The Online Darkroom Store

Friday, October 14

The Zone System is Dead - Discuss

Controversial, yes, but I'm glad I'm not the one having to defend the proposition! It's put forward by a guy called Johnny Patience who's obviously run out of the stuff as far as Ansel Adams and his cohorts are concerned. The thrust of the argument he makes on his blog is fine as far as I can see: you don't need the zone system to get decent results provided you never accidentally underexpose your colour print or black and white film.

Johnny relies on film's great latitude to produce acceptable prints from an emulsion that has been hit by what most would consider to be an overabundance of photons. He believes it's easier to produce prints from negs that have been overexposed and even overdeveloped into the bargain. This is nothing new really although it's presented as such.

Our favourite subject on this blog, Ralph Gibson, has made a career from doing the very same thing. I doubt Ralph has ever given the zone system much thought at all and it shows in his photos - in a good way in my opinion. Bruce Barnbaum also recommends placing shadow values higher up the exposure scale but I didn't get on too well with that when I tried it.

I found Johnny's post through this Rangefinder Forum topic which is worth a read if you have the time. There are some folk there somewhat upset at what he has to say. Take this exchange:
Originally Posted by faberryman
He "moderated" my follow-up post by deleting several of the questions I asked about his metering technique in the photos he posted as examples. He obviously either didn't know how to answer them or simply didn't want to answer them. What a joke.

Did the same thing with mine.
JP has no interest in anything except his own brand, and to bask in the warm glow emanating from the sycophant circle jerk that surrounds him.
Johnny's original post is here. If you have a read of it, it would be good if you returned to this post to leave your thoughts on Johnny's idea, either for or against, in the comments.


Frank said...

Yes, I read it a few days ago, but I don't what to think of it. Never tried it, not even unintentional, but maybe I will someday.

What really fascinates me, is the way this guy communicates with his wife. Looks like some kind of roll-playing.
Read the first and second comments. What do you think of that?

tjen dezutter said...

I've started to learn the principles of sensitometrie .It's a honnor to understand how light works on film emulsion . may'be it's foolisch-but I need it to understand the old technics like cyano ,vandycke-kallitype zerochrome ...
Lucky I 'vebought second hand the KODAKlearning book about sensitometry. A new world goes open ....

milldave said...

Dear Bruce,
A long time lurker here, just adding my two cents' worth.
If Johnny has read the Ansel Adams books, he will have seen that this is something Adams himself advocated, in terms of "slight" overexposure (my quote) and increased development.
It almost seems as though we're re-inventing the wheel for the wheel's sake; I would liken this to the digital advice to "Expose to the right" (ETTR).
Which is fine if you like to spend many hours post-processing or, in film terms, dodging and burning.
He seems to favour the high contrast type of scene; I wonder how he would get on with a dull, cloudy, Edmonton (Alberta) day, where everything is covered in 3-4 zones and it's hard to get anything meaningful WITHOUT overexposure and increased development!
However, I think young Johnny should be commended for simplifying Adams's Zone System to apply to 35mm and roll film; those of us who have been doing this intuitively over many years should not take offence, as he is merely reacting to the modern disease of having an attention span the size of a gnat's!
Courtesy of the sheer noise on the Internet!
I'm sure someone of your knowledge and esperience has already worked out their MO for black and white photography, which is very evident from your excellent submissions here.
Johnny's just one more voice clamouring to be heard, thinking he's doing something radical; as you point out earlier, he's not, but that won't stop him trying to shout louder than the herd.
I'm very glad you're back with the blog; one more oasis of quality in the Internet desert.

DougH said...

Carson Graves published "The Zone System for 35mm Photographers" (1997). I read it several years ago when I was only shooting 35mm, but now primarily shoot sheet film.
Of course there are several books on zone system for large format photographers including those by Minor white, and Jack Eggleston. Barnbaum's advice is good to ensure that you avoid thin negatives which lack information. But I've all too frequently over-exposed, and had to resort to farmer's reducer.

Robert Dungan said...

If the zone system is dead it is because no one wants to take the time and effort to really understand it and implement it in their photography. I am one of those. I recently read all three of Adams books and sort of understood. I also just read Alchemist's Guide to black and white photo chemistry by Grant M. Handgis. I understood the zone system better after reading his book. I picked by a copy of David Vestal's book the Craft of Photography in the local Goodwill store. The graph on page 48 brought it all home to me.

Vestal proposes experiments where you pick you camera, lens, and film and expose two rolls the same from extreme under exposure to extreme over exposure. In his case he used Kodak Trix. One roll is home developed one roll is sent to a lab for processing. You then print all of the negatives and compare them, only then can you tell the correct exposure for the camera, lens, film and paper combination. His conclusion was there is no best speed but a range of speeds that give you the best prints. In his case 200 to 50 for Trix. (This is vastly simplified version, Vestal takes many pages and numerous pictures to go over all of this).

Now my problem is I usually shoot roll film and use the camera meter, or, the Sunny 16 rule because I keep breaking light meters. I am cursed when it comes to hand held light meters. They all stop working on me. So, I decided to shoot a roll with images at box speed, one stop and two stops over exposed and then to print each negative. I have done this once and plan to do it again. So far I find that the prints from negatives one or two stops over exposed have better tones than at box speed. No big surprise.

Last Saturday I mistakenly loaded a roll of Arista.EDU 200 film in my Konica T4 with a yellow filter and set the meter at ISO 50 (two stops over exposed). Instead of altering development I developed at manufacturer recommended 6 minutes in straight XTOL. Negatives look good and the first print has a wide range of good tones.

I guess my conclusion is that the wide latitude black and white film has makes zone system unnecessary.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks for those comments, chaps. Very thoughtful contributions. I tried to leave a comment on Mr Patience's blog to the effect that it was interesting but hardly anything new. It's been moderated out of existence, it would appear. It seems he may not have the courage of his convictions.

DavidM said...

The Zone System does two things. Firstly, it gives us a simplified way to discuss tones without using logarithms. Almost all photographers can count to ten.
Secondly, it suggests that we do not accept the "box speed" of film or the "bottle time" of developer, but conduct our own tests to discover what suits our own methods, subject matter and preferences. All the rest is methodology, some of it made remarkably complicated by enthusiastic practitioners. It seems to me that once the word "densitometer" is mentioned, we are testing for its own sake. No doubt it is very satisfying.
Mr Patience's new system of randomly lowering his personal EI from film to film seems to satisfy him and he can produce a print that meets his own standards. Can't we all? He has not found it neccessary to show us the same subject, photographed at different film speeds, or perhaps using different pages of his little notebook, to demonstrate the excellence of his own system, but we must assume that he has done so, otherwise he could not make the claim he makes so dramatically. Otherwise his system would be indistinguishable from incompetence. I have no quarrel with incompetence. It is very popular. Perhaps the essence of the Patience system is to eliminate this sort of niggling.
If we follow Bruce's link to Mt Patience's blog and click on "Empire State of Mind" we will find an extended essay on the streets of New York. Mr Patience has been commendably energetic. You may be surprised that his system generates so many solid black, detail-free shadows.

Herman Sheephouse said...

The Zone System for me gave me an absolute understanding of light values to print tones and as such has been invaluable.

Film latitude is something that rarely gets talked about but is surprisingly versatile - I recommend everyone goes out with a roll of film, halve the box speed and guess the exposure and develop for your normal time - it is surprising how even and decent the results are.

The key sin is underexposure and normal development, very little (even selenium toning the film) can rescue that, however, underexposing and overdeveloping (say by 15-20%) takes you into Wynn Bullock territory and is a wonderful technique to explore. Do you see the Zone System at work in there, Zone II shadow placement, N+2 (ish) development . . .

I haven't read the bloke's article thoroughly, simply no time, but scanning it and looking at the captions under his photos there doesn't seem to be anything much new being said, the techniques seem a la Ralph and the captions are pretty much Zone system captions as far as I can see.

slackercruster said...

Zone system is not dead. At least not for the anal landscapers and still life shooters. I don't think Ansel would have approved of all the darkroom masturbation Johnny does with his film. But, Ansel was an anal tripod shooter for the most part.

The zone system was invented by tripod photogs, not street photogs. With fast street shooting - you turn left it is one exposure, turn right it is another. We have to split the difference many times.

The anal photogs are used to working with pretty perfect files and trying their anal best to get it perfect in-cam. Whereas street / documentary photographers are used to working with imperfect files and making something great out of it.

When you do street or doc work, if you come back with 70% to 80% of what you were after, you can still have a winner. We just try and do the best we the blink of an eye it can be gone. No time to even say 'zone system' many a time

Andrea Calabresi said...

Sensitometry remains the same, whether you use it or not (period).

I do not know if Johnny will publish my comment on his blog.
It is still waiting moderation, let's see.

Anyway i do not really understand what's the title about, he does not use the zone system, or even uderstands it.

Technically speaking he is using a formula used by many, both in BW and color and an old trick used in low quality labs to get easy prints. He is limiting the dynamic range of the negatives compressing it toward the shoulder. Tri-x has a somehow limited dynamic range and it is further reduced with a compensating developer, over exposure pushes the rest up.
Those very dense negatives are flat in the brighter tones (as clearly visible), but, obviously provide a lot of room for manipulation in the lower values.
Newton did the same on many images (with HP5 + D76), even Von Unwert did. In colour I can think of Luigi Ghirri and many others. Nothing new under the sun.