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Monday, May 13

35mm Zone System?

A while back I wrote an article (Zone System for Roll Film listed under the right hand column) about trying to get something approaching the zone system using 35mm film. The big problem, of course, is that you can't give separate frames - or even groups of frames shot under the same conditions - individual treatment when it comes to development.

My solution was to meter as for the zone system to place important tones where you want them - basically, to ensure you get sufficient shadow detail where it's needed - and then use two-bath development to control highlight development so the brighter tones don't become blocked and unprintable.

However, I read something the other day that has made me change my mind, although I haven't tried it yet. This technique involves something that could seriously bugger up your camera if you're not careful so be warned and do so at your own risk!

Basically, if you're out shooting in bright sunshine, you meter to place your tones where you want them and take a note of the development necessary to control the highlights. The clever bit is that if the light is completely different the next time you're out with your camera and with the very same film in it - say it's dull and misty - you shoot a blank frame on the "B" setting (or, better still, "T" if you have it) before you start snapping and, while holding the shutter open (and with the mirror out of the way if you're using an SLR), you reach in through the lens throat and put a small and thin piece of sticky tape on the emulsion side of the exposed film frame. Close the shutter, meter for your tones and, again, make a note of the necessary development. This operation can be repeated again and again whenever the light changes sufficiently to merit different development.

When it comes to loading the completed film onto your spiral, you simply feel for the first bit of tape and cut through it with a pair of scissors. Peel off the tape and load and develop this first section according to your development notes. When it comes to the rest of the film, just locate the other pieces of tape, cut through them, load the individual sections of film and develop.

This might seem like a bit of a palaver but it's easier than shooting individual sheets of film using a 5x4 camera and the results, from a tone control point of view, can be pretty similar.

As I said earlier, I haven't yet tried this but I can't see why it wouldn't work. No doubt stationery stores will have tiny pieces of pre-cut tape available which would make the process quicker and easier. It could be used with 120 format SLR cameras as well but it isn't quite as efficacious since losing a couple of frames on a 12-exposure roll is expensive and it's quite possible to shoot the whole roll in one location anyway. 

The danger is that you accidentally release the shutter while your finger is inside the mirror box about to stick the tape on. If the shutter closes on your finger then you're very probably going to regret ever having read this post. You might get away with it with some shutters but there's every chance you will break your camera if it goes wrong. This isn't an issue with the process but with the operator! I suppose it's also possible with a battery-dependent camera that the juice might run out during the operation and close the shutter on your finger so be alert to that one as well.

I'm too lazy to use the sticky tape method with a proper zone system approach but I can see me using it to control tones in flat, normal and contrasty conditions*. Obviously, with flat conditions, you might want to extend development by, say, 20% to get a bit of pep into the negatives. Contrasty conditions might require a similar cut in development. You'd need to do you your own testing to work this out.

And think how much easier it would be when it comes to printing if your negatives have all the tones just where you want them.

* Another way of coping with flat, normal and contrasty conditions is by carrying three camera bodies each with the same film and clearly marked so that you can shoot, for example, all the low contrast shots on one camera and develop accordingly, etc.


Tassilo von Parseval said...

One immediate problem comes to mind: You will not be able to rewind the film back into the canister for obvious reasons. You will have to open the camera in the darkroom/changing back and retrieve the film without rewinding it. So far so good.

But, unmounting the lens, opening and keeping open the shutter while poking around inside the camera every time the development regime changes from the previous shot (each time of which you sacrifice one frame) sounds quite insane to me.

At this point it might be less of a hassle to acknowledge that rollfilm will always have downsides to shooting proper sheet film. The inability to properly use the zone system is one of them.

John Carter said...

I don't understand the tags, but I'll give it a try. I think it would work on a few of my cameras. And as I don't care about them I might give it try. I'll try those small sticky dots that students use.


Well, Tassilo, insane-sounding or not, it works perfectly well. I wrote this post about a week ago and scheduled it for publication yesterday. Since writing it, I've actually used the technique successfully. I can confirm that, with a small square of electrical tape stuck onto the emulsion in two points roughly 10 frames apart on a roll of Ilford Delta 100, the film rewinds normally into the cassette. In a changing bag, I reeled out the film from the cassette until I felt the tape and cut the first section off at that point. That section was loaded into my Paterson tank and developed. The rest of the film remained in the cassette.

It takes just a few seconds to remove a lens, open the shutter and stick the tape on. I can well understand some people being wary of this operation but I'm comfortable with it and would be happy to use it again. My purpose in using it was to be able to shoot three sections of ten identical frames under the same lighting conditions that could be developed in different developers for comparison purposes. This way, I could test three developers on identical frames under identical conditions on just one roll of film. However, if the practice strikes anyone as a bit dodgy then please don't try it!

John, I'll probably get some sticky dots as well for convenience. It would be best to get the thinnest possible for obvious reasons. If you do try it, it would be good to know how you got on.

Nick Jardine said...

Hi Bruce,

Long time reader, first time poster.

Thanks for the article, very interesting. Quick question, how were the other frames ? You didn't see any 'scratching' or such that could be caused by the tape when winding on ?

I think those little 'dot' stickers may be the way to go, I'd be worried about a cut piece of tape doubling over and sticking the film together.

Needless to say with my ham-fisted, sausage fingers that's exactly what i'd do.

Thanks again for all your articles Bruce, thoroughly appreciated.


The other frames were fine. There were no marks that I could see arising from the tape. The shutter is obviously open for a wee while when you're applying the tape so the exposed frame gets a good dose of light.

My concern was that this might spill over onto adjacent frames, especially since the act of sticking on the tape pushes against the film and might move it back slightly from the film gate. However, although there was a lttle light spill, it was only a mm or two outside the frame and didn't affect adjacent frames. It would nevertheless be wise to shield the camera from strong light when doing it.

DS Allen said...

When I used to do 35mm photography, I regularly used the sticky tape method (Magic tape being my preference) and have taught this system to a lot of people who have all used it very successfully. The main trick is to make sure that you rub down the tape very firmly.

The system can also be used to great effect (especially with 36 exposure films) when you only have one camera and want to change films (say to a different ASA or from colour to black and white) before you have used the whole roll. In this case, when you want to change films, you put the tape on the next blank frame (or wind on one frame more if your camera produces too much light spill), note the frame number and then rewind the film back in to the cassette, take it out and place the new film in the camera. Afterwards, you can either load the film and wind on to one frame more than you noted down when you took the film out or, in the darkroom, load the film on to a reel until you find the sticky take and then cut the film. Place your film in the tank and then write on the cassette how many frames you have left.

It is simple and works well.



Processing in the Past said...

Interesting and sounds extremely fiddly :-)
While there are a number of books that set out a zone system for 35mm film but many years ago I was told about a site by a friend run by the late Barry Thornton. A copy of the site and his thoughts on the zone system can be found here -
Gives another perspective on a difficult system to adapt to 35mm film.

Bruce Robbins said...

It does sound fiddly but it's very quick and easy in practice. I suppose the bottom line is that the zone system requires individual treatment of each negative so it can never really be used with roll film. But never mind, just think of all the great photographs that been taken by photographers who had no interest in the ZS. And then have a look at the very boring "fine prints" in Barry's books...

Anonymous said...

Bruce, I find it easier to load from a bulk film loader 12 exposure rolls! This is about what I shoot at one outing! Mark each roll with development notes! Makes it closer to using 6x7 on 120 Roll film! If the sun changes too much while I'm in the middle of my short roll and I need to catch a shot, I rewind and waste just a few frames! I almost never leave a roll in my camera anymore! This gives me the most control! Thanks for making me think! Bruce Baker