Before I bought a densitometer, I had a commercial lab (not a one hour place) measure my film densities. The cost was minimal. To try to determine the difference of print tonality in the lower zones, as you are attempting, is going to be highly inaccurate. The reason is that those densities exist on the toe of the curve and are not well separated. I don't think that there are very many people that could tell a .10 density difference on a print tonal scale in the lower zones. Even metering through the negative would only define a 1/3 stop difference if the meter is truly linear and highly accurate.

Zone one density will be on the toe of the characteristic curve...that is as it should be. If you want to move your exposure up off the curve then you will need to make the proper zone placement at the time of the exposure. To do otherwise would be to assign an arbitrary and inaccurate film speed to the film. Let's say for instance in your case you decided that the Zone I density should actually exhibit as a Zone III print value, that would lead you to assign a 100 EI to your film (overexpose by two stops). That would then place your zone VIII and above values on the shoulder of most film's curves and then you would have some shadow separation and limited highlight separation.