Interested in (but currently confused by) the Zone System. Help?

Discussion in 'B&W: Film, Paper, Chemistry' started by MatthewDunn, Aug 21, 2013.

  1. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

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    I am new to film photography (but not to photography in general). I am in the process of reading "The Negative" and while I understand it at a general level, I would not profess to understand it to the point where I could effectively put it into practice (especially as I have just once again taken up film). My question is this - knowing what you know now (as an experienced film shooter), what would you recommend to a beginner who wants to learn as much as he can, but is a bit overwhelmed by the concept and methodologies involved with film testing, N, N+1, etc.

    On one hand, I'd like to take the approach that some on this forum seem to take, which is to shoot at box speed and meter for the darkest shadows in which you want to have detail rendered. Develop normally and if there is still insufficient shadows, drop film speed by a third. Rinse and repeat. I certainly see the logic to this and would be capable of doing this while I am learning more advanced concepts, but I also don't want to burn a lot of film learning habits that have to be un-learned, or worse, producing results that I can't explain and therefore can't reproduce consistently.

    Thoughts?
     
  2. jallee55

    jallee55 Member

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    Matt,

    Your not the only one with that question:smile:
     
  3. LJH

    LJH Member

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    In really basic terms, N +/- processing is more directed at sheet film development, whereby you control the density of the highlights by development duration on individual sheets.

    Whilst this is somewhat useful to roll film development, it is less applicable as there are multiple images involved, making specific development changes difficult if these images have different requirements.

    If you haven't already read up on it, I would suggest researching divided development and/or semi-stand development. IMO, much more useful for roll film applications (see here for some information and examples)
     
  4. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    The "rinse and repeat" process you are referring to is actually the process you use to determining film speed, in a way that will take into account your preferences, your metering technique and your equipment.

    Once you dial that in, it is worthwhile starting to consider the Zone system.

    Are you printing or are you scanning? I ask, because your printing procedure needs to be factored into the process.

    I consider the Zone System to be essentially two parts. Visualization (or possibly Pre-Visualization, if you are a Minor White devotee), followed by careful metering paired with adjustments to development, in order to bring your vision into reality.

    The development adjustments are sometimes rather unwieldy unless you are shooting sheet film.
     
  5. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

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    Ideally, both. But the focus first and foremost would be on wet printing.
     
  6. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

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    Hi MatthewDunn,

    You can always stop by for a crash course... Or Lenny Eiger in Petaluma has an open invitation for calls from people with Zone System questions. He can explain it in 15 minutes.

    Here's a thread where I describe a Zone Sticker for your meter...

    http://www.apug.org/forums/showthread.php?t=110840

    This will help you imagine "Place and Fall" which are two important Zone System concepts that you really need a sticker to see...

    Even though Zone System utilizes spotmeters. I would recommend occasionally switching to incident meter mode and take a reading, as a sanity check. If the readings by incident mode and the spotmeter readings lead to wildly different shutter speed and f/stop combinations, then you can suspect something is amiss. In spot mode, meter the palm of your hand and "place" it on Zone VI. This should agree with the incident mode reading in the same light.

    A Stouffer step wedge is a cheap, but extremely useful addition to the darkroom. It can help you test film. You need a densitometer too, but you can build a densitometer with things you find at home (a scanner with the VueScan driver can provide density readings).
     
  7. summicron1

    summicron1 Subscriber

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    there is a theory that Ansel Adams had an 11th zone that he didn't tell anyone about. It was probably the zone where he's just a damn good photographer, but I could be wrong.

    but seriously, I understand the zone system but have never had the patience it takes to apply it. Infinite patience is part of that 11th zone, I'm afraid. I try to compensate with brilliant content.
     
  8. mmerig

    mmerig Member

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    A bare-bones approach is to use an incident light meter and then increase exposure by about one stop to better catch the shadow detail (assuming you are using negative film). For difficult lighting, you can bracket exposures around what you think is the correct one. With roll film, this could be the best choice, especially because of what LJH says above.

    Once you get used to the film(s) and developer(s) with this simple exposure system, you can more easily work-in the zone system. You can also use a given film in smaller format (135, 120) to get used to it and save money before moving to larger format (4 by 5 etc.) film if that is your plan.

    It is also worth knowing the shutter's accuracy and adjusting accordingly, especially for mechanical shutters on old cameras.

    Modern films have more exposure latitude and thinner emulsions than what Adams typically used (although he does consider the more modern films of his time in "The Negative"), so some of his techniques are not as necessary sometimes. To me anyway, Adams was very keen on exposure, and his guidance on this is very clear and valuable, but perhaps the zone system is more complicated than it needs to be to start out.

    I don't post here much, but have been using B & W film since the late-1960's and slide film since about 1970. The newer films do seem more forgiving regarding exposure.

    Good luck and have fun!
     
  9. pentaxuser

    pentaxuser Subscriber

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    Get the Carson Graves book: "The Zone System for 35mm Photographers." There should be second-hand copies on Amazon or Alibris or Abe Books. I found this a very readable book which covers the subject in a very straightforward way.

    Ansel Adam's book is in reality very straightforward as well; it's just that he goes into details that slows down your assimilation of what he is saying and requires a second reading. Well it did in my case

    pentaxuser
     
  10. markbarendt

    markbarendt Subscriber

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    It is important to understand that much of what Adams did was done to fit his scenes on a fixed grade paper. Adjusting film development in the zone system is essentially done to make printing easier.

    The world has changed and multi grade papers are much more the norm today, this takes away much of the need to adjust film development. Unless you are using single grade papers I'd suggest that you can mostly ignore +/- development.

    With regard to exposure, incident metering was the best thing I ever did to understand reflective metering. Incident metering allows a great baseline to compare reflective meter readings to, with practice side by side it gets easier to see where zones fall.

    Incident metering is still my primary choice for any shot that is truly important to me. What it provides is an objective measurement.
     
  11. bsdunek

    bsdunek Subscriber

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    I wouldn't get too hung up on Adam's books at this point. He goes deep into exposure theory, but as said above, today's films are so forgiving, you can keep things simpler.
    I suggest you just set your meter at box speed, and go take some photos. If the lighting looks difficult, such as deep shadows or very contrasty, bracket your shots. It won't be long before you will be able to see what works for you.

    Mark Barendt's thoughts on incident metering are something to try. This takes a lot of the variables out of metering, and lets you compare incident and reflective light. Sometimes, just walk around with a light meter and try some readings to see how they compare.

    Then, show us some of your photos!
     
  12. dpgoldenberg

    dpgoldenberg Member

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    For a concise introduction to the zone system, I would suggest taking a look at:

    http://www.normankoren.com/zonesystem.html

    Norman Koren's web page is primarily devoted to digital photography, and has not been updated much in quite a while. But, there is a lot of good information there on various aspects of photography, including this description of a "simplified zone system". I think that Koren does a pretty good job of describing the key ideas of exposure using ZS terminology, but doesn't get into film tests and development.

    Hope this helps,
    David
     
  13. luizjorgemn

    luizjorgemn Member

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    Shoot at 2/3 of box speed, develop normally an high contrast scene and see if it's suitable for you. Always consider the darkest region where you want details as zone 3. I always check for highlights too, just to be sure of what Im doing.


    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk HD
     
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  15. jerrybro

    jerrybro Subscriber

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    I use the Zone system with large format and am very satisfied with the results. With roll film I used the concepts to determine an N exposure and development that prints on VC paper at grade 2 and use VC filters to get the result I visualized.

    In his later years Ansel sometimes used a blad and had multiple backs labeled for normal, plus and minus development. In 35mm some prices are getting low enough that you could do the same thing with multiple bodies, may not be very practical though.
     
  16. bdial

    bdial Subscriber

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    IME reading the The Negative to try and understand the zone system is pretty daunting.
    Fred Picker's The Zone VI Workshop is a better introduction.

    It's also worthwhile to keep in mind that the materials, especially papers have changed tremendously since either of those books were written. Neither Ansel nor Fred were working with variable contrast papers which give you a lot more flexibility than graded papers ever did.

    I would suggest that you would do well to forget about the zone system for a year or so.
    Here is a simplified approach which will take you very far;

    Pay attention to the fact that your meter is paying the most attention to 18% grey, so point it at what you want to end up as middle grey in a print. Use that reading for your exposure. Start with the film's box speed or go slightly less. Then;

    Make pictures
    Develop the film
    Make prints
    Study your result
    Repeat.

    After you get proficient at that, dive into all the rest of it. If and when you make changes know why you are making that change.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 25, 2013
  17. baachitraka

    baachitraka Subscriber

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    ZS: Is a system with several components.

    Pre-visualization - Metering(check: Calibration) - Camera+Lens(flare may be considered) - Film(test: To find E.I) - Development(test:film + pre-visualization + metering) - Target paper(fixed grade).

    All-in-all it needs testing.
     
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  18. nworth

    nworth Subscriber

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    The Zone system is mainly a method of getting proper exposures. It involves measuring the brightness of the brightest and darkest important parts of the scene to determine the scene's contrast (brightness range) and then determining the proper exposure for the most important item in the scene by determining the value (Zone) you want it to have in the final print, measuring its brightness, and assigning the appropriate exposure. The development time of the (sheet film) negative is adjusted depending on the scene's brightness range so that the negative will have a normal contrast range. Today's roll films have sufficient latitude that average development will usually produce quite printable negatives for most of the scenes you encounter, although you could make an adjustment for the average scene on the roll. Knowing the brightness range of the scene can still be informative.
     
  19. LJH

    LJH Member

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    Again, for roll film, consider divided development.
     
  20. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

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    A forum like APUG is not a good way to learn about basic photography, as you will receive much confusing and conflicting advice. Is there a local night school class you could attend?
     
  21. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

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    I've been shooting, using a light meter, etc. for years...just not on film (take a look at my first sentence of my first post). In digital, ISO is almost meaningless (unless you are an indoor event photographer, are shooting at night, etc.). When I made the switch over to film, the first thing I read was about a trillion threads telling me that I need to understand my personal EI, test my chosen film for my personal film speed, etc. - that is what generated the initial set of questions.

    I think I am going to take the approach of simply shooting at box speed, metering for the darkest part of the scene in which I want to preserve detail and then develop at normal, box speed recommended time. If I don't get enough detail, I will knock off a third off the box speed and try again. Once I am getting the right amount of detail, I will figure out the right development time based on how much contrast I have and how difficult it is to print.
     
  22. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    Good approach, but you are missing one small detail in your description (although I think you are probably including it in your thought process).

    After you take your meter reading, you need to decide whether that dark part of the scene should be rendered one, two, three or ? stops darker than 18% grey (Zone V) and then adjust your exposure to match that.
     
  23. MatthewDunn

    MatthewDunn Member

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    Actually, while I get that (placing my shadows in III or IV and then, through review of the negatives, making sure that there is enough detail in the shadows, i.e. that Zone III (or IV) is, in fact, III (or IV) and adjusting the film speed if necessary), the approach I was talking about is the one outlined on the rogerandfrances.com site (http://www.rogerandfrances.com/subscription/ps zone.html).

    Thoughts on that?
     
  24. baachitraka

    baachitraka Subscriber

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    Depending on Film and Developer combo, metering shadows may lead to shadow fall on Zone IV. Say, Rodinal for example...

    If not lens flare may also contribute in bringing down the metered value close to a stop.

    For starting, it may a best bet to go with OP's way, i.e., box speed + metered shadows + develop according to manufacture recommendation.
     
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  25. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

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    If you are interested in the Zone System, I wouldn't recommend taking advice from a site that gives 10 reasons not to use the Zone System.

    If you develop by time and temperature to manufacturer's recommendation, you MIGHT get rated box speed, and you MIGHT get a Contrast Index of 0.62. That's what I believe these charts aim to lead you to. You will get negatives you can print. But you will miss out on some of the understanding that comes when you test for film speed and development time.

    If you develop tests of Stouffer scale step wedges and read the results with a densitometer, and you make your own Time-CI chart and family of curves. You will know what speed you are getting and you can plan the development to fit your needs.

    Going forward if you include a step wedge exposure in with your normal developing runs, you will know whether you hit your predicted CI and can adjust processing or update your charts as needed.

    That's the approach I would recommend if you were to consult me, and like #10 of Roger and Frances, I'm sticking with that. Haa, no. If you want to discuss any other approach, I'm always willing to explore the strategy and pros and cons...
     
  26. michael_r

    michael_r Subscriber

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    Matthew, if you are interested in the Zone System, stick with Adams's books.