In the development of B&W film rolls, people often talk about their result being flat or glowing. What do these terms mean?

I now have Tri-X 400 roll (not yet developed). How can I achieve glowing photograph in the end?


4 Answers 4


In the development of B&W film rolls, people often talk about their result being flat or glowing.

I would urge you to take this with a grain of salt, as no one staring at a print is thinking of the negative. The negative is a vitally important step - but that's just it - it's a step. Many modifications can be made during printing. Because of this, one should strive for the best possible negative to be used as a foundation from which to create the best print.

If we assume that the person is talking about the tonal range, then "flat" is meant to mean "containing a limited range of tones" - generally this is in the mid range, giving a muddy appearance, but too dark images with no highlights of too bright images with no shadows will also appear flat.

The opposite of this would then be "glowing" or images that "contain a full range of tonal values from black to white" - usually without being overly contrasty.

How can I achieve glowing photograph in the end?

I'm glad you mention in the end - your heart is in the right place.

First up, you need a negative that you can work with. Whether something is inherently high or low contrast begins at the quality of light. Big, diffuse light like a cloudy day is inherently less contrasty than hard point lights like the sunny noon sun.

But, no matter what, you need to expose the film such that a "proper" exposure is made. As the negative is simply a step, you're looking to give yourself the best base from which to build. There's an old adage, "expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights."

The reason you do this is to make sure that you capture shadow detail. Film has an inertia - a minimum amount of photons must hit it to cause a reaction. This is really exemplified in the case of long exposures and reciprocity failure but the concept shows up again as a microcosm of itself in capturing shadow detail.

Now, film has latitude and can tolerate some level of both over and under exposure. B&W happens to tolerate over-exposure very, very well.

This is why you expose for the shadows (make sure you capture their detail) and let the highlights overexpose if needed. If the scene is very contrasty and you are especially worried about the highlights, then you can develop for them. This means use a compensating developer and/or process, like Stand Development.

Alright - cool. Now you should have a negative where:

  • The shadows have detail (no completely transparent sections of the neg)
  • The highlights are not blocked (no completely black, detail-less sections)

This gives you a fantastic base from which to start. When it comes time to print, there are many schools of thought. Personally, I test strip with no filters until getting a proper exposure. From there, I'll choose to lower or heighten the contrast over the whole image, and then apply varying contrast filters as either burned or dodged into the whole. The same can be done digitally.

As an example of this, please see the image below (sorry, I only have a picture of a picture for this one). I was satisfied with the image as a whole but it felt "muddy" or "flat" to me. So the bottom corner feathers were burned in with a higher contrast filter. The image in person does look better, as the highlights look brighter. This was me adding higher contrast and burning the corner in order to add in darker shadows, more contrast, and get away from it being flat.

When it comes time to print, it's always good to start off with a good negative. From there, lower or up the contrast globally, locally, or both to finish up with the tonal range that you want for the photograph.

(Click to expand)

enter image description here

xiota was kind enough to edit my photo of a photo. This likeness is more akin to the print (click to expand):

enter image description here

  • \$\begingroup\$ @Hueco "no one really cares about the negative" I care the utmost for making the best negatives. I do not think you intended to underplay the importance of the negative but that statement does just that. (it is the most vital step ) The quest for the best possible negative is paramount to producing the best possible print. Understanding the kind and quality of the light you shot the film in and adjusting your development accordingly is a skill every B&W film shooter should understand and practice. You can not squeeze blood from a turnip, strive for the best negative you can produce. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 21:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlaskaMan That is not at all the impression that I was going for. The edit should clarify - let me know if it still sounds off \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 21:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Hueco Better. i would reiterate It is the most vital step. You can manipulate and print good photos from negatives of all quality levels but If you have ever printed ( i suspect you have ) from a great negative you understand how much better the print is with the least amount of filters, dodging and burning. P.S. My great negatives were usually as a result of dumb luck :) That is why i am not Ansel Adams. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 21:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlaskaMan Adams did a lot of work in the darkroom beyond just developing the negative. Go to 5:43 to compare the print "we all recognize" with the "straight print" in this YouTube video: Ansel Adams Most Famous Photograph: Moon Over Hernandez. \$\endgroup\$
    – xiota
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 22:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlaskaMan The image you're looking at in this answer was shot on a 1V and printed in my bathroom. I agree that a good negative is a vital step, but if not paired with good printing, you only have a good negative, which no one cares about. I disagree that a good negative lessens printing work. The example I use exemplifies that. It's optimally dense but needed more contrast in areas and some burning to get it to where I wanted it. Other people may have been satisfied with less work, but I wasn't. \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 23:09

'Glow' can mean many things. One common usage is 'Leica glow', and this means two things, only one of which is real.

The real thing. Many older Leica lenses, while of very high quality, were not fully corrected for spherical aberrations. This gave a combination of very good rendition of detail with a surrounding 'halo' or 'glow' often quite visible in photographs with fairly large dynamic range over short distances. This is often, but not always, very attractive. Other high-quality lenses also suffered from similar aberrations.

The unreal thing. More recent Leica lenses are much better corrected and tend not to suffer from these aberrations. But people who have bought them often want them to have this magic property and will insist that they have 'Leica glow' even though this is not in fact present.

I am not saying this to detract from modern Leica lens designs: they are extremely fine lenses and the 'Leica glow' is an aberration. However if you want to see it, you need older lenses (or lenses which are intentionally designed to be imperfect in this way: some Leica lenses may be, some Zeiss lenses certainly are).


These are words used in the jargon of photography. Black & White images can display a myriad of tones packed between a pure white and a pure black. Such an image zip, in other words, glowing. Conversely, an image can be flat. This image has reduced shades of gray, perhaps a muddy black with no true white. In other worlds it is flat. Flat can be an image with white and gray and no black. Or, black with grays but no white. In other words, this image lacks the full scale of possible tones.

  • \$\begingroup\$ thanks. Can you elaborate, how can we achieve the glowing image? And what causes an image to become flat or muddy? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 4:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ Scamander - Photography is a mix of art and science. We need to acquire an artist’s eye. We need to acquire a basic knowledge of the camera. This can self-education, or by a basic photo course. The message is, practice make perfect. Today’s digital cameras are packed with computer logic. These can shave years off the learning curve. Great pictures start with subject matter. Next is composition. Next getting the exposure “correct” so you can achieve the deliver the desired effect. Next is the use of computer imaging software to enhance and prepare the image for display. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 15:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ example images could be very useful \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @scamander Ansel Adams spent several books explaining how to use the full range of available tones in a film (and later, in a printing paper) when the scene being photographed has a wider or narrower dynamic range than the recording and display mediums: See The Negative, and The Print. The later editions from the 1980s are much better edited and easier for most folks to understand than the older versions that Adams published in the 1940s without the benefit of an editor. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Aug 3, 2019 at 2:41

Flat and glow are examples of descriptive words that may have different meanings to different people.

  • Flat often refers to lack of dimensionality. It may also refer to reduced contrast.

  • Glow often refers to the presence of a halo around bright objects. (To shine with or as if with an intense heat / embers glowing in the darkness.1) It may be considered desirable ("Leica Glow", as tfb describes) or undesirable ("Tokina Glow"). In practice, whether glow is desirable depends more on the subject matter than on the equipment. For instance, I would not want an image to glow when photographing group photos, while I might want glow when photographing flowers or portraits.

    There are multiple causes, such as under- or over-corrected spherical aberration. In prime lenses, glow often accompanies bubble bokeh, which are bokeh balls with edge highlights. Glow is often present when lenses are used with the aperture wide open. Fast lenses are more likely to exhibit glow, and stopping down slightly, even less than 1/4-stop, can significantly reduce its appearance. (View example at 100% to see halos.)

    glow example

    Such glow may also be introduced during post processing. For instance, a blurry copy negative can be stacked on a sharp original when making prints. See What is the Orton Effect and how can I apply it to digital photographs?

  • Glow may also refer to a quality of the subject, reminiscent of radiance.

    • The glow of a sunset – brightness or warmth of color especially redness1

    • The glow of pregnancy – to have a rich warm typically ruddy color cheeks glowing with health; flush, blush1

    • The glow of a computer monitor – light such as is emitted by a solid body heated to luminosity : incandescence1

    • The glow of pride or rage – to experience a sensation of or as if of heat; to show exuberance or elation1

  • The following uses are puzzling to me because they do not relate to the usual definitions1 or etymology of glow, and I would appreciate further explanation. In what sense are such images glowing?

    ... images that "contain a full range of tonal values from black to white" - usually without being overly contrasty. – Hueco

    Black & White images can display a myriad of tones packed between a pure white and a pure black. – Alan Marcus



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