Zone System with Color

Discussion in 'Medium Format' started by gerald_di_giampaolo, Feb 25, 1999.

  1. After studying the Zone System as much as I could without actually practicing, I purchased a Zone VI modified Pentax Spotmeter. I like the simplicity of use without a lot of unnecessary features. I didn't have any difficulty differentiating between gray tones. However, I was having difficulty placing colors in the proper zones. I purchased an 18% gray card, and collected a series of paint color chip samples to cover the color spectrum. Using the gray card as my standard and the Pentax Spotmeter, I properly placed the colored paint chips in the correct zones. I ended up with a laminated color cheat sheet for using the zone system. I use it to place colors in the proper zone. For a beginner like me, I think it will help. For example, I didn't know that yellow was in zone 6, and purple in zone 4. I shoot mostly color transparancies, so I'll be putting this to the test. By the way, I received my first set of Velvia color transparencies (6x6). Aside from the few exposure mistakes I made, it is as some
  2. As you know, the zone system is NOT about placing some shade of grey into the "right" zone, but it is about combining film exposure and film development to place different shades of grey into different zones. This can be adapted to some extend to color work, but is limited because of color-crossover if developer times are changed too much. Whether a Zone VI modified spot meter (which is corrected for differences in brightness levels of different colors when using balck and white film) can be used to improve the accuracy of your color work, is an interesting question and it would be great to hear from photographers who use it this way. Just be aware that this has little to do with the "zone system".
  3. You might want to check out for the "chroma-zone" system. I've always been a bit skeptical of attempts to sell a color version of the zone system, since essentially you can't modify development much without screwing up the color. Most of the "color zone systems" seem to boil down to "get the exposure right", which to me hardly seems to me to be worthy of the title "zone system".
  4. Gerald,

    Do not be put off in your pursuit of the zone system for color. A
    system is a system and if it can be adapted to another purpose then
    this is more useful than worrying about preserving the purity of the
    original concept. I have been using a zone system approach (I will
    not call it "The Zone System") for some months for my color
    transparency work. I have no control over the processing steps so
    those aspects of the original "System" do not apply. However, more so
    than in any other style of photography, it is important to get
    exposure correct on color transparencies. And I find that using a
    zone approach is very useful. With a spot meter, I can place
    critical features in their appropriate zone and then see where the
    others will fall. If you keep critical shadows above zone 3 and
    critical highlights under zone 8, I find that I have a well-balanced
    transparency that prints well. My quest for better exposure was
    aided by purchasing a Hasselblad 205FCC with its built in zone
    metering and spot-meter. I apologise in advance if my methods upset
    Zone System purists but it works for me. I do not think that Ansel
    would mind.
  5. It's a lot of work if you ask me for minimum results.

    Unless you're running E-6 yourself it makes as much sense to get this critical with color as it does to use zone system for B/W and take your film to a commercial lab.

    I'm curious to see how zone system would compensate for phosphor brighteners in various color materials, or the replenishment rate of the E-6 line that day, or the human eye's non-linear response to color intensity, or that Fuji Velvia isn't no where near a high fidelity medium producing colors that don't don't exist in the original scene.

    Zone is a great technique for controlling production variables and gaining absolute control for photograph reproduction. But considering that chromes by them-sleves are only an intermediate step in that reproduction chain how is Zone going to apply to the final print medium and how are you going to control it?

  6. While you can't truly use the Zone System with color photography in it's pure sense...just KNOWING the Zone System will help quite a bit. I recommend people just starting out in photography to learn the Zone System, even if they're going to be using color mainly.

    The reason is this. Learning the Zone System teaches you exposure and film lattitudes etc. Pre-visualization of a scene can go a long way in improving your photography. While you don't have the control over an excessivly contrasty scene as you do in B&W, you can see where certain values will fall with certain exposures. Sure, you could blindly auto-bracket a scene, or you can know beforehand where certain values will fall and deal with them BEFORE you take the picture...which in my opinion will serve you better.

    Also, you state that you're having trouble placing colors in proper zones. This isn't really the zone system you know. The zone system doesn't look for middle gray to start out with. I don't look at a scene and say to myself "ok...what zone is that tone in". I make a decision to place tones in zones that I want. You said that "I didn't know that yellow was in zone 6". Well, it's NOT in zone 6. You just metered it that way. If you want, it can be in zone 5, or 3 or 2 or whatever zone you wish to place it in. What if the yellow was in deep shadow? Would you still place it on zone 6....then blowing out the rest of the scene? Every scene is different. The same thing happens with a neutral gray card also. Just reading the card means's like an incident light meter, which can be fooled quite a bit. Take a reading with the gray card in deep shadow, and everything is overexposed, take it in the bright sunlight, and everything is underexposed. You have to use your brain and pre-visualize the scene.

    It sounds like you haven't really learned the Zone System all the way through. Go to the library and check out Ansel Adams' book "The Negative". No, it has no color techniques in it, but it will explain the exposure end of the Zone System and what to look for and WHY you're looking for certain things.

    Good luck!
  7. I had some time to think about this and I feel my previous reply was imcomplete. I tried to focus on particular aspect and should have looked at the broader picture.

    From a technical standpoint I look at color images in 3-ways; density/contrast, color, and a combination of the two. Even though Zone system would be incredibly difficult to apply to a color space it would have some application to the density range of color materials, even though it would be difficult to control. In fact it's the complex color interaction that screws everything up.

    My first experience with photography was fine art B/W reproduction. Basic Zone, Ansel Adam's, fiber based papers, the whole nine yards. I found that when I moved into the color field these past skills gave me a big advantage in the game and a serious leap on color theory because I couldn't be distracted as much by pretty, unrealistic colors. I see no reason why you can't evaluate a color paper or film via a Zone technique for tonal range and contrast, in fact, it should be done more often. Too much emphasis is placed on the color aspect of both slide, negative and color papers resulting in crude abstractions just to get attention from viewers. Anybody who has been following my posts in knows I've been blasting the film/paper manufacturers for trying to slip inferiour materials to the consumer by distracting them with macbeth charts and un realistic color saturation. If applying some form of Zone gets a you a better handle on predicting and evaluating materials by all means go for it.

  8. Charles Campbell's "Chroma-zone" system as referenced in Bob Atkins response is the answer to your question. Yes, it is not a true "Zone System" in the Ansel Adams sense, but it is what you are looking for if you are shooting transparency film. Check his website. If you want to read a good description of the system stroll down to your local bookstore (or order from his book called "The Backpacker's Photography Handbook". It has a chapter describing the system.
  9. I received quite an array of responses; I think I should clarify what my objective was in attempting to apply some Zone Sytem principles to metering colors. I placed the gray card and the collection of paint chips in the same light. Placing the gray card in Zone 5, I then metered all the paint chips. Based on the EV value of each chip, I then placed that color in the appropriate zone; using the gray card as a relative measure in Zone 5. My premise was: under a given set of lighting conditions, into which zones will the different colors fall, if I place medium gray in Zone 5. I ended up with what I called a "cheat sheet" (an exposure guide). I shot some outdoor murals this weekend using this system. I did meter that color in the highlight area in which I wanted to maintain detail. If the results reveal anything, I'll report back. I do appreciate the advice and recommendations on some additional reading. By the way, I read Ansel Adam's "The Negative" several times and "The Practical Zone System" by C
  10. Gerald,

    1. Congratulations on being resourceful enough and interested enough in what you are doing to make a way to start understanding color.

    2. If you think being able to translate a scene from color into monochrome would be an advantage and help you learn, then I would suggest purchasing a monochromatic viewing filter. These can be ordered through a local camera store or purchased from Calumet Photographic. Calumet has a web site and the viewing filter is a catalog #ZN5200. If you order through the local camera store, ask for a "Peak" (manufacturer) monochromatic viewing filter. Either filter is essentially a Wratten #90 and will translate the colors into shades of grey for you to view. Use it by "flicking" it in front of your eye and then out. If you stare through it for prolonged periods of time, your eye will adjust, and you will begin to see some color.

    3. Pay no attention to the self styled "experts" who tell you that the Zone System is not for color, or doesn't work for color, or is a waste of time. It is their own self imposed limits, lack of imagination, or pedantic application of the Zone System that causes them to say this.

    Minor White wrote a book called the "Zone System Manual." The first edition of this book was published in 1946. Minor was a great proponent of the Zone System, and held many work shops for many years dedicated to applying the Zone System for creative expression in photography. Coincidently, Minor is considered an influential force in photography and one of the masters of 20th century black and white photography.

    The Zone System was developed to allow a photographer to see (in the mind)the final result prior to exposure. Ansel Adams called it, "visualization." Minor White called it, "previsualization." Edward Weston called it, "the flame of recognition." Cartier-Bresson called it, "the decisive moment."

    Whatever you call it - it is that moment when observation becomes "seeing." When you see more than just what is being observed. The Zone System provides a method of translating "seeing" into a final print. You can still use the principles of the Zone System to accomplish this translation with color materials as the Zone System was created to take the photographic materials used into consideration as part of the total visualization process.

    To quote Minor White on the use of color materials and the Zone System; "Through the restricted development control limits the possibilities of the material, this does not hinder previsualization. Previsualization, as was said, is always done according to the nature of the film in the camera and the photographic printing paper in the dark room."

    "Previsualization stands for the act of looking at a scene with the physical eye and seeing in the mind's eye how a medium can render a subject."

    If this sounds like what you want to do -- then the Zone System will work for you.

    In color, the Zone System will allow you to evalute a scene and make the exposure as you "see it," while taking into account the photographic materials you are using. It cannot provide the "elastic" control of tonal rendering that is available with black and white materials, but you can still use the basic methods to provide control of the color materials and make them respond to your visualizaton.

    When you use the Zone System there are distinct steps that are followed.

    1. Observation/evaluation (looking at the subject and evaluating the luminance range).

    2. Visualization (how do you want the final print to look).

    3. Exposure (how to expose the film to render your visualization, including the use of filters).

    4. Development (how is the film developed to render you visualization. With black and white this means "Normal" "Normal + (over development) or "Normal -" (under development). With color film you are mostly limited to "Normal" as plus or minus causes color shifts and doesn't really change contrast all that much. You can also "cross process" the film (E6 film in C41 or the opposite).

    5. Printing (choice of print material)

    You can certainly use steps 1-3 every time you make a photograph. Step 4 may be applicable if you want to cross process or push process. Step 5 is also applicable as the choice of final print material influences the type of film used; and some color print materials allow a choice of contrast grades.

    How do you use the Zone System with color? Observe the subject. Evaluate the subject and note the differences in luminance values (EV numbers on your meter). Each change in EV number (up or down) equates to 1 stop and one shade of grey. (Remember experts, we are talking about the relationship of the luminance values of the scene and not their final relationship if black and white film is over/under developed).

    Visualize the final print. Identify the "key tone" in the subject. For example, in a portrait this might be the skin (highlight or shadow is your decision). In a landscape it would be the main subject. Decide what Zone value you want your "key tone" rendered. Place the key tone EV value across from the red arrow on your spot meter.

    This will "place" the value at 18% grey or Zone V. If you want it to be Zone VI, give one stop more exposure, (rotate the EV dial up one Zone value); if you want it to be Zone IV give one stop less exposure (rotate the EV dial down one Zone value), etc. etc.

    If you have metered the entire range of the scene, when you "place" your key tone at the Zone value you want, you can then evaluate where the other subject EV values will "fall," which will then tell you what Zone value they will be rendered at. In color, this equates to color saturation and detail of the areas associated with the EV number.

    Now, go make photos.


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