Zone System - still useful?

Discussion in 'Exposure Discussion' started by paul owen, Sep 7, 2002.

  1. paul owen

    paul owen Member

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    Just to get things rolling! I read in a UK camera magazine that a well known photographer/writer dismissed those who still use the Zone System as a means of producing work. I wondered how many of us still use the Zone system (or variants thereof) and especially how valid is the testing procedures employed by Adams? Regards Paul
     
  2. William Levitt

    William Levitt Member

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    For me, the Zone System was a valuable tool to learn. But like most things, I learned it, then after time, I've forgotten it.

    The Zone System allowed me to establish certain perameters in my own way of working, from visualization to print. Now that I have my own technique, I probably break more ZS rules than I adhere to. But again, it gave me a basis from which to work and enabled my to create and refine my own way of working.

    After all, we all are different and have our own way of working.
     
  3. paul owen

    paul owen Member

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    William, I think that's probably true of most! I learned the system but have "adapted" it to suit me. But there are probably some who still stick by the methods laid down by St Ansel.
     
  4. matthew

    matthew Member

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    Same here. I don't follow and use it completely, but I take parts that are the most useful to my photography and use them on a constant basis.
     
  5. Robert Kennedy

    Robert Kennedy Member

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    I have to agree. ZS is great theory. For me it is just a good way to learn about how to take a correct exposure. I don't do my own printing (no darkroom and no possibility of a darkroom in the near future), so the zone system is a moot point in practice for me.

    Oddly enough though I always seem to hear people talking about it at my local lab. These guys come in, blab about the zone system, and then simply turn over the film for standard processing.

    [​IMG]
     
  6. EUGENE

    EUGENE Member

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    Paul, the Zone system method helped me to realize what my exposure meter was telling me. I used to do a lot of exposure and development testing. But now, I merely read the darkest shadow area where I want some detail (using a spot meter), and stop down two stops from that reading. That's my base exposure. I then read the highlight areas, and calculate the number of stops between the brightest and darkest areas in the scene. Five stop spread - normal development. Under five stop spread- increase development. Over five stop spread-decrease development. I suppose that I am using a form of Zone system reasoning. When thin- grained conventional and tabular grain films, along with improved fiber based VC papers, were introduced, the need for exact zone system testing seemed to become less important to me. These newer materials appeared after Ansel's demise. He didn't approve of the VC papers that were available in his day. I wonder if he would approve of today's materials? They sure make it easier to expose and print for me.
     
  7. paul owen

    paul owen Member

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    Eugene - you've just described the methods I use! I always felt slightly heretical in not following the system as per Adams! But I agree that with modern films/papers/chemistry I let the scientists at (say) Ilford do all the testing for me and simply tweak these values/ratings! But I do feel that any "pro" black and white photographer/writer to simply dismiss the Zone System is missing something - almost trying to "shock" readers or worse - imagining that he is a better photographer/artist than the likes of Adams. FWIW, IMHO he (not Adams) is fairly mediocre!
     
  8. Nige

    Nige Subscriber

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    I do even less than already mentioned (I don't change development unless the subject really warranted it and I used a whole roll of film in those lighting circumstances , I do tend to meter a shadow with detail and stop down 2 stops also) but I think anyone would benefit from getting their basic exposure and film development right.
     
  9. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member

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    Modern materials have a lot of latitude, but one can still benefit from knowing how to read a characteristic curve, to understand the importance of density range, to find a personal film speed, and to match contrast through development to the scene and to the paper. Studying and attempting to apply the Zone system is a great way to do this, and with a densitometer and a few recommendations, you can learn a lot from a book.

    There are other ways to produce good negatives, like development by inspection, but to apply those methods, you need to know what a good negative looks like. I like VC papers for some negatives, but I also like the option of using graded papers when I can, just because I like the way that some of them look. If you want to use classic materials like Azo, which is only available now in grades 2 and 3, you need the full range of tools for controlling contrast, and the Zone system is a good start (though Weston used D.B.I. with negs for chloride papers, as does Azo afficionado, Michael A. Smith--they learned by experience how to recognize a good negative).

    Even Ansel Adams used techniques like selenium intensification and local bleaching to produce expressive prints when Zone system calculations weren't enough or weren't possible (as famously was the case in "Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M.&quot:wink:. The Zone system is just another tool in the bag.
     
  10. John Hicks

    John Hicks Member

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    First off, let me state that I use parts of the classic Zone System as appropriate.

    The person who dismisses usage of the Zone System is perhaps simply rejecting it for himself; this is obviously a valid choice since innumerable photographers have managed quite well without it or without consciously using much of it. If the writer dismisses everyone's use of the Zone System as a means of productivity I'm not sure what to make of it other than the pejorative (is that right?) terms that come to mind.

    I've forgotten what St. Ansel's testing procedures were. I test for EI at .10 DU above fb&f and a DR of 1.25 (more or less) for N. N- and N+ development times are determined similarly. I tend to place important shadow areas on Zone IV rather than Zone III because to me that's usually where they are visually even if by the meter they should be reproduced darker.

    These days I take advantage of the flexibility of VC paper and don't do a whole lot of non-N development or, for example, if N-2 is called for I'll just develop for N-1 and print with lower-contrast filtration. That compromise seems to get a lot more work done than back in the old days of graded paper and trying to shoehorn a neg into one grade or another.

    I've digressed a bit. In any event, I think it's far better to learn _how things work_ and make a conscious decision whether or not to use a certain method or system than to make a conscious decision to not learn based on a magazine writer's opinion.
     
  11. Thilo Schmid

    Thilo Schmid Member

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    Paul,

    the consequent use of the Zone Systems requires the use of sheet film. This imposes a natural limit to the audience. The number of even serious photographers, who still use sheetfilm, is not "very significant". However, it is a matter of fact, that the more you are concerned about your exposure and the more you know about your materials, the less harder your darkroom work will be. And if you limit yourself to contact prints, you will not have much alternatives to the Zone System (contrast control filters might be one, although a limited one).
    However, the use of Multicontrast Paper and the Splitgrade Techniques e.g. are powerful tools to compensate a lack of the Zone System. And if a Splitgrade can't help, a mask will most probably do. But the work has to be done. In case of the Zone System, you'll have to spend it at exposure and film processing time. In the other case, you'll have to spend it in the darkroom. And this is all, beacause film does not see the way your eyes and your brain does. Not to mention that your mind might want to express something completely different.

    Regards,
    Thilo Schmid
     
  12. William Levitt

    William Levitt Member

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    </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (tschmid @ Sep 10 2002, 09:29 AM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'>the consequent use of the Zone Systems requires the use of sheet film. This imposes a natural limit to the audience. The number of even serious photographers, who still use sheetfilm, is not "very significant".

    Regards,
    Thilo Schmid</td></tr></table><span id='postcolor'>
    Huh? Sorry Thilo, I don't want to get too far off track, but I just wonder how you came up with that remark. Certainly not based on the number of </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE </td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'>serious photographers</td></tr></table><span id='postcolor'> that you know personally.
     
  13. John Hicks

    John Hicks Member

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    > Zone Systems requires the use of sheet film

    Certainly not. The "classic" zone system does, however, require the ability to develop films to suit various SBR and the effects desired; whether this is accomplished by using sheetfilm, several rollfilm backs or even several cameras is immaterial.

    One could of course use "half a zone system," using only the placement procedures bearing in mind that the film would receive N development. Simply learning and using this part would eliminate lots of "it's underexposed" problems.
     
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  15. Thilo Schmid

    Thilo Schmid Member

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    </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (William Levitt @ Sep 13 2002, 10:18 AM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'>Huh? Sorry Thilo, I don't want to get too far off track, but I just wonder how you came up with that remark. Certainly not based on the number of serious photographers that you know personally.</td></tr></table><span id='postcolor'>
    William,

    this wasn't indeed a good wording. I meant that among all amateur photographers (the audience of a magazine - as stated in the original post) the serious ones that use sheet film are a minority. Sorry for the confusion.
     
  16. William Levitt

    William Levitt Member

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    No problem Thilo, thanks for the explaination.
     
  17. steve

    steve Member

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    Part of the Zone System that is applicable to all photography, whether you develop the film yourself, print yourself, or use color film, is relating the luminance values in the scene to the film's exposure latitude. I rarely do much black and white work anymore (a personal choice after shooting B&W exclusively for 20 years) - but do use the Zone System for exposure of color film.

    It is a quite valuable technique in visualizing how the final result will look, and how the luminances will be rendered. Whether one needs to use, or chooses to use the Zone System is a personal value judgement. Anyone who "dismisses" the Zone System must also then be dismissing sensitometry - which is the very basis of the Zone System. It is really a visual sensitometric method of relating the scene to its final rendering (transparency, or print).

    Certainly, the advent of advanced matrix metering in 35mm has reduced the number of people who care to know about the Zone System, but that does not render the ideas contained within the Zone System any less useful. Lastly, when you really need to control the exposure (regardless of film type), and you are truly serious about the work you are doing, I believe you will be pulling out your spot meter and looking over the scene to evaluate how the luminances willl "fit" on the film. As soon as you start doing that - you ARE using the Zone System.
     
  18. Skip

    Skip Member

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    Call me a heretic (or worse), but I've always believed AA promulgated the zone system to explain aperature and exposure index to himself. I still don't understand why any competent B&W shooter and printer needs to even remotely bother with the zone system. If he understands his camera, middle grey, film latitude, and actually knows how to develop and print , he is a zone master, without ever seeing or hearing the words "zone system". Its always seemed an unnecessary layer of verbiage for stating the obvious in B&W. Notwithstanding John Shaw and some others, "zone system' in colour, really means "film latitude, my meter, and thee".
     
  19. SkipA

    SkipA Member

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    I've read a lot about the zone system, but I've never done the testing necessary to establish a personal EI for any particular film and developer combination, and for normal or n-plus/minus developing times. I more or less understand the zone system conceptually. I use some of the ZS techniques. I place important shadow detail on zone III, measure and record the luminance range, and adjust development time up or down a bit (by guessing) to compensate for highly compressed or expanded ranges.

    I think part of the reason I've never done rigorous testing is that I'm still pretty much a novice B&W photographer, and I've mostly been trying out various films and developers in order to discover what I really like. In retrospect, I think I'd have made greater headway by sticking with one or two film/developer combinations and doing the ZS testing for each. Then perhaps I'd know what a properly exposed negative should look like.

    I prefer less technical and more intuitive methods for my photography. Perhaps I'm lazy, but I think I also just value simplicity and direct intuitive approaches. I've been developing all of my film lately in PMK, but I plan to try ABC pyro ala Michael A Smith for my LF negs. I know that densitomitry is difficult or perhaps impossible with pyro-stained negatives, so I'm considering picking one film and a non-staining developer, maybe Bergger BPF200 developed in D-76 or Rodinal, and run the full gamut of zone system testing. My objective will really be to learn what a properly exposed negative should look like, how it should print, and so forth. If ZS can help me achieve this, then I'd have to say that it is still useful, at least for me.

    Skip A. (the other Skip)
     
  20. steve

    steve Member

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    "I still don't understand why any competent B&W shooter and printer needs to even remotely bother with the zone system."

    OK - I spent one year in a photo science class for 2 hours, three days a week. The class was taught by the best photo science people in the business (Todd, Zakia, Shoemaker, etc.). I learned everything they could teach about the physics of photography, chemistry of photography, sensitometry, film characteristic curves, paper characteristic curves, exposure, development, how to use densitometers, how to plot film curves, how to read a negative on a densitometer and calculate what grade paper to use, etc., etc.

    What was never taught was how to VISUALLY relate all of this information to the subject - and then to the final rendering. That's the basic premise of the Zone System is that you visualize what the final result should be prior to making the exposure. You then use the Zone calculations (arrived at through materials testing) to expose and develop the film to get the end result you want.

    The thing the Zone System gives you, is a clear, concise methodology for doing the technical portion and relating it to the visual part of photography. If you don't do that, or have developed your own methods to arrive at the end result you need - or, f you do just do that naturally - more power to you. For some of us dummies, the Zone System has made photography a lot more intuitive.

    Edward Weston never used an exposure meter. Personally, I couldn't make an accurate exposure without one.
     
  21. John Hicks

    John Hicks Member

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    > If he understands his camera, middle grey, film latitude, and actually knows how to develop and print , he is a zone master


    That works fine maybe 99 percent of the time; it's that last one percent that such procedures don't work well enough to yield a printable, much less optimal, negative. Those are always the times that have interesting light.
     
  22. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    I still use a personalized variation of the zone system where I worry more about proper exposure of highlights than shadows in placement of zones.
    I have no problem with letting areas of a print fall below ZII. I find that most people have no problem understanding pure black shadows but expect detail in highlights, as we can see detail in the brightest highlights with our eyes. So my testing of film, developers, paper etc are designed to give me very precise control of high values.

    My testing protocols are not very technical. I have borrowed a densitometer a couple of times to establish film/developer curves, but have over time just use several test subjects in various lighting conditions and study prints made with those combinations. I have also made perfect negs without a meter by just using my experience with the lighting and type of subject and recording these details to determine developement.

    If you are a beginner, even with 35mm gear it is a great tool to understand exposure and the effect of developement variables. Like any learning tool it is a starting point for further understanding
     
  23. Christopher Walrath

    Christopher Walrath Member

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    I was going through old posts and this is the oldest in this category. An oldie but a goodie. Why learn the notes on the tablature when all one needs to do is learn to hit the play button. Even if shooting a d****** camera, tried but true science relating to our craft, such as the zone system, familiarize ourselves with the characteristics of the very thing we record. Everyone here should at least have a working grasp of the zone system to lessen the choke on the flow of creativity by technical dams.
     
  24. gnashings

    gnashings Inactive

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    If for no other reason (and I certainly think there are many), the world around us is not monochrome - the ZS is the best balance between simplicity and comprehensiveness of any tool made to translate one to the other.
    I truly dislike sweeping statements like the one made in the article quoted at the start of this thread... In my limited life experience, the scope of suc stements is inverstly proportional to the intelligence and/or ability of the person making them.
    Then again, that's a pretty sweeping generalization right there:smile:
     
  25. kjsphoto

    kjsphoto Subscriber

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    I use the Zone System all the time. I also Zone test every film with a densitometer so I know exactly how my film will handle and also personalize it to be able to print how I like to. I think it is a wonderful and valuable tool.
     
  26. Monophoto

    Monophoto Member

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    I don't consider myself a Zonie in the sense that I spend more time testing than I do making real images, but the knowlege of how my film is going to respond, and the concepts of how to meter and decide on exposure that one gets from the Zone System are elements of every image that I make.