View Full Version : Exposing for highlight and printing for shadows??

05-20-2008, 03:47 AM
Hi everyone

I've been using the zone system for a couple months but have found myself finding it easier to expose for my highlights and then print down for the shadow areas.
Basically I'm placing my highlight area on zone VII/VIII then letting my shadow are fall where ever it lands then controlling the shadow by printing with MG paper taking selenium toning into account.
Should I rigourously be sticking to Ansels ZS instead?

Forgot to say that I use only black and white 120 roll film and only have 2 backs.

If this is a really daft question then please forgive me.

Many thanks

05-20-2008, 04:39 AM
Hey Mike - do whatever feels right for you. If using the zone system partly works fine, then stick to that method. That is what I do - using the general ZS thinking to guide exposure decisions, not buying the whole "package". I find that incredibly helpful.

Keep in mind you can also control contrast range by reducing or extending negative development time.

No daft questions exist - only daft answers!

Ian Grant
05-20-2008, 04:43 AM
Well all convention has always been expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights, and the Zone system and BTZS are just ways of measuring and controlling this.

You do run the risk of loosing shadow detail.


05-20-2008, 05:47 AM
Mike, your method works best for color transparencies - expose for the highlights.


05-20-2008, 05:56 AM
Mike - just keep in mind that no amount of manipulation can make up for inadequate exposure in the shadow areas. Shadow areas develop in the very early stages of the film development and are relatively unnaffected by extending your development. If those areas do not receive adequate exposure, you'll just end up with clear areas in the negative, no matter what you do post exposure.

Doremus Scudder
05-20-2008, 05:56 AM

Not a daft procedure at all! While many use the more "classic" approach of placing shadow values and then developing for the highlights, one must be aware that this approach works best for sheet-film users who can develop each sheet individually. This is impractical with roll film.

What your approach does is to make sure you have adequate negative density (by making sure the highlights are high on the curve), and as much shadow detail as possible for a given subject brightness range (also, keeping things as high on the curve as possible).

If you standardize on an N-1 development, or thereabouts (i.e. calibrated to grade 3 paper), you also ensure that you only rarely have negatives that are too contrasty and dump the shadow detail off the bottom of the film curve. The lack of contrast is then compensated for by using higher contrast when printing.

In extremely contrasty situations, one can overexpose a bit to ensure adequate shadow detail and deal with the extra contrast with a low-contrast paper later, thus saving this situation as well.

This is the approach Ansel Adams and many others have always recommended for roll film processing. It seems to me, you are doing exactly the right thing.

When and if you move up to sheet film, you will likely want to process each sheet optimally, and thus switch to the "expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights" method. Until then, keep on doing what you are doing.


Doremus Scudder


05-20-2008, 05:57 AM
Hi Mike, the rationale for the ZS expose for the shadows, is that the shadows receive the least exposure on the film, and adjusting your exposure for the shadows will ensure that you get detail in them.

Having said that, if you are getting the results you want, and are comfortable with your technique, carry on. Just keep an eye on the shadows in your prints, and if you are losing detail that you wanted you will have to re-evaluate your exposure scheme.

05-20-2008, 08:10 AM

Everyone has said it already. Unless it is transparency film, expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.

When in doubt, bracket.

This is what I teach ALL my 'Intro to Photography' students.

05-20-2008, 08:42 AM
I'd just like to thank everyone for their responses!

In time I would like to start using sheet film but for now I guess l'll just have to get another back and keep shooting and learning.

Thanks again.

el wacho
05-20-2008, 08:58 AM
ummm... rolf horn use this exposure strategy of letting the shadows fall where they may - says so in his uk b/w mag interview. i suspect kenna does as well.

05-20-2008, 10:18 AM
Unless it is transparency film, expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.

I expose for the shadows with all film, even transparency film. EPY responds very well to minus development in the first developer, two stops worth anyway.

As long as you expose enough you can usually get the print you're after. But if you have underexposed the shadows there is nothing you can do in development to get them back. If exposing for the highlights and letting the chips fall where they may in the shadows works for you it's because you're shooting scenes of low enough contrast for it to work.

I'm sure that's why Walt teaches it the way he does.

Dan Henderson
05-20-2008, 03:15 PM
as others have said, giving the shadows enough exposure to record the details therein puts enough information on the negative to print well. Since I started using a compensating developer (DiXactol) I have not worried about metering highlights and adjusting development time...I let them fall where they may and I seldom or never have blown out highlights, especially with split grade printing.

So for most images I place my shadows on Zone III and don't bother metering highlights. For night images where the shadows are too dark to meter, I place an important highlight on Zone VII or VIII, and let the shadows take care of themselves, which seems to work pretty well for me most of the time.

05-20-2008, 03:28 PM
ZS and roll film...

I think it was Bruce Barnbaum that suggested to a workshop that if one has an image that one realizes is outstanding, but needs a different development than one usually gives a roll, that one should not finish the roll and develop that roll for the time required. Film is relatively cheap -- actually probably the cheapest part of photography, and why let the worry of saving a few bucks keep one from getting an image that might make the whole day/trip worthwhile?


Alan Barton
05-20-2008, 08:01 PM
Mike-given that you are based in the UK-a country not known for number of days with high subject brightness ranges-your approach will give a decent negative much of the time as with the highlights placed at 7/8 your shadows will be in the range of 3. With subjects where the range is high you will lose shadow detail that is not recoverable. You may be better off just exposing for the subject "average" (either with a general reading with a meter or metering off of a mid-gray part of the scene-grass or a tarmac road is often a good "close to zone 5" surrogate.

Only if you can develop individually (rolls/backs or sheets) can you fully utilize the zone system where you start with shadows then adjust development time to place highlights in the appropriate place.

good luck in Plymouth (from a fellow Brit with a Cornish mother that now lives in the US)


Doremus Scudder
05-22-2008, 05:50 AM
Back on my soapbox in defense of Mike's method again :-)

Yes, the most accurate way of dealing with film is to place important shadow detail where you want it and develop for the proper contrast so that the highlights fall in an easily printable negative density. I use sheet film exclusively and this is what I always do.

However, there is sound reasoning behind exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows go in the case of roll film, where many negatives with different subject brightness ranges recorded on them are being developed for the same time. But, one critical compensation is necessary. Here is my entire case:

Let us look at three scenarios, a low-contrast scene, a "normal"-contrast scene and a high-contrast scene. Assume all of these are on the same roll of film, and will be developed in the same way, i.e. "normal" (I'll talk about what "normal" should be for roll film later). We also assume that the differences in contrast will be compensated for in printing by using different contrast printing papers instead of different development times for each scene as is possible with sheet film.

First, lets take the case of a low contrast scene that has only a three Zone subject brightness range (SBR). (This corresponds to N+2 in classic Zone-System terminology.) Metering and exposing for the shadows places the majority of the values low on the film's characteristic curve, reducing separation overall, and especially in the shadows (if you place the shadow on Zone III, then the "highlights" fall on Zone VI). When developed normally (our only available development), such a negative is thin and has little contrast. If one places the highlights in Zone VIII in such a case, the majority (or all) of the values fall on the straight-line portion of the negative (between Zones V and VIII), and have the maximum amount of separation possible. The only downside to this is that the negatives, being a bit more dense, will exhibit slightly more grain. This is a small trade-off for the increase in tonal separation and printability of the negative. A negative like this will still have to be printed on higher than normal contrast paper, but one has maximized the separation on the negative for the development given.

Now the normal situation. In this case, we have a 5-Zone separation between important shadow and highlight values; this is the scenario that the system should be calibrated to, and placing the highlight in Zone VIII allows the shadows to "fall" on Zone III where they should be. Notice that in this case, placing either the shadows or the highlights results in exactly the same negative.

Now for the high-contrast scene. Assume we have a 7-Zone spread (this is N-2 for us Zone System users, and a rather extreme situation). If we place the highlights on Zone VIII, the important shadow value falls on Zone I. This is where we lose the shadow detail.

BUT, and this is important, if we overexpose the film by two stops, then we have the shadows on Zone III, where they should be, and the highlights on Zone X, where they shouldn't be. However, we do have all the information on the negative and have not lost shadow detail. In this case, we rely on a low-contrast printing paper to take up the slack for the unwanted two-Zone expansion. We are relying here on the latitued of most modern films to retain separation in "overexposed" highlights. Some films are better at this than others, so film choice is a factor in optimizing this system. (My Tri-X retains highlight separation up to Zone XII.)

If the extra exposure is not given, shadow detail is lost, irretrievably, so it is very important to recognize this situation and compensate for it by "overexposing." That means one would have to be aware that the SBR in this case was two Zones wider than normal, and then place the highlight in Zone X instead of Zone VIII (i.e. overexpose two stops from the "normal" highlight placement. For a SBR that was one Zone wider than normal, a one-stop overexposure would be given).

Note, that to use the above system effectively, two things are critical. First, one needs to be aware of the contrast of the scene one is shooting, at least to the point of recognizing overly-contrasty scenes so that one can overexpose (i.e. compensate for the shadows falling too low) by the proper amount. This means one still needs to meter highlights and shadows and determine the SBR in contrasty cases. (For low-contrast and normal scenes, simply metering the highlights will do, but if there is any doubt, find the SBR).

Second, it helps if the entire system is calibrated to a higher-than-usual contrast paper. In other words, "normal" development should be calibrated to grade 2.5 or 3 paper, not grade 2 as most sheet-film-Zone-System users do. This ensures adequate paper grades on either side of normal as well as establishes negative development to a slightly lower contrast, thus allowing the overexposure needed for high-contrast situations to result in a relatively lower density for the highlight densities, thus making them easier to print.

With this system, so calibrated, I can shoot scenes from N-2 through N+2 on the same roll and still have printable negatives in all cases. Not only that, but the low-contrast scenes will actually be rendered more printable than if I had placed the shadows on Zone III and given the same development. I believe that this is an excellent practical application of the Zone System to roll-film formats. Yes, it is a compromise, but, I believe it is a compromise that has very few disadvantages.

Notice that I am not ignoring the shadow values here, but rather that the system is based on metering and placing the highlights, compensating where needed to ensure that the shadow values have the optimum printable density for the given development.

Of course, if one has interchangeable backs, one can have three or five different backs, each dedicated to a different development. This, however, often becomes "fumbly" and slow, and defeats one of the purpose of shooting roll film in the first place, that of speed and flexibility.

A modification of the above might be to keep a separate film back or camera body for contrasty situations, designating this for a contraction development somewhere at about N-1.5. That would at least reduce the fumbling around to just two things.

One word about "pushing." When shooting hand-held roll-film cameras in low-light situations, such as night clubs, concerts etc. one often intentionally sacrifices the shadow detail for usable shutter speed. In these cases, the film is "push-processed," i.e. overdeveloped, to move highlight values to a reasonable printable density. Like the above scenarios, highlights are metered and "placed" where they will come out when the film is overdeveloped. The shadows in cases like these fall where they may, and usually lose all detail.

"Pushing" like this is a case of underexposure and overdevelopment, not the overexposure and overdevelopment that I am advocating for contrasty situations in order to retain shadow detail. (It is, however, what would happen if one did not compensate for the extreme contrast by overexposing).

Remember, all this is based on metering and placing the highlights. The entire way of thinking about this changes when one meters and places the shadows. So terms like "overexposure" and "overdevelopment" have different meanings in this context.

Finally, a word about transparency films: With slide film, the highlights are the least-dense part of the final product. Exposing for highlights in this case is analogous to exposing for the shadows with negative films. There are many who shoot transparencies with a modified Zone System based on the characteristics of these materials. Others, who do not manipulate the development of transparencies simply let the shadows fall where they may, favoring highlight detail over empty shadows in a similar fashion to what I have described above.

Hope this helps some of the roll-film users out there.


Doremus Scudder


df cardwell
05-22-2008, 06:27 AM
Ansel was the least dogmatic person you could find,
and stressed that the PURPOSE of the Zone System
was to express the emotion
you felt when you experience the scene.
The sequence you plan to get from the Reality of the Scene
to your Interpretation tells you how the exposure is to be done.
So, if you have solved one particular kind of scene,
and can do the shorthand, knowing how to place the highlight
and where the shadow will fall, that's just following Ansel's advice.

The more familiar we become with certain scenes,
the less we need to take out the calculators to make the picture.

Minor White taught a slightly different approach,
which for the right temperaments, did the job.
Peter Lorenz suggested a mid-tone based approach
that adjusted the exposure and development concurrently
that works extremely well for portraiture.
ANYTHING that is consistent and helps you make the pictures you want, works.

Again, Adams taught to see the image in your heart,
or mind's eye, and not simply wave the spotmeter at the scene
and try to reproduce reality. Visualisation is the most important step,
and it has nothing to do with densities, gamma, and all that,
beyond the assumption that you have tested the paper, film, and developer,
and found -in advance- what combinations accomplish.

The Zone System is simply a descriptive system that says,
"If you want it to look like this, DO THIS."
There is NO way to predict what an untested combination will do.
The Zone System is like a piano, not a Ouija Board.

For SO many scenes, picking the right film,
for example TMY instead of TXP for a long scale scene,
does most of the work for you, or choosing TXP
when you want to enliven the highlights of a dull reality
instead of TMY.


05-26-2008, 12:23 PM
I just came upon this, and have skimmed over everything. I hope I'm not missing something and repeating what has already been said. If I am, sorry. Also, I want to say out front that whatever works for you is ok. I just want to add my two cents if it can be of use to you.

I've been using the ZS for some 44 years as of the moment. I no longer even think about it very often, it is so ingrained in my very being. As I see it (and I began to catch onto this in about 1965, a year after beginning my studies of it) the ZS offers so much room for all manner of complication. This complication takes a variety of forms and has gone through lots of fashions. I don't see much any more, for example, of what Imogen Cunningham, in chiding her friend Minor White's approach, described as "Zone Buddhism". However, I think that it does offer a kind of a trap for the rational mind, whether one is of a mystical bent or not. I'm coming to the end of a very long career in teaching photo. Throughout the years I have avoided teaching the ZS for exactly that reason. I want my students to understand the principles upon which it is based. If they want to explore the particular discipline that the ZS offers, they will have a solid understanding to support it. The ZS is a means, not an end in itself. I think a lot of folks get lost here.

Adams was a musician; remember? The negative is the score, according to him. The print is the performance. In order to make the best performance possible and allow as many varied interpretations as might be desired, a solid negative is critically important. His method wasn't intended to be a religion. It was intended to provide the kind of negative that would allow the greatest flexibility later on, that would allow the maximum room to choose just how to make the print to express what you want to express, and room to change your mind if you want. He was not at all interested in a "perfect" negative.

It is unfortunate to have to fight with with your negative; far better to have everything you need, so you can focus on the expressive aspects, not having to fix what is wrong. In my experience, both from my own work and the incredible range of examples I've seen in the work of thousands of students, I'd say that about 85% of the problems result from underexposure. It it ain't in the negative, you aren't going to put it there when you make the print. "Garbage in, garbage out". So, it is important to consider those shadow values. Allowing the shadows to "fall" is extremely risky. On those sunny days, everything will tend to be underexposed. On cloudy days, everything will tend to be overexposed, and the shadows will have an unnatural overly abrupt appearance. In all my years in this pursuit, I've yet to see "latitude".

I'd much rather see you taking your exposure readings in the shadows, because I think you will enjoy making prints a lot more. In what I've read above, there seems to be a consensus that we'd need to sacrifice carefully considered and placed exposure because of the development constraints when we use rolls instead of sheets. Sure, sheet film offers that great individual control, but roll film isn't hopeless. I searched the postings for "average" and found it mentioned only in relation to exposure. That's not a very good place for it.

There is no reason you can't average your development. Then, we can have a solid exposure and rely on choice of our paper grade or vc filter to accommodate the resulting differences in the slopes of the curves. Placing the shadows, then choosing a development time isn't really very hard to do. if this scene calls for -1, and that scene +1, the average is normal. If this scene calls for normal, and that one +2, the average is +1. If this scene needs - 1, and that one needs +2, somewhere between normal and +1 would suffice. This accounts for all but the most unusual and rare circumstances. The paper grade choices we have available to us will easily accommodate the differences. You will find this method both in Adam's books and in MW's Zone System Manual.

Try it. I'd bet your results will improve right away, and you'll have a lot more fun printing.