The Ultimate Monochrome Print
Without a Densitometer
by Jon P. Fishback
For years I worried about a simple way to explain the method of exposure from the negative through the print. I always approached the problem as if it had two solutions: one for the negative and one for the print. I have discovered the error in my thinking. There is only one problem, and only one solution ------ THE PRINT.


The negative's only function is to make the print. The print is the only part of the process that is shown. A 'perfect' negative, as far as the densitometer is concerned, can still be a frustration if it will not print straight.

One solution is to custom-make the negative to print perfectly on your choice of paper. The limitations of the paper should be a primary concern. You must keep the final print and paper in mind at all times.

The approach to the final print starts with your selection of paper. Since this process must be repeated for any paper change, it is a good idea to start with your favorite paper.

Next, the negative material will be selected. I will discuss an ISO/ASA 400 film.

STEP ONE: develop unexposed film

Using your usual technique, process an unexposed roll of film, or two sheets. The result is a negative completely void of exposure. It will be the clear film base and any small amount of fog that is inherent in this film. Cut the roll as you usually do and save the frames, or the sheets, for step two.

NOTE: The enlarger height and lens aperture will remain the same throughout these tests. Set the aperture to your usual working stop, probably but not necessarily f/8 or f/11, to obtain the results that follow.

STEP TWO: the PV (Print Values) concept

The next step will be to experiment with your paper and what we will call its PRINT VALUES, or PV. PV5 is the same in the print or the negative. A negative density of PV5 will render a middle gray print tone, which will also be called PV5.

First, place one of the clear negatives created in step one in the enlarger, and raise it so the light through the focused area covers an 8x10 easel. Use a whole 8x10 sheet. With all but about 1/2 inch of paper covered, make a 3 second exposure with the lens set at a convenient aperture. Continue this to the bottom of the paper moving the cover 1/2 inch each time. Develop, stop, fix, wash, and completely dry the test print before going on.

Next, check the print for a maximum black strip. The maximum black strip will be the one that is the same black as the strip that follows it. In other words, look for two adjacent strips of equal black density. To find the exposure time for this maximum black, count the strips from the light end by threes until you find that strip. If there is no black strip that meets this criterion, the paper needs more exposure. Open the aperture slightly and start over. If the darkest strip is very close to the light end, close the aperture and begin again. The darkest strip should fall near the center of the sheet. Once this exposure time has been established, write it on a small piece of white paper, and tape it to the test print strip. This time will be used later as the exposure time for the PV8 test. Mark this as PV0/PV8.

Definitions of PV0 and PV1, or Darkest Tones:

Now comes the subjective part of the experiment, and one that is very important. You must decide which shade of black you see as PV1. Just a note here to help in the selection. PV0 is a black defined as the pure absence of light. This will be rendered by the paper as the blackest that it will get, as in the previous test. A shade of gray just above total black will be PV1. Only you know what you see as PV1. It will be an area above total lack of light, the shadow area of the print that just shows detail. View the print using the exact light you feel all your prints deserve. Clearly mark the PV1 strip on the test print with the exposure information just as you marked PV0.

Definitions of PV9 and PV8, or Lightest Tones:

The next test strip print will find PV8, or almost-pure paper white. PV9 will be considered pure white paper base tone.

As before, make the test strip by moving the cover sheet in 1/2 inch increments down the print. The major difference: Do not expose the last strip. Leave this area pure paper base white, or PV9. Use extremely short exposure times for these strips, or stop the enlarger lens down. Most good electronic timers allow for 1/2 second, or slower, exposures. If you do not have this type of timer, work with what you have. The point is to use very little light to make this test strip. You may have to make several test strips in this section of the test to get the correct one. Do not try to take short cuts. This is a most important part of the experiment.

When you have a dry test strip with a pure white and several very subtle shades of gray, find a shade of gray just below pure white. This will be your PV8. Think of PV8 as being all the white areas of the print except specular highlights. The sun shining off of a chrome surface is PV9. All other white areas of the print will be PV8 or below. Pick the PV8 area very carefully. Think about what shade of white you wish to see in your print that is just below pure paper white. Keep in mind that few things in a print are pure paper white. Carefully mark the shade of white you choose with its exposure information. This exposure information may be written on the strip.

Using this clear negative, and the exposure time, enlarger height, and lens aperture that created the PV1 test strip, make an entire 8x10 print using that exposure, and mark it as your final PV1 test print.

Do the same thing using the PV8 exposure previously saved.

Mark both prints with all information used in their creation. Treat these two prints as you would any other prints. That is, if you tone your prints, do the same with these. Always air dry the prints.

STEP THREE: Personal Exposure Value (PEV)

Two things will happen in this step. You will derive a negative that will print as PV1, corresponding to your PV1 test print, and you will determine a Personal Exposure Value (PEV) for your film, equipment and technique. The manufacturer's recommended ISO/ASA rating is only a recommendation, and is not necessarily valid for your equipment and/or process. You must determine your own PEV.

Start with a blank evenly-toned mount board. Any color will do. A middle tone is best. Load the camera and frame the middle of the mount board which is placed in rather weak light, as ASA 400 is quite fast. I use interior daylight illumination from a north-facing window. This allows me to move the mount board away from the light source, to adjust the amount of light.

Make sure the board is evenly illuminated. Set the focus on infinity. The manufacturer's recommended ISO/ASA for the film I used is 400. You will try ISO/ASA ratings from 200 through 800. Use a reflected-light meter. A spot-meter is best, but any good reflected-light meter will do. Start by setting the ISO/ASA on the meter to 200. Meter the board along the axis of the lens and again make sure it is evenly illuminated. You should be close enough to the mount board that you meter only the board. You will make negatives that seem to be underexposed by four exposure values. A reflected-light meter gives exposure data for PV5.

NOTE: Any evenly illuminated and single-toned subject will be rendered as PV5 if exposed exactly as the meter tells you. That is, meter a 'white' object, and it will print gray. Meter a 'black' object: it will print gray.

With the meter set at ISO/ASA 200, and after metering the board, pick a shutter speed and aperture combination that will allow you to reduce the exposure by four (4) exposure values and still have two smaller F-Stops to use. The board I metered gave me an Exposure Value of nine (9). I will use this as the example. This allows me to pick 1/60 at f/4 as a starting point, and 1/250 at f/8 as my -4 reduction. I still have two smaller F-Stops as my lens stops down to f/16. This may seem to be intentional underexposure. In reality, all it does is expose the negative for PV1 using ISO/ASA 200. (PV5 - 4 = PV1).

Make a small note on white paper and tape it to the mount board, so you can see it through the camera. Put the starting PEV (200), Shutter speed ("S"), and Aperture ("A") on the note. (See Example 1)

EXAMPLE 1: [A = the aperture you have used, S = shutter speed you have used]

PEV-- 200


Make the exposure at this setting. The note, as viewed on the developed negative, will be your record. Now close down the lens by 1/2 stop. Example: From my current f/8 I would stop down between f/8 and f/11. Change the note attached to the board to show the change. (See example 2)


PEV-- 300


Make another exposure, and continue reducing the exposure as shown in Table 1 up to PEV 800. You may reduce the exposure any way you wish, as long as it gives the equivalent of that shown in Table 1. If you were not careful in picking your shutter speed and aperture combination, you will not have two F-Stops to reduce the exposure. In this case it will be necessary for you to adjust the shutter to make the additional exposure reduction to reach PEV 800.


A S 200
A+1/2 stop S 300
A+1 stop S 400
A+1.5 stop S 600
A+2 stops S 800

If you are using roll film, expose the remaining film on anything, to make the development more uniform. Develop the film in your favorite developer at the usual time and temperature.

After fixing, washing, and drying the film, separate the frames, and print each frame or sheet of film on the same type of paper that was used in the test print. Use the enlarger height and lens aperture that were used on the test print marked PV1. Expose each negative for the same time used to make the PV1 test print.

Find the print that is the best match to the PV1 test print. Once you have found this print, you have found your Personal Exposure Value -- PEV. Simply look at the note that appears in the corner of the print: it was the note photographed on the mount board, and it shows the PEV to use for this film and paper combination.

STEP FOUR: Exposure for PV8 development

This step will expose the film in preparation for the PV8 development. Return to the camera with the new PEV rating for the film. Reset the meter to this PEV.

Expose four sheets of film, or four rolls, at PV8. To do this, meter the board using your new PEV rating. Pick a shutter speed that will allow you to open the aperture by three stops after the base exposure has been determined. This will seem to overexpose by three stops, but remember what was said earlier about the meter giving you PV5 data. Thus opening the aperture by three stops only brings you to PV8. (PV5 + 3 = PV8). Expose the four rolls or the four sheets with the aperture opened up by three stops. Example: If the meter said to use 1/60th at f/11 with your new PEV, then the PV8 exposure would be 1/60th at f/4.

STEP FIVE: Development time needed to obtain a PV8 highlight

This procedure will determine the exact development time needed to obtain a PV8 highlight on your paper.

Process one sheet, or one roll, in your usual manner. Make a print with the sheet of film or a frame of the roll. Use the same enlarger settings as for the other test prints, and use the exposure time used to make PV0. This is the one marked PV0/PV8. This time gave you maximum black through the clear film in step two. This time and exposure should give you PV8 through this negative as well.

As you can see, one exposure time must render black, all shades of gray, and white (i.e. PV0 through PV9) if these values are to appear in your rendition of the original scene.

After having washed and dried the print, compare it to your PV8 test print. Determine if it is too dark or too light. (It is doubtful you will be so lucky as to get it correct the first time.) If the print is not just like your PV8 test print, adjust your film development time to compensate. If the print is too dark, increase your film development time. If it is lighter than the PV8 test print (this means that it must be pure paper white), you must cut back on your film development time.

Use the next exposed sheet (or the next exposed roll) of film to make another negative, with the development time changed. You may use any convenient period of time in changing your development. I increase or decrease 10% and round it off to the nearest minute.

Example: On a nine (9) minute development time I will use plus or minus one (1) minute each time a change is necessary.

Continue this until you have a negative that will print the exact tone of your PV8 test print. At this point you have determined your film development time.


At this point you should know the PEV (Personal Exposure Value), or adjusted ISO/ASA, for your film (to derive a PV1 shadow). You should also know exactly how long to develop the film to get a PV8 highlight on your paper.

This test has been done using your favorite paper, and not a densitometer. The final result is determined by the quality of the print, not how the negative looks.

This process will not replace the Zone System or manipulation of the photographic process in general. There are too many variables in nature and too many personal preferences to ever have a universal system for print making.

This is a starting point meant to keep the limitations of the materials primary when you decide how to make the exposure.

There are many variations on this process, but the basic concept remains the same: We are at the mercy of the photographic paper. You can get no more from the paper than it has to give.

The negative must be made to print on the paper that is available. Manipulation of the negative through development will not help if the result can not be printed. It is possible to make a negative that has such a wide range of tones, and has so many subtle densities, that it will not print on any paper. This procedure will show you how to tune your negative to print on your paper.

This is only a beginning, the beginning that is most important to the ultimate monochrome print.

Copyright Lloyd Erlick. All rights reserved.