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Saturday, October 25

The Zone System and why you might like to ignore it


Guest Post by David M.


Sooner or later, most photographers will hear about the Zone System. If you have a new and wonderful digital camera, and you are happy with what you send to Facebook, read no more. Carry on with what makes you happy. We are happy for you. No, really. We like to be happy ourselves.

Now that almost everybody has gone, we can continue. The Zone system is intended to make life easier. If it makes your life harder, ignore it up and grow marrows instead. A perfect marrow is a thing of great beauty and charm. You can no more eat a prize-winning marrow than you can eat a photograph.

This little essay isn’t going to tell you How To Do It. It will take you up into a high place and show you all the Zones of the World and how they can help you while you are taking photographs. The ideas behind the Zone System can help all kinds of photographers in all kinds of photography, because it is flexible. It is not like the Law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. Like the bowl of sugar next to your cup of tea, you can take as much or as little as you please.

Ten Shades of Grey

Nobody seems to mention the first great advantage of the system. It enables you to give names to different shades of grey. You don’t need to resort to “Quite dark but not actually black” or “Light-ish, but not really white” or “Sort of average”. Nor do you have to speak in logarithms. This is convenient for conversations about printing, but hardly earth shattering. It has to offer more.

The Zone System divides the world into different greys, called zones, each representing a particular shade of grey. Each zone differs from the lighter or darker zone next to it by one stop, which is a familiar unit to most photographers.

Zone Zero is entirely black on the print, from a part of the negative that is entirely clear, just like the unexposed edges. Zone Ten is entirely white on the print and shows where the negative is so dense that no light can get through.

The other zones are spread out equally between them from very dark to very light.

There are probably too many confusing numbers in photography already, so the Zone System uses Roman numerals, like kings and queens, so that Zone Five is Zone V, Zone Three is Zone III, Zone Seven is Zone VII and so on. This is supposed to be helpful but no harm will come if you write Zone 8 or even Z8. The Romans were remarkably ingenious, but they seem to have missed photography and we can safely ignore them.

The second step in making a photograph, after finding and selecting the scene, is usually to measure the light falling on it and reflected towards the camera, often by letting the camera do it for us. We can also guess, look it up in a table, or use a separate exposure meter. We are the Meter People.

Meter Made

Your meter is a very clever thing, but it’s designed to measure ordinary scenes. It assumes that you are recording something ordinary, like your nice family, with the nice family dog, standing in your nice garden on a not-too-bright, but not-too-dull sort of day. It assumes that all this scene will have some black, some white with some dark and light greys, and if you were to average all these tones together, it would come out as a middling sort of grey.

In zone-speak, middle grey is called Zone V (five). The meter calibration assumes that you won’t want to do black cats on black leather chairs or brides in the snow. Nevertheless, these things do exist, and you might want to photograph them. Cats are very photogenic. So are many brides. We will want the bride’s dress and the snow to look white, but we still want to see all the details of the embroidery and stitching. We shall want the cat to look convincingly black, but black and furry. Making the dress totally white in the print will not be satisfactory. If the snow totally is white the print will look very odd indeed.

So, how can we get the dress exactly right?

We shall meter just the dress by itself and decide how it should appear in the final print. Experience (perhaps other peoples’ experience) tells us that the texture of the white dress will be shown best if it is placed at about Zone VII (seven), and the white textured snow will be much the same. We can see that Zone VII is two stops brighter than the Zone V that the meter assumes, so it will need two more stops of exposure and so we open up the lens by two stops from the meter reading (or change the shutter speed) and take the picture. We might, from our own experience, think we’d prefer the dress to be on Zone VIII (8 – very light grey) and we can do that in the same way; we’d give three stops more exposure than the meter’s Zone V reading. All other things being equal, the dress should print very nicely.

If the bride happened to be standing with a background of bright clouds, we might decide to create an arty silhouette, but still keep some detail in the dress. Perhaps the dress should be a bit darker than middle grey – perhaps Zone IV. So, once again, we measure the dress itself, and this time, we reduce the exposure from V to IV, one stop less.

Pseuds' Corner

We have just taken our first two steps in the Zone system. First, we have “visualised” (some people say pre-visualised) what we want in the final print and second, we have “placed” an important part of the scene on the zone we want to see in the final print.

Many clever people are able to do this “add two stops” stuff in their heads, but the more stupid and clumsy among us find it difficult: I am one. I have put a little sticker on my meter, with the Zones marked on it, one stop apart. Then when I want to “place” something on Zone III or VI, I simply point, click and twiddle the meter in the usual way, then read off the exposure against the Zone that I’m aiming for. This means I can concentrate on making better mistakes.

Up to now, we’ve ignored the groom, standing there in his smart dark wedding suit, with his black top hat. We can use the same methods to ensure that we record some details in the groom’s elegant suit.

This will lead us on to the next part of the Zone System.

Once again, we meter just the thing we’re interested in – the dark suit itself. We’ll want to see the shape of the lapels and the nice crease in the trousers.

Experience tells us that we shall just about see these details if we place them on about Zone III. Zone III is two stops less than Zone V so we reduce the exposure reading of the suit by two stops. The suit will print nicely, too. If it’s not such a very dark suit, we might choose to place it on Zone IV and we know how to do that – only one stop less.

Now we know how to get a picture of the bride, in her white dress and we know how to get the groom in his dark suit, but what if we want them together in the same picture? We might be lucky, and the same exposure works well for both. Often we shall find that one exposure won’t capture the important dark bits and the important light bits at the same time.

When too dense = too bright

We could just let it go and put up with whatever we get or we could do something about it. The next part of the Zone System will help. We shall adjust our development of the film.

Two things make film go dark: the amount of light and the amount of development. The more of either, the darker will be that part of the negative and the lighter the print. It’s wise to think about the zones in the print and not fuss about what the negative looks like. Some people can get very excited about negative densities. You can get excited later.

It’s probable that the exposure we measured for the elegant dark suit will be too much for the white dress and the snow. Normal development will make those parts of the negative too dark and in the print they might appear as blank white paper. We don’t want that.

(Today, there are other ways of getting round this problem. They are very useful, but we are trying to make a better negative, which will make our life easier, in the darkroom, later on. All photographic hints and tips seem to be about making the next step easier. Zones can make life easier for the scanner, too.)

Back to the picturesque churchyard and the charming couple. To get the details we want in the dark suit, we must give it enough exposure. If we don’t give enough, the suit will simply print as a solid black, making the groom look like a cardboard cut-out. Few brides want a cardboard husband (Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 often has detailed advice on what women want in a husband.)

We can’t make up for blank bits on the negative in the darkroom so we have to stick with this exposure. However, if we choose to develop the film for less time, the highlights will be less dense. Consequently they will print more easily to show the detail that we want to see in the dress. Zone System photographers do some testing to get it right. We’re not going to describe those tests here because there’s something else to learn and it is probably the most important thing. We are going to ignore the instructions on the box of film.

Not so fast

The film speed that you find on a box of film is very accurately measured, by very clever people. But they are not you and they are not taking your photographs for you. Remember those nice people (and the dog) in their nice garden? It’s intended for them. You’re probably not quite so nice, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You might not even have a dog.

Zone system photographers can become obsessed with shadow detail. Our experience of seeing is that when we look around a scene and into the shadows, details seem to appear as our eyes adjust. Then, when we look at bright objects, our eyes adjust again, and we see detail there as well. A print with some detail in both shadows and highlights is closer to our actual experience of seeing, so it’s worth trying to capture both.

There are reasons for this. Firstly, it’s more difficult for our eyes to see details in the dark areas of a print, so to reproduce what we think we see, we need to help them a bit. More importantly, film doesn’t record small differences in very dark tones as well as it records them in the middle tones. Even though some dark detail may be recorded, it can be difficult to print. Any help we can give is welcome.

We’ve just learned that we can preserve details in the lightest parts of the picture, by adjusting film development, but how can we be sure to capture the darkest parts in our picture of the groom or our black cat? We don’t want a cardboard cat any more than we want a cut-out bride. We are going to set a different film speed on our meter.

Zone System photographers do tests, supposedly to check the film speed given on the box and establish what’s called a Personal Exposure Index. This doesn’t mean that the box is wrong. It means that it’s not perfectly suited to you and your photography.

Bespoke Photography

This has advantages, because testing with your own equipment, methods and personal quirks compensates for all sorts of little variables and reduces them to one handy number. You don’t have to remember that your meter might read a bit high or that your shutter might run a bit slow, or whatever; it’s all taken into account. Most people seem to find that they rate the film about one stop slower than the number on the box, but this isn’t a rule and you may differ.

At the same time, this testing establishes the best development time for the kind of negative you like to print. The dedicated Zone System photographer also learns how to change development times to cope with scenes with very high contrast, like the wedding dress and the groom’s suit, or with very low contrast like our cat in the coal cellar.

This is called expansion and contraction. The different up and down steps are called plus and minus development and you might come across Minus One or Plus Two (-1 or +2) and so on, depending on the number of stops that the photographer believes the highlights have been changed. This would be a
useful thing to know when photographing the bride in her white dress with the brilliant white clouds behind her and the groom by her side. It will certainly be useful for your photogenic black cat on your lovely Eileen Gray chair.

If you do a web search for Zone System, you will be deluged with information on how to do all this, much of it interesting and some of it useful. If it seems a bit overwhelming, or you spot the word densitometer, go out and take some pictures until you feel better.

If anyone tells you that any of this is wrong, agree immediately and listen to them politely, as they are probably right. Look at their prints before you follow their advice.

5 comments :

Regular Rod said...

Very enjoyable read. If using a meter it might be better to consider the light reflected off the subject rather than the light falling onto it.

If using roll film and wanting to make photographs of more than one subject in more than one set of lighting conditions, compensating developers can make life very easy indeed because it is only necessary to use part of the Zone system to get good results. Simply expose for the shadow details (your dark suited bridegroom) and then let the compensating development take care of the highlights, usually via a semi-stand or stand regime of agitation during the development of the negatives.

David M said...

Regular Rod is quite right.
I could have been clearer, but I thought I'd try to avoid spot meters and incident domes in case I frightened the horses. Perhaps I should have remembered that I was writing for photographers, not jockeys.
Yes, we would normally choose to measure the light reflected from the trousers or the dress using a reflected light meter.
Compensating developers and multigrade printing have made the Zone system somewhat less essential, although it's still a useful thing to carry around in one's head.

Folker said...

A very good read!
Hope there is another article to follow on the "right" development...

Anonymous said...

I really didn't get it until I was shown a spot meter that had a digital panel on the side showing the different meter readings. Then everything fell into place - which 2 stops more or less meant and how development could extend or contract things.

clicknroll said...

very well written. though my Zoneish is quite fluent, i enjoyed this article very much.