I'm pretty new to film photography and photography in general. I've been taking my cameras (Canon A-1 or Pentax ME super, portra 400 film) with me to most places and trying to gain as much experience as possible.

I've been enjoying it so far but I'd like to start getting more usable images from my efforts. The images I take tend to turn out, consistently, like the ones seen below.

enter image description here

enter image description here

I've been tending to use the shutter priority mode for both cameras so that I only have to think about the aperture.

Does anyone have any help on how to combat this or sources where I can further my photography skills ?

Furthermore, I have heard of the 'sunny 16' rule but when I tried it, this was my result: enter image description here

A few people were asking for the negatives that were returned for the film, please find them attached below: (my scanner is archaic and so quality is not great)

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • Are you adjusting for ISO 400 in following the sunny 16 rule?
    – mattdm
    Jun 15 '18 at 15:26
  • @mattdm I believe so, my understanding is that I should have my aperture at f/16 and my shutter speed at 1/400 (the nearest on my camera is 1/500 so I use that), is that correct?
    – DanC96
    Jun 15 '18 at 15:51
  • Yes, that's right. Although it is not a perfect rule.
    – mattdm
    Jun 15 '18 at 15:56
  • How are you getting this developed? Are these your scans or the lab's?
    – mattdm
    Jun 15 '18 at 15:58
  • 1
    @DanC96 Have you tried having another lab scan a few of the negatives to see what their results look like? Also, could you scan an "unreversed, uncorrected, unprocessed" version (scan it like it is a photo) of a few of the negatives and include them in the question?
    – Michael C
    Jun 16 '18 at 20:26

In short

I think your images are probably underexposed, for whatever reason. Kodak Portra 400 is famously forgiving for overexposure, but much less so for underexposure — generally giving "muddy" low-contrast results in that case. You have very low-contrast / low dynamic range images "pushed up" into a higher register.

Long version:

Check out this histogram (from your third example; the others are similar):

histogram of sample

You can see that all the tones are actually well within the dynamic range of the file — although everything is in a high key, nothing is smashed up against the side. Arguably, these images are basically okay for exposure. The issue is that everything is low contrast and muddy.

We can use the Curves tool to stretch them out. That gives us a histogram like this:

stretched histogram

Now, we have darker darks and the midtones in the middle. The image:


There's also a strong color cast, which we could have corrected while we were messing with curves, but didn't.

Low contrast, muddy images are exactly what to expect from underexposed Portra 400. So, I suspect that your images are actually significantly underexposed (for whatever reason), and that the lab is pushing them up to compensate as best they can. (Probably their scanning machine just does that.)

I would:

  1. Take a test series with a wide range of exposure (start by underexposing by several stops and go up to over-exposing). Maybe one for each camera, in the same situation. See how the results compare between the cameras, and how they look compared to what you'd expect from the meter reading.
  2. In the future, aim for overexposure. Maybe set your film as ISO 320 or ISO 200 in the camera (but tell the lab to develop it as normal). This is an easy way to dial in a kind of permanent exposure compensation with a film camera.
  3. Get to know your meter — I don't know these specific cameras (my film camera is a trusty old Pentax K1000), but I doubt they're very smart. They don't know anything about the scene, and just aim to make everything kind of middling gray. So, they can easily misinterpret large blocks of white (like the building in your third example) or light reflected off water (in the others) as reason to make the result darker than is "correct".
  4. Maybe find a better lab? I'm saying this more based on the color cast than the exposure/contrast, which I doubt is their fault. Even with the underexposure, I'd expect images to come back more like:


... but:

A. Maybe they have a higher-cost option where they do more correction? But,

B. I bet that if you start with more-brightly-exposed images, you won't need it. And in any case,

C. You should definitely expect better results than even the "corrected" version from Portra 400.

  • @mattdm Okay, I will give your advice a go, I suspect the problem is that I am depending too much on what the light meter is reading. Like you said, they don't know anything about the scene I am looking at. Would I be correct in saying that to increase the contrast in the third example, I would need to overexpose the image (in comparison to what I have been doing) ? The effect of this would be to give a histogram for the image that spans over a greater range, right? Forgive me if I'm wrong here.
    – DanC96
    Jun 15 '18 at 20:42
  • @DanC96 Remember, the histogram is drawn from the resulting scans. My theory is that if you increase the exposure, you will get more dynamic range in the original, which will result in better scans, with, yeah, histograms which span more of the available range.
    – mattdm
    Jun 16 '18 at 20:45
  • We have no way of knowing if the film was underexposed, properly exposed, or overexposed without measuring the density of the negatives. These scans could have been produced from all of the above.
    – Michael C
    Jun 16 '18 at 20:48
  • Yeah, we definitely can't know for sure. That's just my educated guess based on the appearance.
    – mattdm
    Jun 16 '18 at 20:54

Let me guess: you scanned the negtive into digital files without any processing right?

For the reason of film science. you need at least one step to correct the color:

The most simple approach:

1,Import the scanned file into photoshop.

2, Then,use 'Curves' adjustment layer

3, Holding the ALT and left click the 'Auto' buttom.

4, Choosing the third option.

enter image description here

After processing:

enter image description here

enter image description here In adobe camera raw or other editing app you like, you can manually correct it by aligning the black point of each channel with the corresponding histogram.

enter image description here

The color cast is because of the film base layer which corrects the spectural response of dyes of primay colors . You need to correct it with some adjustment.

(It is similar to the color matrix in digital camera.)

Please check the keywords in this answer if can't understand the steps above:

  1. Tone Curves;
  2. Histogram;
  3. Channel;
  4. Primary colors;
  5. unwantted absorbtion

Hope you were helped by my poor english : )

  • AIUI, the scans came back from the lab this way. (See comments on the question.) This is all good advice, but something else is definitely also wrong: Portra can give much nicer results than even your corrected images.
    – mattdm
    Jun 16 '18 at 18:55
  • of course. The examples I shown are only the key operations based on the .jpg file, the proper operation should based on the raw files from scanner, and the bias resulting from scanner should be correct further.
    – jianjie
    Jun 16 '18 at 20:52
  • For example, follow these steps, the contrast will be over pushed, because they align the 'black' with the minimal level which should be a kind of 'gray in practical.
    – jianjie
    Jun 16 '18 at 20:58

These scans appear, to my eye, to suffer from poor color correction to remove the color cast of the negative. Specifically, they look overcorrected towards green in the negative which adds an orange cast back into the positive. The green cast is most noticeable in the darkest areas of the images and least noticeable in the brightest areas.

This also might be the result of overzealous correction to remove a green cast that is often evident when boosting the exposure of an underexposed or underdeveloped negative. But to know for sure we need to look at the negatives directly, rather than rely on what might have happened during the scanning stage.


Your images might be somewhat underexposed, but the real problem is bad (or complete lack of?) post processing. Even starting with the pictures you show as opposed to raw scans or tweaking the scanning parameters, they can be made to look much better:

The noise and lack of definition in the dark areas hints at under-exposure. Take a look at the raw negatives.

  • I don't disagree that the post-processing isn't good, but I do disagree about which is the "real problem". Have you used Portra 400? One would expect much nicer results than even your corrected ones (even taking into account that you're working from bad jpegs to start).
    – mattdm
    Jun 17 '18 at 13:49
  • 1
    @matt: No, I've never used Porta 400. The larger problem may well be underexposure, but we can't really judge that since we don't know how the film densities were mapped to the pictures by the scanning process. Note that I mentioned underexposure in the last paragraph. However, my main point was, regardless of how poorly or not the originals were exposed, there is much more that can be done with the pictures than shown by the OP. For many purposes, the post-processed version I show would be good enough. That doesn't mean exposure couldn't be better, though. Jun 17 '18 at 14:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.