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These are example images which I think is purposely underexposed:

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Robert Frank, The Americans Plate 43.

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Robert Frank, Mary and Pablo in Bed, c.1954

My question is that are those images underexposed inside the camera or during development?

If it was with camera, how can we know how much underexposure is allowable to achieve decent aesthetic.

If it was during development, how should we tell the local lab to process it?

  • Underdevelopment is called "pull" or "pulling" development. Normally, you would compensate for exposure in development; such as, "Pull the developer half-a-stop." Or, "Pull the development half-a-stop." – Stan Jun 22 at 10:57
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    Can you be a little more clear about your perception of "underexposure"? Do you mean that the images have a darker overall tone than you are expecting, or do you mean that there's some other photographic quality you think may have been brought out by using a technique which involves intentionally underexposing? – mattdm Jun 22 at 15:18
  • @mattdm I meant ’the images have darker overall tone than I'm expecting'. If so how can it be achieved? – neversaint Jun 23 at 8:04
  • There's no such real thing as " the correct exposure" unless you want every exposure to result in an image that is exactly halfway between totally black and totally white (the proverbial 18% gray exposure). – Michael C Jun 24 at 11:15
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I think it's more likely these photos were taken with a film that was rated at a higher speed, shot at that speed, and "pushed" in the processing to compensate for the "underexposure."

Film then was relatively slow. One of the very fastest film was rated at "ASA" 1200 (Royal Pan X, for example) and processed in a high-energy developer or in rare circumstances the developer was used at a slightly higher temperature for the push.

Since these look like low light locations and circumstances, I think they were purposely rated at a faster speed and slightly "over"/"pushed" processed.

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The way someone would take a picture like this is by knowing that, for instance, you can get a reasonably good (non-camera-shaken) image with a given camera and lens at, say 1/30s. So depending on what depth of field you really need you simply take the picture at 1/30s and, say f/2, and if that's below what the meter tells you that you can get away with well, so be it.

If you are the sort of person who both can afford to and does do that, then you expose a whole roll of film suitably underexposed and then push it in development, possibly dealing with this by having lots of cameras. I kind of doubt Robert Frank did this: what I think he did is what I'd do: he just used the film and lived with the fact that some of the negs would be really pale. Then you deal with it when printing the neg: you'll need to print on a hard paper so there's enough contrast, reduce the time you expose for and accept that you will lose detail in the shadows. It's perfectly possible with B/W film to get reasonable prints from negs which have been underexposed by a couple of stops, sometimes even more.

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I meant ’the images have darker overall tone than I'm expecting'. If so how can it be achieved?

I don't think there's any magic here, except one of perception. See What is "correct" exposure?, and any number of "is this photograph too dark?" questions we've gotten over the years (like this or this). These days, we tend to expect a certain mid-tone exposure and view that as "correct", but there's no inherent reason that this is the case.

My suspicion is that this assumption has two roots. First, automatic-exposure cameras are not smart and make no artistic choices: instead, they just assume everything should be in the middle. So, if you're using your meter's recommendations as a baseline, or otherwise assuming that to be the way things are supposed to be, that's what you're going to get. And second, instead of seeing images printed by the artist, we're used to viewing photographs on glowing screens (often with very poor reproduction of darker tones).

In my opinion, this is a serious loss, because there's plenty of cases where an image is best presented in a high or low key (see this), and it seems like in popular culture we've removed that from our photographic vocabulary. If you haven't, I seriously encourage you to take some time looking into museum exhibits of photography; you'll find that variance in key is quite common. For that matter, take a look at paintings — a medium average tone might even be an exception rather than the rule. After all, in real life, we're often in situations of varying overall brightness.

With digital processing, of course, this is fairly easy to actually do, and processing in RAW gives you a lot of latitude to make the adjustments. And, you can print yourself, or tell the lab you're having do the prints that yes, you want it like this.

With film, there's some combination of initial exposure and printing (or scanning). If you take photographs you want to be low key and have someone else process them, they'll probably be "corrected" to middle tones unless you give instructions otherwise.

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