Is a densitometer worth the cost for BW shooting? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

I am considering buying a densitometer for my BW LF photography. How useful is the densitiometer and what do I need to look for in a densitimeter? Sincerely, Jerry Cunningham

-- Jerry Cunningham (, May 10, 2002


If you mean a transmission densitometer, the only time I use mine is for film speed and development time testing. Since I don't experiement a lot with new films and developers, this means that I very rarely use my densitometer, maybe once a year if that often. Fortunately I got a very good price on it.

Labs were big users of densitometers, especially color densitometers, and since labs are going digital, color densitometers can be bought very inexpensively if you look around. Most, probably all, color densitometers have a setting for black and white.

I actually think I'd use a reflection densitometer more than a transmission and if I had it to do over again I'd get either a combination transmission/reflection if I could find one cheap, or I'd forget the transmission and just get a reflection.

-- Brian Ellis (, May 10, 2002.

Not if you have a good relationship with a lab that will let you use theirs. Most labs today however seem to have speciallized densitomers used for reading control strips in E-6 & C-41 processes.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, May 10, 2002.

To use one, a person must know something about sensitometry, but with that in mind, I think that they are well worth the cost.

I tend to be a little "tecky", but I use one quite a lot. For example, I just completed some testing which shows that a new 4x5 film holder that I came up with leaves a slosher in the dust in terms of consistency. Without a densitometer, I would have had no way to compare these two approaches. I use a densitometer for determining film speed, and while I don't believe in completing calibrations on every single lens that I own, I do believe in conducting tests on any new film/developer combination. There's no better way to predict contrast, and this isn't possible without a densitometer. For my purposes, not to have a densitometer would be flying a little blind.

While I may have been fortunate, I purchased an old Macbeth off of EBay for $100. It works great, although it's probably only accurate to +-0.015. (It originally spec'd out at +-0.01.)

-- neil poulsen (, May 10, 2002.

Do all color densitometers register in black and white? Do I need the reflection capacity only? Sincerely, Jerry

-- Jerry Cunningham (, May 10, 2002.

I agree with Neil. When you want to do the job right, it helps to use the right tool. You can use the trial and error methodology in making exposures and burn more film in the process. Or take a small portion of costs of the extra film you would otherwise use and learn to use a densitometer and always have the ability to quickly check out new film/developer combinations and always be able to check out your old favorite. Prices have never been cheaper. Transmission for films and reflection for papers.

-- MIchael Kadillak (, May 10, 2002.

I've never owned or used a densistometer.I believe they do not help one make better pictures. So I would say, forget the densitometer. That's an unpopular view here, it seems.

-- (, May 10, 2002.

A densitometer won't help you make better photographs, but it may spur you on to learn some sensitometry. You'll use less materials to calibrate film speed and optimum development. Oddly enough, once you've used a densitometer for a while, you'll find you need it less and less. Eyeballing .1 over base plus fog is actually pretty easy once you know what it looks like. The most useful instrument is a combination transmission/reflection. I'm more interested in how my paper responds at various contrasts- i.e. where's the tonal distribution? Unless you're a "techie" the price of even a used densitometer will buy a lot of film!

-- Conrad Hoffman (, May 10, 2002.

If used correctly, a densitometer can help you make better photographs. Ansel Adams considered a densitometer essential.

I see photographs of excellent compositions, but they are unfortunately lacking in good contrast control. They end up being a poor execution of a good idea. And, I'm not suggesting that every photograph has to have both the stereotypical highlights and dark areas. Whatever the visualization, good use of a densitometer can more effectively enable one to achieve that visualization.

I agree that one won't be using a densitometer all the time, but when needed, they fulfill an important need.

-- neil poulsen (, May 10, 2002.

If you're the kind of person who likes to tinker, a densitometer may be a BAD choice. It's real easy to get caught up in testing film and refining development past the point of diminshing returns. Why worry about 1/4 stop differences when none of your shutters or fstops are calibrated that well?

I can feel the 1/4 stop crowd bristling out there, but it's true.

Reminds me of the audiophiles who spend all their time aligning their phono cartridges and never listening to music.

Having said that, I own one (same as the previous poster, I got a good deal on eBay). I've used it for film speed (and development time)testing, and for some experiments with unsharp masks. Before I got it, I used to shoot most b&w films at 1/2 rated speed, because I got good shadow density. Now that I've done some testing, I shoot most b&w films at 1/2 rated speed because I get good shadow density. You be the judge!

-- Kevin Bourque (, May 10, 2002.

I had one for a while (eventually it died), and will probably get another one. I felt it helped me to confirm some intuitions and to be able to produce more consistent results, particularly with new materials. It's not a necessity, but if you're not sure how much contrast you really have in your negatives, and if you're not working with someone who can tell you whether your negatives look good, density readings can be handy, particularly if you like to try different materials often. If you almost always use the same materials and process (not a bad idea), then indeed, you would probably use it once or twice and it would gather dust.

-- David Goldfarb (, May 10, 2002.

In my mind a densitometer can be a helpful tool in fine tuning film speed/development/final print.

However, it does not aid in seeing, feeling and conveying the emotion felt from the subject matter to be photographed.

It is true that Ansel did use a densitometer a lot. It is also true that Weston did not.

While it is very important to treat photography as a craft and learn to control the many tecnical steps that make up the final presentation it is easy to get side tracked along the way by technical details. The very essence of serious - or fine art photography - is still the ability to see and to present what is seen as a revelation.

-- Per Volquartz (, May 10, 2002.

Densitometers may be useful when you first try a new film that you have never used before, but I have to wonder if (except for labs and professionals) if it is worth the expense. It is, after all, not somthing you will use every day. Some people use them and make excellent photos. Some people do not use them and still make excellent photos. If you get one, do not fall into the trap of constantly testing every possible combination of everything you own, looking for any exact numbers. A few "confidence checks" will do it. After all, the whole idea is to make a negative that you can print. With the latitude of modern film, coupled with the variations of meter readings, different films, different papers, shutter speeds etc, all you will really care about is a "ballpark figure". Densitometers are nice to have, but not necessary. One question.... if you buy one, how do you plan to calibrate it? If it isn't accurate, you're better off not having it.

-- Steve Gangi (, May 11, 2002.

My somewhat unconventional view is that for silver printing, where test strips/prints are quick and cheap, a densitometer isn't worthwhile. Tests provide better information and are more helpful getting to your first good print. In Pt/Pd printing where tests are time-consuming and costly, a densitometer *is* useful because with experience it can replace test strips and get you to a good first workprint from a majority of negatives.

-- Carl Weese (, May 11, 2002.

Jerry, I've got one out at work that I could use if I wanted to. I did quite a bit at first, and now it sets unused. You're better off going out and taking pictures and fine tuning what you're getting. Or at least I am, but that could just be me. The densitometer bored me, while taking photos stimulates me. There are so many different temperaments in this hobby. Some guys live to fiddle with charts and graphs and techniques and building new cameras and gizmos for the cameras. They hardly ever take pictures. (Some of them don't have a clue what to take pictures of anyway.) But they're having fun doing what they want to do. Me, I live for the next chance to set up the camera and all that other stuff just gets in the way.

-- Jim Galli (, May 11, 2002.

Unless you can get a densitomer very inexpensively (they turn up on Ebay regularly), or you do a lot of film testing, I'd forego the purchase. You can fine tune your exposure and development by observing your prints:

Exposure determines the density of the lowest zones. No matter how much or how little you develop the negative, the lowest zones don't move up or down the scale significantly.

The higher zones can be moved considerably up or down the scale by increased or decreased development times. If your prints lack good tonal separations in the shadow areas, you are probably underexposing your negative. Give more exposure (lower your ASA/ISO) and cut back on your negative development slightly. You’ll still have a good range of tones in the middle and high values, but you’ll have much better shadow separation and a much richer print.

If you have good shadow separation but you prints are flat in the highlights, your exposure is okay, but your development is too short. Increase development until those highlights look good.

If the shadows are good, but your highlights require a lot of extra burning to give you the detail you want, you’re over-developing the negative.

Regardless if you have a densitometer, you'll need to fine-tune for you exposure judgements.

-- Jay wolfe (, May 13, 2002.

Jerry, a good densitometer is very expensive, especially if your needs require both transmission (for film) and reflective (for paper). For your LF BW work I would forego purchasing one and instead pay a local lab to use theirs. If this is not an option, The View Camera Store will do an extensive film test for $39.95. They send you five sheets of 4 x 5 film of your choice, which are exposed under calibrated conditions. You then process the film, following their instructions, answer some questions regarding your developing methods, and mail the processed sheets back to them. TVCS then sends you all the information you could ever want regarding a film test, including a family of curves for your film. They also will perform (reflective) tests on your paper of choice for $3 per sheet. I have used both of these services and I could not be more pleased; it beats the heck out of the cost of even a mediocre densitometer. Oh, by the way, The View Camera Store's new website is still under construction, so they are still using the old website under the company's former name. It is Good luck!

-- Jeff Moore (, May 14, 2002.

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