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Thread: over-development

  1. #1


    Maybe I just lead a bland life, but a lot of the stuff I photograph seems to be low contrast scenes. When I use a spot meter, 4 zones are about all I usually see.

    Therefore, I would think I would need to overdevelop to raise the gamma and expand the tonal range. As I am shooting Tmax in 4x5 or 8x10, it also seems logical to over expose as I am not worrying about grain or shoving highlights up onto the shoulder.

    However, last night I was reading the new Photo Techniques and David Vestal while he seems to agree about overexposing, says never overdevelop.

    Near as I can tell David Vestal is one of the smartest living authorities on photography so while I assume he is right, I donít understand why.

    In printing I am always cautioned to leave the print in the soup long enough to get the full tonal range so why isn't this true with negatives?

    Any comments would be helpful.

    Thanks Neal

  2. #2
    MIke Sherck's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2002
    Elkhart, IN


    Perhaps a change of developer will help: it did with me. I changed from TMax RS to D-76 and the improvement was just what I needed. What are you using and have you run film speed tests with your current developer?

    Politically, aerodynamically, and fashionably incorrect.

  3. #3


    On the other hand, most paper only handles 4-5 stops of tonal range. If your negative is a bit flat, at least you're sure that everything that is on it makes it on paper. And you can always use higher grade paper/filter to improve the contrast at the printing stage.

  4. #4

    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Seattle, Washington


    Hi Neal. Like you, I shoot mostly in flat light because I like that lighting for portraits. If we shoot in flat light, meaning SBRs of less than 5 or 6, then + development will add density to our highlights, which I like. Gives a twinkle to the catchlights and keeps teeth white. We've essentially extended our scale in the high values. But if we also overexpose, we've contracted our low values, so in effect, all we've done is move our film curve to the right without extending the scale. As a rule of thumb, film speed increases in low contrast light and decreases in high contrast light, so overexposing low contrast scenes is an accumulated error. Overdevelopment is development beyond that which renders your highlights the way you like them, so I agree that overdevelopment is to be avoided, but overexposure is exposure beyond that required to render your shadow values the way you like them, so that is to be avoided as well. If your intention is to add contrast to negatives made in low contrast light, I would recommend reduced exposure and extended development. Good luck.

  5. #5

    Join Date
    Mar 2002
    now in Tucson, AZ


    The real definition of 'overdevelopment' is when you can't print the high values the way you want- they are too bright and 'blown out'. Likewise, 'underexposure' is when you can't get the detail and tonality you want in the shadows- they are poorly separated, gray and muddy. That's what David Vestal is talking about. Neither of these are directly related to the ISO number on the film box or the manufacturer's development time.

  6. #6
    Eric Woodbury
    Join Date
    Dec 2003


    I looked at your prints on my computer screen and they look fine to me. You don't have to have absolute black and white in every picture. Sometimes the trick is to have a little more local contrast or to kick up the highlights or burn down the shadows. Sometimes it is nice to have 'open' shadows and not need a 500W light to see into the shadows. As others have said, paper contrast control can help too, as can masking. Whatever works for you. So if more processing works, go for it. With large format film, don't worry about the grain.
    my picture blog

  7. #7

    Join Date
    Dec 1997
    Baraboo, Wisconsin


    I haven't read the article so I don't know what Vestal means by the term "overdevelopment." We generally try to avoid overdoing anything and if by overdeveloping he means so much development that we're unable to make the print that we wanted to make then he's certainly correct. But developing to get the highlights to print the way you want them to print even if that involves longer than normal development times isn't "overdevelopment," it's correct development for your intended purpose.
    Brian Ellis
    Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you do criticize them you'll be
    a mile away and you'll have their shoes.

  8. #8
    Resident Heretic Bruce Watson's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    USA, North Carolina


    Four zones? Really? I just wandered out in the back yard and took a picture of my grandmother's much transplanted azalea. White blossoms in slanting low light. The dark green leaves, for which I wanted to keep some detail, went on zone III. The white blossoms with sunlight made it up to zone X. An eight or nine stop spread, depending on how you count. I've taken shots in the high desert in Utah that made it up to zone XII.

    Interesting how different people see different things, yes?

    As to over developing. Is there such a thing? I was always taught to develope enough to get your film to the contrast index you needed, per the zone system. I don't see anything wrong with this. Vestal may well be smart. Doesn't make him right. Or wrong. You use the tools to get the result you want.

    Bruce Watson

  9. #9


    Perhaps overdeveloping really means metering error. If you meter the scene the way you want detail to show then you will match that with the right development time. If the development time is wrong I believe it is because the scene was metered erroneously. It all depends on where we want to hold detail.

  10. #10


    Neal, I feel your pain. I get a lot of SBRs around 4. It is gloomy in Michigan much of the time.

    Do I have a simple solution? No.

    I got by for years by developing "by eye" meaning that I made a practice negative by assempling a set of ND filters, saw what range of densities were needed for a full range of light to dark on my paper with my enlarger and adjusted my developing times to look like that "negative". It added 30 to 50% to my times, which became my "normal".

    I am about to embark on a whole new set up and this time take measurements in absolute scale, but I hope you don't think you must go that route. GO take a look at your one best negative and try to make you new ones look like that. There are only two varriables to work with: ASA and development. Change only one at a time and you will get there.


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