zone system and B&W film

Discussion in 'Medium Format' started by debra_rozin, Aug 5, 1999.

  1. Hi all-
    I am interested in a short description of and opinions about the
    zone system for B&W film. I have read fairly technical descriptions
    as well as qualitative ones (ie-expose for shadows, develop for
    highlights) and am looking for a practical approach (I do not have a
    spot meter). I would much appreciate your sharing your experiences
    using this technique. Also, any useful references would also be
    appreciated. Thanks. Deb, Cleveland
  2. I've read a lot of books on this and I do have a spot meter. The stuff works if you're willing to spend time on the test etc. The two things I find of greatest value are 1) reccognizing the different zones (that takes some time) and 2) the whole process of looking at a scene and deciding what is the most important part of the image, and what relation it holds to the other parts. Zone system is more mental than equipment.
  3. Greetings,

    The answer you seek is not a simple one. First, are you developing your own film? If not then you're relying on the consistency of a lab, which in my opinion is far from consistent.

    About a year ago, Shutterbug magazine ran a series of articles by Woody Waters, that detailed a method of using the Zone system and calibrating ones equipment. You can probably find out which issues those articles appeared through Shutterbug's WEB site.

    There is also a wealth of info on the WEB regarding the Zone system. Try some searches using B&W photography as the search string. If you need more assistance I can provide some URL's; I just don't have them handy right now. Good Luck!
  4. Debra, try this. If the scene you are photographing is contrasty,ie: distinct shadows,etc. Expose your film at half the ISO rating, if it is 400 ISO, expose at 200 ISO. Then develop the film for 75% of the recomended time. If you are photographing a low contrast scene, cloudy day or in full shade, expose the film at the recomended ISO and develop for 50% longer than recomended. If the results are OK, you will have have most of the benefits of the Zone system. You can experiment a little, but in general, high contrast scenes require more exposure and less development, while low contrast scenes require less exposure and more development. Exposure determines the density of the negative and development determines the contrast. Good luck.
  5. Two book recommendations:

    "The Negative" - Ansel Adams.

    "Landscape Photography" - John Shaw.

    The difference is Adams uses "zones," and Shaw works in "stops." Shaw is geared more towards color (Zones III->VII), but his concepts are still valid for B&W. I think both methods are two sides of the same coin.

  6. Many people use it, but to a greater or lesser degree. It is very important to develop some sense of how the different areas in your scene will map onto the tones available on your film. You need to be able to anticipate how your exposure and development decisions will affect the resulting negative and for that, the zone system is helpful. Adjusting your contrast makes much better use of your film, although this ability has become a little less important with the advent of variable-contrast papers, which let you more easily adjust contrast in the darkroom.
    The biggest limitation for many people is that you can have only one contrast on each roll of film. It is a easier in large format because each exposure is on a separate sheet. In medium format, you typically need one film back for each contrast range. For each type of film, you might want N+, 0, and N- backs. That arrangement may or may not fit with the way you like to work. I imagine most people using small or medium format cameras end up making their own compromises.
  7. Hi Debra, When I was really into the Zone system I would use up to three film backs. One for normal, one plus and one minus. Then develop them all different etc. etc. Needless to say I DON'T do this any more. Truthfully, whatever books you read, the ZS is a BIG project. Beside the Ansel Adams book there is a very good book called ZONE SYSTEM by John P. Schaefer, he goes into using a medium format system with multiple film backs etc. Unfortunately I really don't believe there is any way to water this down. Either your using the ZS or your not. Presently I am using the same exposure methods as for color print film which for me is exposing for a medium shadow and letting everything else fall where it may. Well ther are my thoughts, Good Luck!
  8. Debra, Get a spot meter amd all Zone System mysteries will become clear. You can't use the Zone System effectively without a spot meter, and it is very difficult to understand the Zone System until using a apot meter. After one or two weeks with a spot meter you'll understand how and why to apply Zone System techniques.
  9. Hi Deb:
    Well you've dusted off another area of my mind and one I'm beginning to play with again. Ditto's on spotmeter. Several are designed to work nicely with Zones. Calibrate the meter with your camera shutter, film and development etc. The books mentioned as references are excellent. You must plan on developing your own film and probably print it as well. Patience and study are required when critiquing your work. Take notes. You may want to get a Peak Monotone Filter for previewing a scene. $50 at B&H. Zones work, yet I've seen many works of B&W masters that are excellent and they don't "use" the Zone System. They develop a way of seeing or visualizing that works for their needs. Any investment you make in learning this system will benefit you for color too. I've recently regained my desire to do B&W and noticed an immediate boost in successful exposures in color transparencies. But I rattle on . . . Best of luck! Have fun!
  10. Debra, the zone system doesn't depend on equipment for execution, but does, as some of the posters have mentioned, lend itself to some equipment and subjects better than others. Ansel shot a naturally static aspect of the world, and could develop each negative individually. I used the three back system for a while then realized that I would often burn up a roll anyway on a subject or in a lighting situation, so the three back approach became less used as I gained practical experience.

    It's important to recognize that the zone system is really a way of exerting creative control over a process - exposure and development - that is going to happen, whether you control it or not. You can chant "expose for the shadows" over and over while shooting, and "develop for the highlights" while trying to perfect your wrist flick when agitating the film tank to obtain a streak-free agitation pattern, but unless, as one poster implied, you incorporate that technical control in service of your own personal visualization, then what's all the fuss about and why not truck your film down to the lab? Rules of thumb like some that have been posted are both handy and a little dangerous if you're not cognizant of the underlying photochemical processes.

    By the way, spot meters are nice when you can't step up to a subject - I do own one - but they often meter no lower than EV 1 and that might make a difference to you.
  11. I'm a heretic: I switched to T400CN; expose for the shadows, develop for the convenience <g>.

    Sorry--I totally respect zone system adherents. But the new "chromogenic" B&W films (processed in C-41 chemistry) are pretty cool. T400CN is amlost grain-free in 6x6, in striking contrast to Tri-X.

    Modern film and paper stocks have gotten much more latitude than when the zone system was originally developed. I wonder if anyone has considered how this system can be used with newer films?
  12. I am 100% with Gary. Although my technique is put the brightest highlight eg clouds, on zone viii and leave it at that...
  13. Debra, there have been several interesting answers to your question and though I can't comment on the C-41 process B&W films, if you are serious about B&W you should do some type of testing. In addition to being able to previsualize a scene, the Zone system provides a means for recording and printing an image that might not ordinarily be reproducible.

    A spot meter can be invaluable, for bot B&W and color, as it allows you to completely assess the scene. If you use filters, you can hold the filter over the spot meter and take a reading. (You can also use your B&W filters as a viewing aid instead of buying one.) You can take readings of highlight and shodow areas and know how many stops are between the two. Every film has a certain range, go beyond that and detail will be lost to black, or white. This is what the Zone system quantifies.

    Variable contrast paper makes printing some negatives easier, but properly exposed/developed negatives makes printing much, much easier. A really good printer can print almost anything, but at the expense of time, paper, etc.

    Until I did some testing, I was seriously underexposing my negatives because I was exposing them at the manufacturer's rated EI. Those negatives are printable, but I did experience some loss of shadow detail and they are difficult to print. Now that I've done some testing, my negatives are much easier to print. Good luck whatever you decide!
  14. hmmm .. great answers, and I have an appreciation for the zone system as most do. however, I am also struck with the fact that it is aligned with cumbersome cameras, individual negative processing and control, and becomes a philosophical ideal at some point. convince me, that three shot bracketing will not result in a closer approximation of the most accurate exposure, with the consideration that I have multiple exposure on a roll of film, and have little overall control of developing adjustments.

    I prefer this method, and direct my concentration on other photographic issues that have greater influence on the final outcome.
  15. Daniel's point is well taken. Zone system can be cumbersome, but also is a learning process offering various benefits. Other posts regarding C-41 B&W films are valid. I've used them and they offer latitude and excellent range of exposure. Caveat - C-41 negs are not as "archival" as regular B&W negs.
  16. As my mother once said: If you don't know, look it up in a book. So, let me clear something up on this old thread because people still read these forums. Below is a direct quote from Ansel Adams found in Chapter 4 - The Zone System in his book "The Negative"

    "...we define a one-stop exposure change as a change of one zone on the exposure scale, and the resulting gray in the print is considered one value higher or lower on the print scale."


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