Exposure Records


This post will discuss exposure records – logs that contain key information about photographic exposures. Information is power and exposure records provide details which help ferret out technical problems encountered in the field and help photographers master their craft. Exposure records can take many forms. I shoot black & white film with a view camera and began using 3inch x 5inch paper records purchased from Zone VI Studios many years ago. These were inexpensive and contained blank spaces to record information that most film and view camera users need. I don’t know where to purchase similar records today so I print my own 3inch x 5inch pages using simple software and a computer.

I use a small plastic (i.e. water resistant) notebook made for 3inch x 5inch pages to organize the records when I am in the field. The notebook has two sleeves and I keep blank exposure records in one sleeve and used records in the other. An ink pen can be secured in the notebook so everything is in one compact location which fits nicely in a camera bag or trouser pocket.

My record system fits my needs but there are many ways to implement an exposure logging system. I suspect that some of the newer digital cameras automatically record limited exposure information. That is a good start but many things impact a photograph and photographers may benefit from a separate record system that is more informative.

Many photographers today might be tempted to record exposure information temporarily in a digital communication device such as a cell phone. However, one should remember that exposure records are archives of information that probably will be useful for many years so it is important to implement a system that is immune to technical advances through time. That’s why I rely on a simple pen and paper. Another reason I prefer the low tech approach is that I often travel to locations where cellular communication is limited but I know that pen and paper will always work.

In today’s post, I will discuss an exposure record for a scene that was photographed in November 2010. I’ll show you the actual record which I made at the scene and discuss its use to evaluate my photographic performance. This may help photographers appreciate the value of recording photographic information at the scene and may lead some to develop a useful way to implement a version of an exposure record for themselves. Many people undoubtedly will find that having information will lead to more thoughtful evaluations of the decisions they make at scenes during image acquisition. In turn, they also may find that these evaluations help them grow as photographers.

My Exposure Record

One of my 3inch x 5inch paper exposure records was scanned and is shown below. My records were devised for black & white film exposed in a view camera using Zone System controls. The record contains blank lines to record Zone System information, identify contrast filters and other information which is necessary to evaluate my photography.

The information in this exposure record was written in about one minute because I was in a hurry. Exposures sometimes can be so rushed that I expose the film and then record information for it immediately afterward.

However, I prefer to take my time recording information prior to exposing the film because it gives me an opportunity to think about what I’m doing in a deliberate, structured manner. As I record the f-stop, for example, I ask myself if I have chosen the best value for it and consider the use of other f-stops. I also question choices for shutter speed, zone placements and other items listed on the paper. This process of thinking about each of the items on my exposure record often results in changes which strengthen photographs.

The top line of each exposure record contains a title for the photograph as well as the location of the scene and date of exposure. For the record shown above the subject was icicles that appeared on Clingmans Dome Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during November of 2010.

Of course, things don’t always occur perfectly. I misspelled the subject as “Icecycles” but corrected this after finding the correct spelling when I got home. I corrected spelling for the photograph title since it is incorporated in the digital file name during scanning but there was no need to correct the same misspelled word in the zone placement values below the title.

A critical piece of information for most photographers who shoot black & white film is the development procedure for each film. The exposure record shown above tells me that film No. 13 needed to be developed N+2.

After developing films, I match each sheet of film with its exposure record and write an identifying number on the lower right corner of the exposure record and negative sleeve. I use the common two-part numbering system that includes the year the negative was exposed and a number for the individual negative. The number on the record shown above (10-15) indicates that the negative was recorded during 2010 and was the fifteenth negative I recorded that year.

The identification number for each negative is unique and remains with the negative forever. This makes it easy to locate proof sheets, computer files and printing data for each negative and avoids confusing a negative with others if I return to a scene to record additional negatives.

A numbering system also invites one to step back and take a broad look at what has been accomplished photographically. I occasionally look at the number and location of exposures I have made in recent years to determine if my goals for fieldwork have been reached. The record above indicates that few negatives were exposed during 2010 because only 15 exposures were recorded by November. However, I am reminded that most of my photography time during 2010 was devoted to setting up new digital printing equipment and learning to use it rather than exposing new negatives.

The lower right corner of my exposure record contains a large blank area that I can use for several things. For most images, I scribble a quick sketch of the scene to facilitate matching negatives with exposure records later. This is especially useful when I return from a long trip and have many negatives to sort. I also use the large blank area to make notations about things that I want to remember. For example, I might note that the movement of clouds across the sky was extremely fast to remind me to look closely at the sharpness of clouds when I evaluate the image later. Similarly, I may note that the camera lens was tilted a particularly large amount if I believe that it might affect the image badly. These comments can be quite helpful later when evaluating my technique.

Additional lines in the exposure record are available to record the lens, contrast filter, f-stop and shutter speed that were used for the exposure. For the scene discussed today, no contrast filter was used.

Of special importance are zone placements of specific scene areas and two areas were noted for the photograph discussed today. Dark rock areas were placed on Zone II and the brightest icicle features fell on Zones V – V.5 (read as 5 to 5.5). These will be discussed in more detail later.

Evaluating Exposure Decisions

After a negative is scanned, it’s image is displayed on my largest computer monitor. I relax and spend some time looking at the digital image and evaluate each decision that was made at the scene by comparing the displayed image to its exposure record. The evaluation process is facilitated by alternating views of the whole image with smaller image areas that are substantially enlarged.

The negative that corresponds to the exposure record above was scanned and the image obtained directly from the scanner is shown below without editing.

First, I examine the image for major technical defects. A seemingly endless number of things can ruin an otherwise good photograph so I work to identify and eliminate as many as I can. For example, defects might result from light leaks, scratches or dirt on negatives and erroneous exposures from a bad shutter. No problems were apparent for this image so I concluded that my camera was sound, the 25 year old film holder which held this negative was still light tight, no scratches were introduced on the film by handling and the negative was kept relatively dirt free. I gave myself an A for equipment and film handling.

Next, I ask myself if the best lens was used for the photograph. When at this particular scene, I thought the image might benefit from using a shorter focal length lens to boost depth in the relatively flat subject. A slightly wide angle lens (e.g. 150 mm) might have strengthened the presence of numerous layers of icicles formed on the rock wall. However, the icicles were located about three feet from the edge of the road and traffic on the road was fast so I could not safely position the camera in the middle of the road where a shorter lens needed to be located. Instead, I selected a slightly longer lens (210 mm) and positioned the camera on the far shoulder of the road.

I like this image and think it is strong but I’ll have to admit that I wonder how much stronger it would have been if a shorter lens had been used. I gave myself a C- for lens selection because I did not acquire the optimum image for the scene. I scolded myself and vowed to try harder next time.

A color-managed computer system is necessary if contrast and tonal values are evaluated while viewing an image on the computer monitor. That is, the image on the monitor must be pretty close to what is obtained during printing or an evaluation has limited use. Fortunately, my color management system works pretty well.

My overall impression of image contrast was that it was excellent. The image had the feeling which I envisaged at the scene and no areas lacked structural detail. This meant that my decision to expand image contrast two f-stops by developing the negative N+2 was correct in this case. I gave myself an A for overall image contrast.

Next, I looked at image tones more carefully. The exposure record noted that Zone placements were recorded for two scene areas. Wet rock behind the ice was placed on Zone II (very dark tones with slight detail) whereas the brightest icicle features fell on the middle gray tones of Zones V-V.5 (Zones 5 to 5.5). The goal of N+2 development was to render the brightest icicle features much more brightly in the negative but it also was important to retain good texture in these areas.

Developing the negative N+2 was supposed to move the brightest icicle tones closer to Zones VII -VII.5 (Zones 7 to 7.5) which are light gray with plenty of detail. Evaluating the unedited image on the computer monitor indicated that my initial zonal placement of these areas and two zone contrast expansion worked quite well. Dark rock areas retained an appropriate amount of detail and bright icicle areas were rendered suitably bright with good detail. My goal of producing an image which did not require large tonal adjustments during editing was achieved. I gave myself an A for tonal rendition.

When I enlarged the image on the monitor, it was evident that focus was sharp from corner-to-corner. This indicated that focus was handled correctly at the scene. I can’t flatter myself much, however, because obtaining sharp focus was easy for this photograph. That is, the scene was flat and motionless, a small f-stop could be used (f/32-45), a relatively fast shutter speed could be used (1/8 sec) and a heavy wooden tripod was used. I gave myself an A for focus although it was gravy.

Long-term Benefits of Exposure Records

I have recorded an exposure record for nearly every negative that I have exposed for many years. This archive of information has provided me with a structured way to evaluate key technical decisions that are made at scenes and has proven to be instrumental in improving my photography.

Exposure records provide information that is needed to identify numerous technical problems. Photography has always been fraught with equipment problems and implementing a system that helps eliminate problems quickly can be worth a lot. All of us probably have taken what we knew would be a great photograph but the image was unusable because of a technical problem. This unfortunate experience occurs less frequently for me since information is available to identify problems fast.

Evaluating one’s performance is key to improving nearly anything. Taking the time to evaluate photography technique allows the photographer to benefit from experience more and gain greater mastery of the craft. In its most simple terms, exposure information helps identify exactly what was done in a certain situation so a similar effect can be achieved later. For example, I now can quickly glance at moving water and make a pretty good guess of the shutter speed needed to achieve a certain effect for the water.

Evaluating technical information develops confidence in one’s technique. This can save both time and money. For example, I normally expose only a single negative at scenes because I know the consequence of my exposure choices. The exceptions to this are scenes which have fast enough movement that I an uncertain the movement was captured properly in only one exposure.

The real prize of evaluating exposure information is achieving technical mastery of the craft so photographers can better capture their photographic vision and focus more on the artistry of their work. That is a big prize indeed.


Information is power and exposure records provide information that helps ferret out technical problems and improve one’s craft. In turn, photographers can capture their photographic vision better and focus more freely on the artistic effects desired for a photograph.

I hope this blog has helped readers appreciate the value of having information and encourages the adoption of some version of an exposure record. Most photographers can quickly record enough information to provide a thoughtful evaluation of the decisions they make at scenes during image acquisition. Once exposure information is recorded, photographers may be surprised at how valuable it can be.

Any comments you might have about this post will be appreciated.

Randall R Bresee

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