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  1. #1
    MatthewDunn's Avatar
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    Interested in (but currently confused by) the Zone System. Help?

    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?
    "Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur." - Alfred Eisenstadt

  2. #2

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    Matt,

    Your not the only one with that question

  3. #3
    LJH
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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. #4
    MattKing's Avatar
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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.
    Matt

    “Photography is a complex and fluid medium, and its many factors are not applied in simple sequence. Rather, the process may be likened to the art of the juggler in keeping many balls in the air at one time!”

    Ansel Adams, from the introduction to The Negative - The New Ansel Adams Photography Series / Book 2

  5. #5
    MatthewDunn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MattKing View Post
    Are you printing or are you scanning? I ask, because your printing procedure needs to be factored into the process.
    Ideally, both. But the focus first and foremost would be on wet printing.
    "Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur." - Alfred Eisenstadt

  6. #6
    Bill Burk's Avatar
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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/forum45/110840-lightmeter-sekonic-l-758dr-gossen-spotmeter.html

    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. #7

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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.

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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. #9

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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. #10
    markbarendt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MatthewDunn View Post
    Ideally, both. But the focus first and foremost would be on wet printing.
    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.
    Mark Barendt, Ignacio, CO

    "We do not see things the way they are. We see things the way we are." Anaïs Nin

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