reading to help you overexpose the film.

    hope that answers your question 🙂

    – Lexi

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