Anyone Here Seriously Use the Zone System?

Discussion in 'Black and White' started by danac, Dec 31, 2020.

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  1. About 95% of my photographic endeavors is and has always been with black & white film. Using Canon manual focus SLRs from the '70s and early '80s has never lost the glow. Being a semi-serious amateur, for the last two and a half years I've gone back to developing my own film and prints after a hiatus of thirty-five years. My hero of course is Ansel Adams but he speaks a language that I only minimally comprehend. That is his and Minor White's Zone System.

    I strongly suspect that a useful understanding of the Zone System would make one capable of better negatives and prints. But every time I attempt to study the process, it bounces off my brain like a bug hitting a windscreen at 65mph. What are your thoughts about the application of this enigmatic system?
  2. I shot film from the late 60's until digital came along for me in about 2004. What Adams did was quantify a process of exposing and developing the negative in a way that would capture a printable range of values on print paper. It boils down to "expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights." For example, if you want good shadow detail in a scene that has very bright areas as well, your best bet is to make sure you are exposing enough to get the shadow detail, but that will almost always over expose the bright areas. Therefor you compensate for this overexposure by under-developing, which effectively thins out the bright areas without losing the shadows. The zone system just puts numbers on these values so you can be more precise in your exposure and developing. It helps to have a spot meter so you can get accurate numbers on both the highlights and the shadows. An averaging meter just does that, and it will usually underexpose when there is a large brightness range to keep the highlights from blowing out. Hope that helps.
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  3. IMO, the zone system is best for large format where you can tailor the development shot by shot. It's way less useful for 35 mm and other roll films. I like Adams but suggest people would be better off understanding basic sensitometry. Long ago I tried to learn the zone system with the original Minor White Zone System book and thought it was dreadful and made things too complicated. Not a good place to start, at least for me. Previsualization, however, is a very useful tool.
  4. AJG


    When i shot a lot of B&W 4x5 I used the zone system for all of it. Once learned, I found it useful in analyzing lighting and exposure for other formats as well. While roll film doesn't allow for changing developing of individual frames the zone system does help with knowing how film (or digital sensors, for that matter) reacts to light and what to expect for results. The zone system is most importantly a way of naming the tones that will be present in the final print. Knowing this can help a lot with choosing ow to expose your film or digital images.
  5. Vincent Peri

    Vincent Peri Metairie, LA

    I only shoot 35mm, but when I had my own darkroom decades ago, I sort of used the Zone System (and still do whenever I can get out to shoot). What I did was find the most important zone in a given photo opportunity and expose for that. The other zones fell where they might. It worked pretty well for me - I rarely had blown highlights or blocked up shadows.
  6. Sort of.

    In the old days when I was shooting 4x5, I did meter highlights and 'blacks', but not so seriously as the real thing.

    In digital photography, we have developed a new system == The Ozone System. :rolleyes:
    The Ozone System: Photoshop Shadow/Highlight
    peter_fowler likes this.
  7. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    Henricvs likes this.
  8. As above, it seems to be more useful for sheet film, or at least small rolls, where you can develop specifically for each exposure.
    (If you take a whole roll with the same lighting, it should still work.)

    Otherwise, I have always liked Diafine, a compensating developer, which is supposed to be able to bring up the shadows without overdoing the highlights.

    If the situation comes up where I have both dark shadows and bright highlights in the same shot, I find the exposure somewhere between the two.
    sjmurray likes this.
  9. SCL


    For me understanding the zone system concepts helped me better visualize rhe results of my exposure choices. Never fully employed all aspects of the system though, as most of my shooting was 35mm instead of sheet film.
    sjmurray and robert_bowring like this.
  10. I think it's worth considering that AA's most famous and, arguably, best prints were made long before he started teaching and developing (sorry!) the Zone system as an 'aid' to his students.

    Adams was also apparently critical of the technique of Dorothea Lange. Of which I'll let you draw your own conclusions after comparing Adams' portraits with the like of 'Migrant Mother'.

    That's not to diminish Adams' superb landscapes in any way, but I think we need to separate Adams' body of pictorial work from his promotion of the Zone system.
  11. Seems to me that this is the not so serious use of the zone system.

    Thinking about the dynamic range of a scene, but not putting numbers (zones) to it.

    I am in a discussion somewhere else, about the problems of teaching math and especially getting students to think about how to solve problems.
    If the zone system, even not so serious, gets someone to think about dynamic range, how it gets into the negative, and then the print, then it worked.
    Even if they don't do it "seriously".

    Using a camera in manual mode (or a manual only camera) gets one to think, just a little bit, about the exposure.
    Which parts are more important, which parts less. Auto modes make it easy to forget about these things.
    q.g._de_bakker likes this.
  12. I basically learned photography in manual mode as there was no automation that worked very well but often I had to very quickly decide which part of an image I wanted and it was often in a quickly changing situation. No time to think about it, just do it! These days I spend at least a little more time weighing the options and actually would like to learn the zone system.

    Rick H.
  13. I imagine it would as well. But, I try to keep in mind something Adams said ...

    “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!”

    So, the zone system, however it's used, is not an end in itself and wouldn't seem to drive the train as much as guide it along the tracks. It's the eyes, the emotions, the gut, and the imagination that will ultimately create the most memorable and significant photos. The support of technique can be invaluable but always, IMO, as support.

  14. Vincent Peri

    Vincent Peri Metairie, LA

    Hi Rick,

    The Zone System is fairly easy to learn the basics. If you go ahead and buy my 20 f/3.5 lens, I'll send you my much-used copy of Zone VI Workshop by Fred Picker.

    There are a number of other books on the Zone System, but the book above will get you started.
    robert_bowring likes this.
  15. FWIW, in 50 years of photography, and having formal education in such for a couple years, I've never met anybody who actually used the formal/detailed zone system out in the real world, making images. It's a good teaching tool but I think once people learn the principles, they outgrow the need for it or find it too slow and cumbersome.
  16. The book I have been studying on and off is: The Practical Zone System For Film and Digital Photography by Cris Johnson. I have learned much from him but not enough to be convinced that the system works well with roll film. The Ansel Adams quote is a familiar one. Whether behind the lens or in the darkroom I always proceed as if the master was looking over my shoulder. There is a photo of him on the wall of my darkroom.The same goes for the piano when playing his favorite composer Alexander Scriabin's preludes and etudes. On Monday a new/old Canon FTb-N will arrive. It is my first manual only camera since the Pentax Spotmatic was stolen in 1979. That is a camera that will once again enable more intimacy with exposures. Can't wait! This has been exactly the fine discussion that I hoped for.
  17. And yet you persist in using 35mm film?
    I'm pretty sure that the face over your shoulder would be frowning!
    danac likes this.
  18. I doubt Adams would waste his time frowning about what particular equipment or medium someone was using. Instead, I imagine, or at least hope, he'd be looking at the photos.
  19. I suspect that if Ansel Adams ever handled a 35mm camera, it was to prop up the leg of a 10x8 camera tripod to prevent it sinking into a patch of mud.
  20. You'd be wrong. Adams used small format (35 mm) a lot.
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