Testing Film Speed no densitometer required

You don't need an expensive densitometer to perform accurate film speed tests. Learn how to expose and develop your black and white film correctly.

Film speed test – use just 2 sheets of film – no densitometers

Film speed test for Ilford FP4. How to establish your personal film exposure index and normal development time without the need for expensive densitometers. This is a visual check using a graphic arts step-wedge tablet.

Below is a quick overview of the method for how to conduct a film speed and development test to obtain a normal development time. It is particularly handy for 4×5 users. You can minimise the amount of film used in the test potentially down to two sheets. At the bottom of this page are further references.

Time needed: 2 hours.

How to test film speed without a densitometer

  1. Load step tablet and unexposed 4×5 sheet into a film holder

    I use a Stouffer step wedge as my calibration tool, avoiding the need for a densitometer.

  2. Expose the film with step tablet with a Zone 10 exposure

    Use a white card for exposure.

  3. Develop your test film in the developer of your choice

    This method accounts for your choice of developer and agitation method.

  4. Make a contact print from your test film.

    Visually read off the contact print your film speed index and confirm normal development.

Step 1 Load step tablet and unexposed 4×5 sheet into a film holder

This film speed test uses a Stouffer step wedge as your calibration tool. Modify your step tablet by placing an opaque paper dot sticker above step 21 on the tablet. The film under the dot will not receive any light. The resulting clear film base becomes a reference point later.

The 21 step tablet or step wedge is a calibration device traditionally used in graphic arts applications. It has been carefully processed under laboratory conditions to give 21 steps of grey in 0.5 stop densities. Using a step tablet is one way to avoid the need for densitometers.

In a darkroom or film changing bag load an unexposed sheet of film overlayed with the Stouffer step tablet. The two are sandwiched together and carefully pushed into place within the sheet film holder. Due to the combined thickness of two sheets, this can be a little difficult. Using some care and practice it can be achieved. Treat the test tablet with the same care as film and avoid fingerprints and scratching.

Step 2 Expose the film with step tablet with a Zone 10 exposure

Film speed test Zone 10 film exposure test
Exposing film with step tablet to a plain evenly lit surface. For this test the lens must be set to infinity, so the card cannot be in focus.

A Zone 10 exposure is 5 stops more exposure than what your meter is indicating. Observe the following points:

  • Use a white card as your exposure subject and fill the viewfinder completely. If you use a darker object the exposure time required will be longer, hence use white.
  • Choose a normal focal length lens. Wide angled lenses suffer from light fall-off at the picture edges and can affect the test
  • Have your lens focused at infinity. The test object will not be in focus and focus is not desirable for this test.
  • Choose a day with consistent light, cloudless, south-facing is best if in the southern hemisphere.

Step 3 Develop your test film in the developer of your choice

My current developer is Ilford LC-29. Conduct your tests with the developer that you prefer to use with your film. Prepare it as you would normally. So that you have repeatable results, be consistent with your film processing procedures.

For my processing set up, Ilford HP5 takes about 11 minutes to develop normally. Looking at the Iford tables for FP4 suggests that it develops in slightly less time that HP5. So I cut my time from 11minutes down to 10 minutes. Why? 10 is an easy number to work with. If I need to reduce or increase my development times further I will usually adjust by at least 10%. In this case a 10% increment is 1 minute, 15% is 90 seconds and 20% is 2 minutes.

Film speed test stouffer negative jobo film reel FP4
My developed film test at 10 minutes

Step 4 Analyse your results to get your personal film speed index

Film speed test stouffer negative

The first piece of information in a film speed test is at what ISO speed should I be exposing the film for with my camera gear and development procedure.

This is where placing the opaque sticky dot near the 21st step is so helpful, circled in red. Here there is no exposure so it gives you a clear film base reference. Step 21 on the wedge is also Zone 0. If it is the same density as the red circled clear film base then the film is not overexposed. If step 21 is equal to the circled area and there is consistent tonal separation between steps 20 to 11, then your exposure index is within the ball park. I exposed this test film at 64ISO and I am pretty happy with the tonal placement.

If steps 21, 20, 19 had been clear with no tonal separation between them, then I know the film was underexposed. I would need to reduce my ISO number by about half a stop and try the test again.

Conversely, if steps 21, 20 and 19 had definite grey tones I would need to decrease my exposure by increasing my ISO rating for the film.

Step 5 Proper proof time

From the previous step I am confident that an ISO of 64 is close enough for my camera and developer combination. Now I need to find out what is the normal development time.

proper proof time

A second sheet of FP4 which remained unexposed was also developed at the same time as the step wedge test for 10 minutes.

For all contact printing I have a standard enlarger head height I use in combination with one lens, f stop and neg carrier. I set my enlarger filtration to grade 2 for normal contrast paper. I focus the light onto my enlarger base and then make tests strips from the contact print of the developed but unexposed film.

What I am looking for is the first almost black tone which shows very little discernible tonal difference to the next strip after it. This is in the region of the minimum print exposure required to print through the unexposed film to yield a black print value.

In my case above, I could see clear differences between the dark greys at exposures of 8.6 and 10.4 seconds. At 12.4 seconds I could see no appreciable change in blacks between 12.4 and 15.0 seconds. So I choose the 12.4 seconds as the minimum time to achieve close to maximum black.

A note of caution, this is a visual test and it is easy to be overly enthusiastic about achieving maximum black thereby overexposing when establishing your minimum time for close to maximum black.

Here we are working at an extreme end of the paper sensitivity where small changes in exposure can give large changes in density, so take care not to overdo it.

Remember that you want the exposure time just before there is no real appreciable difference in the black with next exposure time which follows.

Step 6 Establishing normal development – printing the step wedge.

This is the final stage, establishing what is a normal development time for your film, camera and developer combination. We need to make a contact print of the actual Zone 10 film exposed with the image of test tablet. Using the exposure determined above for the minimum time for maximum black (in my case 12.4 seconds) I  contact print the negative onto the photographic paper. See the results below.

contact print step wedge

In the image above I have shown in red letters the various print value zones and their respective step tablet numbers. Remember each step is 0.5 of a stop. Step 1 on the tablet is equivalent to a Zone 10 print value, Step 2 is half a stop lower at Zone 9.5 and Step 3 is Zone 9.0 respectively.

I like to have a good separation of tones from Zone 2 print value (Step 17) through to about Zone 8 print value (Step 5). After Step 5 – Zone print values 8.5 to 10, the scale remains paper base white. This is a normal contrast range. If the light grey scale ended earlier at say Step 7, this would indicate the film has been developed with higher contrast than normal of about one stop. This is referred to N+1 development. If the grey tones extended all the way down to Step 3, or Zone 9 print value, then this would indicate the film contrast is softer than normal. This is referred to as N-1 development.

In this case above 10 minutes development has produced results which show normal negative contrast.

Film speed test Ilford FP4 in LC-29 developer conclusion

Using just 2 sheets of Ilford FP4 film I was able to determine that my personal exposure index is 64 ISO. I achieve normal development at 10 minutes. This accounts for my usual dilution and agitation methods consistent with all my film processing procedures

I have only used my results here as an example of the process. Expect your results to be different from mine.

Having conducted my film speed test for my personal exposure index and normal development I can now go about photographing with my new stock of Ilford FP4. This gives me a genuine basis to compare results of my images with other films I have used and to observe characteristics particular to this film and developer combination.

Conclusion:  Film speed tests are necessary to understand how to best manipulate your creative materials – your photographic film and paper.

References Calibration and Transmission Step Wedges

Film Speed Test References.

Paul Wainwright has written a nice little pdf which you can download. It goes into greater detail the technical details behind this visual test. Go to “Use Your Eyes, Zone System Testing Without a Densitometer” and download the pdf link.

Visit Stouffer Graphic Arts for details regarding transmission step wedges and photographic scales. I rely on these tools to avoid the need for costly laboratory equipment like densitometers. Handle your calibration scales like negatives, keep them clean and store in neg files. That way these scales will last you for years and be well worth the investment.

Film speed test Ilford FP4 4x5 sheet film

If you have any questions feel free to drop me a line.

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Since 1989, Alex Bond has published cards, calendars, books, and posters under his imprint Stormlight Publishing. His images showcase the West Australian environment. Bond's handcrafted, silver-gelatin, fibre-based prints are personally made by the author in his darkroom.
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  1. Nice explanation, i guess that if your test didn’t put Z0 at step 21 then you could just count the number of stops that its off by and adjust the ISO from that instead of redoing the exposure.

    • Hi Shane, the beauty of the calibration device is that it visually tells you, by half stop increments, whether you need to increase or decrease your exposure. If it is out by a larger amount than 0.5 of a stop I would personally redo the test.

  2. Hi, the didactic and interesting article.
    Some subjects that are not written,
    When you take the photo on the white cardboard, the photometer measurement, in which area should it be placed?
    Example, if it is 9 EV, I consider the diaphragm and speed data for zone V
    The photometer I use is a pentax spot.
    Thank you

    • The exposure on centre of white board should be 5 times more than what the spot meter indicates = Zone 10. Best you download the pdf reference at the bottom of my post for background information. Regards, Alex

  3. Hi Alex,
    Great very informative article. I have a couple of questions regarding the transmission step wedge. Is it necessary to buy a calibrated one? And I am shooting medium format. Do you have any recommendation to how to do shoot the test with medium format film? Thanks

    • Hi Javier,
      Thanks for the questions. The transmission step wedges are calibrated at manufacture. That’s the beauty of using them. Their density values have been established with high-end gear at the factory, saving you from owning such gear.

      So the process I have outlined is for sheet film. It’s not immediately transferrable to roll film testing, mainly due to the fact that you are exposing film in-camera, with the step wedge sandwiched to the film. That would be difficult to manage with a roll film camera.

      The other aspect of this procedure is that it confirms film speed to contact print values in your darkroom. If you are not producing darkroom contact prints and going straight to film scanning then this test, without modification, may not suit your situation.

      You might like to explore one of the methods described in Way Beyond Monochrome, or John Blakemore’s Black and White Photography Workshop. Both are listed on my photography resource page https://www.alexbond.com.au/film-photography-supplies/

      Hope this has been of some help.

  4. Excellent tutorial, Alex. Your method of inserting the step wedge / film sandwich in the holder is much better than mine. I made a widget to hold the step wedge/film sandwich and exposed in the darkroom using a flash… much more trial-and-error than your method. For those who scan their negatives, the process of optimizing film speed / development is actually much more forgiving, owing to the wider response curve of modern scanners relative to that of enlarging paper. But it’s the same process, just ‘proof’ the final negative with out any scanner presets e.g., levels, curves. By far the most important step is getting the film speed matched to the development. It may require more development than you think, especially if you want/need to shoot at box speed. If you dump your shadows, even a great scanner won’t reveal them. (I let the highlights fall where ever they want and manage those during the scanning process.) Anyway, hope this helps.

    • I would agree that if you dump your shadows a scanner will struggle to reveal them. Likewise, it has been my experience that scanners can reveal information in the dense parts of the film negative that are not easily achieved on photographic paper. But, they struggle to record the image information from the thinnest part of the negative, the shadows. However, this is opposite for the dense regions of colour transparency films. Density here is a struggle and does not scan easily. Scanners frequently clip the histogram of the dense areas which are the shadows regions of colour transparency films.

      • Being a persistent person, I refused to become hostage to scanner and scanner software limitations. I can reliably discern Zone 1 from Zone 0 densities (FB+F), but only after I learned how to turn off all the presets software makers thought would be useful. On the other hand, I don’t think scanners are nearly as limited in capturing dense areas of film as is commonly thought. I can get everything from Zone 0 to Zone 15(+) on one histogram without pulling development (so I never need to). And there’s no reason why anyone should have problems reading dense areas without clipping (at least from a DMax 4.0 machine). I’ll share an article, if that’s okay: https://www.jrileystewart.com/blog/scanning-software-matters/

        • Thanks, Jim, I’ll have a read of your article.

          When I wrote about the dumping of the shadows, I had incorrectly stated that the scanners have difficulty with recording shadow details of negative film. Certainly, if you use the Stouffer on your scanner, as you do, the Epson V700 will pick up all the shadow densities. (I use Vue Scan software). I was actually thinking about my experience with scanning colour transparency films, where the shadow regions can be quite dense, especially with Velvia.

  5. Another great article, thank you. In this article, you mentioned Zone II through Zone VIII as normal contrast range. Does this mean that a very dark but important shadow detail should be placed in Zone II(-3 stop of measured exposure) instead of Zone III? And if the important highlight detail is Zone 9, does this mean I have to do N-1 development?

    • So I don’t want to get too hung up with zones, but in a normal contrast scene exposed on film and developed at normal contrast, zone 3 on the print (positive print) is the darkest to where you can still see texture detail. Zone 2 is one stop darker on the print and you can’t see any texture. So if you have shadow detail you wish to be just visible, then don’t expose it less than zone 3. Zone 8 is generally considered the lightest grey in the print where you can just see texture/detail. Think of a white textured material. Zone 8 you can still just see the weave, one stop more exposure and all you see is next to paperbase white

  6. I made a contact print using Stouffer TP4x5-31 step wedge like you. And in this print, I can see the visual tonal separation from Zone II to Zone VIII. So I thought the darkest part with details should be exposed to Zone II. And if the high value exceeds +3 Zone VIII, I thought I should apply reduced development time such as N-1. But I have to expose the darkest part with details to Zone III, and if the lightest part with important details are +3 Zone VIII, then I have to apply a reduced development time. Until now, I misunderstood this. Thank you for your kind advice.

  7. Hello, in step 5 it says the normal development time, the question is that references are considered for the height of the enlarger?
    Do you make contact or impression?
    Which of the two ways have been comfortable for you to evaluate the stouffer wedge?
    Thank you for sharing your experience,

    • Hi Ricardo, step 5 refers to making a contact print of a second sheet of 4×5 film, which has been developed but not exposed. The result is a “clear” sheet of film. For the purpose of this article I am contact printing the film directly onto my photographic paper. I perform a series of test strips to determine an exposure that gives me “near” black of the paper. I then use this “near” black exposure time to contact print the step wedge on the same paper. This near black exposure is used for all my contact prints for that paper and film type.

      When making this test, set your enlarger height so it throws sufficient light over the entire area of the photo paper, with some extra margin. Note the enlarger height. Use the same enlarger lens. Make a note of your lens aperture. Place an empty neg carrier into your enlarger and focus the edges. I usually use a height that covers 11×14 inches when I focus the edges of an empty neg carrier. Conduct your proper proof exposure time tests. Keep records of your settings so that you can quickly return to these next time you want to make a contact print.

      My article “Contact Proof Prints Standard Exposure Time Part 2” may also help explain. Regards, Alex

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