For a given film type, shutter speed and aperture, how do I calculate the light needed to get a good exposure?

For example, if I use a f/8 aperture, an exposure time of 100 ms and a ISO 800-film (just as an example) - how much light is needed (per cm^2 film or any other measure) to get a good exposure?

I have read wikipedia's explanation of how light conditions relates to exposure, but I don't really understand it. All help is much appreciated!

  • Maybe relevant: photo.stackexchange.com/q/6598/9161 Dec 5 '13 at 12:21
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    What is a "good" exposure? A scene where the average luminance value is 18%? A scene where the highlights are just short of saturation in at least one color channel? A scene in which the deepest shadows are just above black?
    – Michael C
    Dec 5 '13 at 13:05
  • @MichaelClark - Yes, a "good exposure" is not a well-defined term. But I think the question stands regardless of what definition of "good exposure" we chose. I thought the answer would be defined in the ISO-standard (i.e. "ISO 400 means that the film is exposed with X units whenever it is hit by Y lux/cm^2" or something like that, but I haven't been able to find it). Dec 5 '13 at 16:12
  • That's because knowing the answer to that has very little practical use in exposing a scene properly. Assuming 2 of your three camera based exposure variables (ISO, Tv, Av) are set, the way to insure a desired exposure level is to either meter the subject for reflective light or use an incident meter to measure the light itself falling on the subject and then adjust the third variable to account for the amount of light you measured. Of course the fourth variable is the amount of light falling on the scene. But it is usually also expressed in terms of how much light is reaching the subject ...
    – Michael C
    Dec 5 '13 at 16:31
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    The question here seems to boil down to essentially Where do ISO numbers come from? and the math behind that?
    – mattdm
    Dec 5 '13 at 21:52

When you are calculating the "correct exposure" ("Correct exposure" being the amount of light necessary to achieve a negative with a given density) you are actually playing with shutter speed, aperture and film sensitivity. If you restrict those variables to a fixed value, the only things you can do is overdeveloping or underdeveloping the film after the shooting or 'guessing' (Or calculating) what light you need to get a correct exposure and then shoot only in those situations.

If you are in the second situation, I recommend you the f/16 rule. (for any given ISO sensitivity under direct, not very harsh sunlight, you need to shoot at the nearest speed to that ISO and f/16. e.g. ISO400, 1/500. f16). Or, if you have a light meter handy you can measure with those values and see if a given spot or area is within the acceptable lighting range for your settings.

If you actually want to calculate the actual 'amount of light' needed you will need the specific curves of the film and previous tests with the film, developer and fixer you are going to use, which takes time and (to be totally honest) is a royal pain in the ass. If you are curious the Ansel Adams trilogy has everything you need to do this (Book 2 talks about this procedure throughout the chapters but doesn't have one specifically for it), if you are looking for a practical approach to take photos without much hassle it will not be worth it.

If, as I guess, you are doing this to calculate the correct exposure on a pinhole camera, you should know that pinhole cameras are essentially cameras with fixed aperture. You can caulculate the aperture (f number) simply by dividing the distance from the pinhole to the film by the diameter of the pinhole. There are several other useful formulae you can use, like d=sqrt(2fw) [f:f number; w: wavelenght of the light you want to see sharper] for the actual pinhole diameter. You have plenty of resources for this online, and following them will be way easier than going to the brute-number approach.


Through @MichaelClark's help to clarify my question and @Achifaifa's hint to look at film curves, I found the answer to my question.

It turns out that answer lies in the film characteristics curve. It plots the density of the silver halide in the film (i.e. how opaque the film is) as a function of the amount of light the film is exposed to (measured in log[lux * seconds]).

The scale log[lux * seconds] is usually also translated into f-stops to make it more practical.

Film curve

To get a "good" exposure, I probably need the amount of light that puts me in the middle of the curve. In the figure above that is -1.0 log[lux * seconds] which is the same as 0.37 lux*seconds. With a fixed exposure time of 0.1 seconds, I would need 3.7 lux.

Thank you for all help!

  • Bear in mind that the film characteristics are not 100% accurate since every batch has very little variations. If you want spot-on results you will have to calibrate the film yourself (Takes some time and severall rolls)
    – user24295
    Dec 6 '13 at 14:38
  • Please refer to my last edit for pinhole cameras, since I suppose that is what you are trying to do.
    – user24295
    Dec 6 '13 at 15:44

There is a standard concept in photography called "exposure value". The question and answers at What is the EV scale? go into this in detail, but the quick version is that this is a series of numbers representing the amount of light in different scenes. Different combinations of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO can correspond to the same exposure (see this answer if you're not familiar with this concept), and therefore the same exposure value.

You're basically asking how to work backwards from those known settings to the exposure value, and then what that exposure value actually represents. That's answered at What is EV, when used as an absolute measurement?, and one of the answers even gives EV equivalents in lux and foot-candles.

(That answer also gives a useful link to a Wikipedia note about light meter calibration constants, where you can find the answer to the concerns Michael raises in comments about what exactly "good exposure" means in this context — the short version is that it's subjective but roughly standardized.)

You may also find Wikipedia's "Tabulated Exposure Values" to be helpful in a less precise but more pragmatic way. This gives things like Typical scene in full or slightly hazy sunlight (EV 15), Bright street scenes (EV 8), and Home interiors (EV 5-7).

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