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Friday, 13 January 2012


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"Easy-peezy" I love that expression. I wonder if proctologists say "easy-fece"? Probably not, but one can hope.

If your software runs on an old PPC powermac, SheepShaver may let you run it on a modern system:


since you have access to the old mac, you can legally copy the ROM.

I still have a mint Heiland TRD2 densitometer, now marketed through Versalab...http://www.versalab.com/server/photo/products/densi1.htm It's very well constructed and was a very well reviewed (10-12 years ago) tool.

I used it primarily for film speed tests in my darkroom days. It is somewhat telling about folks' knowledge and use of densitometers that it's the only piece of darkroom equipment that failed to sell when I made my digital transition a few years back. I keep it in my 'lightroom' area just as a reminder of the good ol' days.

One of my happiest days ever was scoring two(!) Eseco Speedmaster T-85CD colour densitometers for a grand total of $40. They were selling for $1395 each at the time. The military had disposed of them to a scrap metal dealer for the price of the aluminum chassis because they were "not working." The reason: burnt out bulbs. I ordered a couple of replacement bulbs from Eseco and enjoyed years of use.

In 1987, I attended the Ansel Adams Workshop in Carmel and brought along my latest batch of large format (4x5) prints. On separate occasions, workshop instructors John Sexton, Don Worth, and Stu Levy, all highly skilled printers, took one look at my prints and said that I must have used a densitometer to test out the film I was using. I had, but when I asked "Why?", they all said that was the reason my contrast was so high. So it was back to the drawing board for me. None of them explained their own procedures for figuring it all out.

I ended up modifying a procedure by David Vestal, from his great "The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging" book, for photographing a real world scene and figuring out the exposure and development from there. After a time, I was able to figure it out, but it did take a while. So much for my experience with densitometers, but thank God for David Vestal. His book was a lifesaver.

Great post, Mike. I hope you can present a further article if you can get hold of a densitometer. I've toyed with the idea, probably like many other serious film users, of 'doing some' densitometry but couldn't justify the outlay even for a decent secondhand one. The mild geekiness in me would enjoy some first hand knowledge just for knowledge's sake even if it didn't change the way I did things. I would find contentment having a densitometer simply sitting by me as I re-read 'Way Beyond Monochrome', (for example) and thinking, 'yes, I might give this a proper go after 30 years of trial and error'.
The breadth of coverage of your blog is a continuous source of delight and inspiration, many thanks.
Mark Walker.

(Jaw hits floor) Okay, so I've done some B&W darkroom work, but I'm self taught (read: really amateur). So my first reaction is: Um. Me stupid. So I'm going to throw myself onto the bonfire first and ask a couple of dumb questions ...

What is a densitometer? And why would I care?

(Doing some reading up on google: I'm guessing that the use of these machines is the only way you can really empirically measure your exposure on a print in the darkroom. I've always wondered how people did that -- so now I know how... but that's just my guess from googling. Am I right?)


Really. You need to make the distinction between a transmission densitometer and a reflection densitometer.

If you're goin' geek, go all the way.

Phil Davis' BTZS Plotter program is available for Windows at the View Camera Store.

As to densitometers, my old X-Rite has saved me alot of money. With it I'm able to determine the density range of a film, which means I can select the appropriate contrast control mixture for platinum/palladium printing. At the current price of platinum and palladium, the fewer working prints the better.

I guess I can put my old Kodak Model 1 Densitometer to good use now. Can I use it on digital raw files.
As rudimentary as comparative Densitometer are, they are fairly accurate.
A used SEI meter might be a good choice for a less expensive densitometer.

At school one of the first exercises we did was to shoot a chip chart, process according to the school standard and graph the negatives with a desitometer. The goal was to determine what each of us had to do to achieve a gamma of .72.
It was interesting to see how much variation there was from student to student.
In later life this skill has served me almost as well as the Army's gift of being able to copy morse code at 40 words a minute.
For what it's worth, I did teach my son how to develop 4x5 on hangers in deep tanks and I am proud to say that after looking at his negatives he is surge free so my time in the hallowed halls was well spent.

Mike, you want to make sure you get a "transmission" densitometer if you're going to use it for film. I think the graphic arts models were made to read both reflected and transparent material. Printers still use them for quality controll. The Photospectometer is the big thing now for reading color. Densitometers, depending on the model, can read the density of CMYK, which is useful for printers in maintaining uniformity through out a press run And being able to come back for a rerun and hitting the colors without trial & error.

Kodak model 1 on EBAY ,no bids $ 1.00 so far. Look like new.

Mike, for clarity you might want to address the differences between reflection and transmission densitometers.

Gee I will have to get my old densitometer out of mothballs. The thing that stopped me from getting really into it was a lack of a calibrated test negative. If anyone has one that they want to donate to a worthy cause, me, just email me and I will forward on my mailing address. Your kindness will be rewarded with loads of positive vibs.

Hand plotting a characteristic curve only takes a few minutes, including calculating ISO, gamma and contrast. That said, while in college, I wrote a plotting program for the Commodore 64, in BASIC, which did all of that for me. It was a pretty simple program whose life was limited by the quick obsolescence of the Commodore.

Not ever having used a darkroom or even film for 20 years or so, I feel entitled to ask the question "What does one use a densitometer for?"
Bob, just curious.

Having run a few one-hour photo labs in my time, a film densitometer was one of my daily use tools. These were designed for colour film, and very few film labs exist, but I wonder if you could sweet talk someone to read your negs.
(I am more interested in reflective densitometers for balancing prints, as I have moved to digital)

I'm glad you wrote about this. I am renewing my relationship with my LF gear, which means I need to test films anew.

I've done some searches on eBay and found the prices in the used market have come down, but I have been afraid to bite. Either the description leaves some doubt in my mind, or I am not sure if a particular model is suited to b&w film densitometry, is or can be calibrated, etc.

I look forward to an complete post on this subject.

FWIW, the Plotter/Matcher software was rewritten to run on Windows PCs. At one time there was a DOS version available which was written by an Eastern airlines pilot Ed Frost (boy I'm hoping I'm recalling his correct name.) Back then Phil hung his virtual hat on the old Compuserve Photoforum and helped countless members understand densitometry and BTZS including myself. Since I came from a professional photo-finishing background I had no problems with the concept of log density, densitometers and so forth, though by that time I had switched careers and went into the software development industry.

Phil and I exchanged a lot of private e-mails during that period and eventually Phil sent me the source code for the DOS version of the Plotter/Matcher program with plans for me to port the app to a Windows version. The DOS version had issues and I could never get the DOS code to Make (compile and link without error). Unfortunately my attention was redirected to a grueling work week and I never completed the project.

Phil was a great guy and true gentleman and is responsible for educating many people in B&W fine art printing.

Oh yeah densitometrs? I own 3!

you lost me at When I took the helm.

Mike -

"The devices therefore exist on a cloud-wrapped sphere of esoteric extremity, a sort of photo-mysterium, bathed in obscurity and familiar only to a closed priesthood of insider initiates."

I involuntarily grinned wide at this bit of delicious prose. It's the kind of thing that brings me back to this site daily...

"FWIW, the Plotter/Matcher software was rewritten to run on Windows PCs."

Ah, so you're THAT guy!! I heard about you many, many times from Phil.

I'm not certain, but I think only the Plotter has been ported to PC. Nobody has ever ported or updated the Matcher.



I purchased a copy of BTZS Windows ver. from the View Camera years ago. It has the Plotter/Matcher program.


For densitometers look for microfilm places going out of business they all use them. The way use it is with the equivalent of a white balance or grey card; a custom card they always film it allows for easy densitometry.


Actually many darkrooms had a simple version of a densitometer in the enlarging meter. It lacked the lab level precision of the $$$$ tool, but cost $. I didn't even have the $ in those days, so I made my own. I took a old Brockway Director meter, and painted the flat sensor cover black. In the center I cleared a small circle about 2.5mm (~1/10 inch) in diameter. For each film, I took a few shots of a 20 step gray scale. The one with the best step differentiation when projected thru my Omega D2 provided the reference. I could then look at any image projection and determine relative density of any point.By plotting the reference step image for a number of rolls of film, I could get a pretty good approximation of the real values (Note that the meter had foot candle calibration), and even without that step, it was great for measuring the brightness range of the negative I wanted to print, which is what I expect was the primary use by those who did have a densitometer.

Not news: I was bucked off a horse. Fark: Virtually beneath the Hollywood sign, in Hollywood. A couple weeks later, I decided I might have broken my hip. I went to my clinic, the doc sent me into the digital X-Ray room, got a picture taken, and *3 minutes later,* in a different room far down the hall, I was looking at the X-Ray on a big monitor with all the usual zoom tools. I hadn't broken my hip, but I did have a touch of arthritis...If densitometers depend on the continued use of X-Ray film, they're toast.


Hi Mike,
I own an 8x10 camera and have just completed a new darkroom (yes while the others are going forwards in time, I'm going backwards). I'll be experimenting with a pyro developer & Pt/Pd printing and I'll be wanting a densitometer.

A company called Darkroom Automation makes 2 very inexpensive enlarging meters/densitometers, one for non pyro $94 and one pyro $134 - no idea how good they are:

I would love to hear if anyone knows if they are a good purchase.

They are also carried by Digital Truth, which I've interpreted as a kind of endorsement for no other reason than I know them to be a reliable outfit:

Still greatly enjoying my daily dose of TOP!
Chris Ross


Both X-Rite and Heiland still make photographic densitometers, though the X-Rite range is much reduced compared to a few years ago.



Fred Picker (anyone remember Fred?) had instructions in one of his newsletters about how to convert a Pentax Spotmeter V (preferably Zone VI modified) into a film densitometer. Sort of a makeshift setup, but I made one and it worked pretty well, costing me a few hours of puttering and $20 for a calibrated Kodak Step Wedge to calibrate the meter. Hmm, where the heck would a photographer get a calibrated step wedge these days?

"I purchased a copy of BTZS Windows ver. from the View Camera years ago. It has the Plotter/Matcher program."

That's great to hear, Don, thanks. But I ain't buying a PC. [g]


Richard Newman,
You're smarter than me, that's why you did that. [g]


"took one look at my prints and said that I must have used a densitometer to test out the film I was using. I had, but when I asked 'Why?,' they all said that was the reason my contrast was so high."

That's like saying they can tell you used a tape measure because you're so tall. A densitometer is just a measurement device--it doesn't determine what you do with it. I'm sure what they meant was that they recognized you had calibrated to somebody else's numbers, most likely Ansel's like most everybody else does--even though Ansel explicitly cautioned people not to.


Here is the direct link to Heiland


He is a very nice guy, his mother used to make coffee for visitors. The Heiland made products are non plus ultra.

Like Alan, I ran a couple of 1-hour photo labs twenty-odd years ago, and running test strips thru a densitometer was part of the routine.

I'll probably never go back to a wet darkroom, but I like reading these sorts of articles for the nostalgia factor. Keep 'em coming.

Slightly OT: for those who are interested in their own wet darkroom, but don't think they have the skills to assemble one, here's a darkroom ready-to-go, courtesy of the U.S. Army:


It comes complete with an Omega enlarger and an escape hatch.

The price is about right; shipping might be a hassle.

Dear Mike,

Funny thing is I've never had much use for a densitometer for conventional printing.

I finally bought a nice little X-Rite BW transmission unit when Kodak asked me to rewrite the instructions for making dye transfer seps, cuz I needed to be able to figure out exactly what the sep film candidates were doing and which was best.

Once I'd done that, all it ever got used for was spot-checking the total density range in my seps (I mean, once I had it, why not use it) but I never plotted curves again.

About a dozen years ago someone gave me an Eseco three-color reflection densitometer. You'd think I'd find that really handy, being the kind of printer I am. I did. It's never been out of the box.Probably won't be before I tear down the darkroom in two years.

Life (and craft) is funny that way.

pax / Ctein

Thanks, but I expect my techie professional background which included visual psychophysiology and such, helped no end.
Richard Newman

I always find it humorous when someone marks their webpage photos "do not link to this photo". Bet way to avoid someone linking to your photo is keeping it off the net.

RHDesigns ZoneMaster II. It's the OM-4Ti for the darkroom. You use it in conjunction with the enlarger, but has both standard time-exposure metering as well as density measuring capabilities.


The use in Microfilm was if the film did not lie between the correct values the camera could be tweaked or development etc. This has no real application in most photography cause you can't just shoot it again all it can tell you is you messed up!

Again densitometers are like a lot of photography tools they can only tell you where you went wrong, you can't get the image back.

Some time ago someone wrote on a forum "A photographer needs a densitometer like a fish needs a bicycle", a play off of "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." I would just say that some women seem find men to at least be amusing accessories.

Just about every 1-hour photo lab (remember those) had a densitometer for calibrating their equipment, and they seem to still be showing up on E-Bay regularly. I bought one these (an X-Rite 810 with a Noritsu label) a few years ago, and it works well.

Another approach to measuring negative densities is to use a scanner, either a film scanner or a flat-bed with illumination. The key is to turn off any auto exposure and contrast modification, and use step wedge (as from Staufer) to calibrate the pixel values to densities. The free program ImageJ can make this quite easy.

When I shot film I used the densitometer to constantly check on my processing and shutters by shooting and reading a standard shot. It was a south facing house across the street. Painted white with some bushes under which could be found zone I and zone II.My neighbor used to tease me that he was going to paint the house a little darker each time I went out of town.

As a student who is currently majoring in photography, the b&w large format photo class in our curriculum is easily ranked in the top 3 that I have taken. In one of the earliest classes, we spent upwards of 2 to 3 hours as a class learning how to read film on the densitometer, and what the readings meant. Though it may be somewhat of a lost tool in the rapidly decreasing world of LF photography, the photo program at Drexel University holds its densitometer in the highest regard.

Barbieri in Italy still manufactures densitometers: http://www.barbierielectronic.com/en/densitometer/94-0.html

"My neighbor used to tease me that he was going to paint the house a little darker each time I went out of town. "

That's funny.



"Again densitometers are like a lot of photography tools they can only tell you where you went wrong, you can't get the image back."

Not true at all. Way back in tho old days we would shoot a test shot on the last frame every few rolls of 120 ektachrome. Then the lab would do a clip test on those frames to decide how much we needed to push or pull the development.

Then of course the AD would see the clip, decide to run that , and we'd get a "so how come your last shoot ran up a $6000 bill for retouching when the whole shoot was budgeted for $1500 ? (in 1980)

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