Zone System : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Hi, I just can't remember it! I know the theory. Expose for the shadows, develope for the highlights. Can anyone give me an example. This is how I understand best. If you meter the shadow, and place it in Zone III, and meter the highlight, and place in Zone VII, what do you do next? How much more or less developement for N-1, N-2, N+1, N+2? And how do you know if its N-1,N+2, etc. I have a Gossen Luna Pro F, and the Zone System calculations are on the face of the meter. This is very simple to use. I just can't remember. I appreciate any feedback. Raven

-- Raven (, July 21, 1999


I would urge you to read Ansel Adam's "The Negative", which is probably the best photography technique book ever written. You will find the answers to all your questions there. A close second is "The Print", the next book in the series.

-- fw (, July 21, 1999.

By all means, read Ansel's books, as mentioned. Zone VI Workshop (I believe that's the title, by Fred Picker, is also good) The Zone System works because the photographer calibrates it with their own equipment and ways of working. No actual numbers from my circumstances would work with any certainty in yours. You have to work out your own.

-- Tony Brent (, July 21, 1999.

Hi I would urge you to follow the advice suggested above. To answer your question, use your light meter to place your important shadow areas (where you want to retain detail) on Zone III. Now measure you important highlight areas where you want deatil and see which zone they fall on. If the highlights fall on Zone VII, go ahead, shoot and develop normally. If it falls on Zone VI, shoot (well, overexpose slightly), and give N+1 development. If it falls on Zone VIII, give N- 1 development. And so on. DJ

-- N Dhananjay (, July 21, 1999.

Just to clarify my last post. You can't place shadow and highlights because natural scene contrasts vary. You place one and see where the other falls and that gives you development times. Re development times, you will have to calibrate to your equipment - you light meter, you shutters, the enlarger you use etc. Start with the time recommended by the manufacturer. Ideally, run a few tests as suggested in the books recommended above. DJ

-- N Dhananjay (, July 21, 1999.

Duh, me again. You overexpose slightly when you're doing N-1 dev and not N+1 as I'd mentioned in the previous post. I'm really leaving the building this time. DJ

-- N Dhananjay (, July 21, 1999.

Or you can do it the way Fred Picker's followers do, expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may. Read The Fine Print as has been suggested, and I beleive there a couple more schools of Zoning out there. Pat

-- pat j. krentz (, July 23, 1999.

Unfortunately, Fred Picker's technique just doesn't work when you are doing photography in the Utah desert (and many other places). I have run into many, many, many situations where if I placed the highlights on zone VIII, the important shadows would fall on zone I or below. No amount of development would save the shadows in these cases. I would advise against using this technique.

Christopher Cline

Salt Lake City, UT

-- Christopher A. Cline (, July 23, 1999.

Back to Raven's question. The concept of exposing for the shadows and developing for the highlights is the foundation of contrast control in black and white negative making. The Zone System is a means of quantifying that concept and applying it in a predictable and useful way over a broad range of shooting situations. The real trick is to train your eye to properly select the part of the scene that should fall in Zone III or Zone VII. What is your idea of distinct textural detail? And once you find out, how do your materials and technique translate that perception to the final print? As for placing any part of the scene on Zone VII? Has someone discovered a film on which shadow detail can magically be enhanced with increase in development? It works the other way! The thinnest portions of the negative are pretty much done by about halfway into the prescribed development time. It's the highlight areas (densest areas on the negative) that continue to develop beyond that point. The whole concept of N, N- and N+ is to control how dense those highlight areas get. The first meter reading you take helps you determine exposure, the second helps you to plan development. This is of course, just a very basic explanation of what happens. I, too would suggest some reading. An old college English prof. once told me that the sign of an intelligent person is that they agree with you! I don't know of anyone who agrees with placing anything on Zone VII!

-- Robert A. Zeichner (, July 25, 1999.

Raven, I would still suggest Picker's method, and also suggest that you check out Ansel's method and there was one I heard of that was something about Beyond the Zone System, if you find them interesting do the test so that you will know for yourself what the results will be. I think they might all work, just different approaches, but Fred's is the one that I tried and found that it worked for me and there are several other's in my neck of the woods who use it also. If you do the test for your personal exposure index and do the test for zone VIII, it will work for you anywhere in the world. Pat

-- pat j. krentz (, July 25, 1999.

I don't know of anyone who agrees with placing anything on Zone VII!

unless it will be a very high key image! scary

-- mark lindsey (, July 26, 1999.

Well, I feel moved to comment. For the past five years I have been pursuing the technique of putting the highlights (eg clouds in full sun) on zone VIII and letting the shadows fall where they will. In that instance, one avoids blocked up highlights. Clearly if one is shooting in bright sunlight, dark objects in shadows will not show sufficient detail. I beleive this is unavoidable with just about any form of compensating development if you have 16 plus zones in one picture and simply represents the boundary of the medium. In lower contrast scenes, I place the highlight on zone VIII and print it down to the zone I want (I think one of the previous posts was based on the misaprehension that placing the highlight on zone VIII means that you have to print it as zone VIII - in fact Picker's technique is based on the fact that that is exactly what you dont have to do).

For the past four years I have been using chromogenic film (first XP2 and now TCN400). Pursuing this technique with this film gives IMHO superior reproduction in contrasty situations to modified development with silver film: the highlights dont block up but can in fact be printed through with enalrging time, not information loss, being the only constraint; the highlight areas thus overexposed are grain free; shadows retain contrast. Works for me.

-- Mark Eban (, July 26, 1999.

Pat, from your response it appears that I may have stepped on your toes, for which I apologize. Like the rest of us, you are a contributing member of this group and want to share your knowledge and experience with others without being told you are wrong. My statement can certainly be interpreted as saying that using Fred Picker's method of exposing for the highlights is wrong, which is not what I intended to do.

I'm glad Pat responded, because it made me think harder about what I wanted to say. I completely agree that in photography there are many different techniques that give the same final result. Where I respectfully disagree with Pat is that Picker's exposure method is an alternative technique to the same end result. Picker's method is actually a simplified version of the Zone System that doesn't always give the same results as the Adam's version. As a physics professor, please indulge me with an analogy from physics. In order to describe to introductory students the properties and behaviors of atoms, we introduce the Bohr model of the atom in which the electrons orbit the nucleus at set distances. While this model is useful and gives some correct answers for atom behavior, it is not the correct model and is therefore limited in scope. To accurately describe an atom, you need to use quantum mechanics, which is mathematically too complex for an introductory course.

While the differences between Picker's simplified zone system and Adam's zone system are not as great as the physics example, Picker's method is still limited in scope. So I will state instead that I advise using Picker's exposure method with extreme caution and knowledge of the limitations. There are times when using Tri-X sheet film (which has a very pronounced shoulder) where the highlights are very important and the EV range is not too large that I will place the highlights on zone VII or VIII so as not to block them up. But if I'm using T-Max 100 (which has a very long straight line with no real discernable shoulder), I don't have to worry about the highlights blocking up, so I place my important shadows on zone III or IV and develop for the proper negative density range.

Sorry for the long response. I hope this all makes sense.

Chris Cline

Salt Lake City, UT

-- Christopher A. Cline (, July 26, 1999.

You can easily pull 15 stops into a controllable range with highly diluted dev. and long dev. times, I have a shot of a priest in front of his church, he has a bright white satin robe on in full sunlight, and yet the interior of the church has full detail. This surely isnt accomplished by reading the highlights and letting the shadows fall where they may!

Why do people voluntarily restrict their options?

-- mark lindsey (, July 26, 1999.

Interesting comments. To take the physics analogy a little bit further: all Newtonian mechanics is wrong; Einstein proved that. Still if you build a bridge using Newtonian mechanics, you are unlikely to go to far wrong. My point is that no one is saying the model is the same, we are just arguing how "good" it is for every day use. Pointing out the difference, therefore, doesnt take the argument any further: we are just left with one correspondent saying it is good enough and another saying it isnt. Tough to resolve without going into the field together and doing some controlled tests.

From the philosophical point of view - "why do some peoply volountarily restrict their options". That is an excellent question. I do so because I find it increases my freedom. Just as working with one lens can liberate your vision, so knowing exactly how the zones are going to fall using Picker's technique can focus what pictures you take and what you dont. For me it works 90 per cent. of the time. The 10 per cent. where it wont is compensated for by the quickness and simplicity of the technique.

Having said that I would quite like to have taken that priest shot...

-- mark eban (, July 27, 1999.

You make the mistake of thinking that the zone system in its entirety is too complicated and slow, the opposite is true, it becomes very intuitive and swift with practice. I can guarantee that anyone who is practiced at the zone system as Adams teaches can determine exposure just as fast, even faster, than those who use a "simpler" method as Pickers.

-- mark lindsey (, July 27, 1999.

restricting your technique or equipment does not "free" your vision in any way, any more than a painter who says,"I will only use one kind of brush", this sort of nonsense is a plague that is common amoungst photographers and it is rubbish.

How can my vision be freed if the image in my head cannot be matched with a lens, how can my vision be freed if my technique does not measure up to what I see in my minds eye?

Many claim that my point of view shows an obsession with equipment or technique over vision, I find that the opposite is true. I use the equipment and tech. necessary to bring my vision to fruition and then I go on. I find the opposite view to be more about an obssesion with equipment/technique.

-- mark lindsey (, July 27, 1999.

Look, this really does not yield to "right" and "wrong". First, the point about one lens (which is really a tangent) goes like this: you can walk around, look at the world and come up with the mental vision of what you would like to see and fit the lens to take it. If you can do this all the time, you are a very lucky man. It happens sometimes to me but like any other mental attitude it sometimes doesnt. With one lens you have to look for what might make a good picture: in some sense this constraint causes an extra effort which means one may see pictures one might not otherwise have seen - in arty shorthand this is considered as liberating. I actually do usually use a variety of lenses but sometimes I just like walking around with a Rollei 2.8F and looking for pictures. I am sure that I have taken pictures I would not otherwise have seen even if I had an equivalent focal length lens in the bag just because of the difference in mental attitude. Game theory shows that you can increase the probability of positive outcomes by restricting choice and if you dont believe in the difference in mental attitude that comes from restricting options think about Alexander burning his boats. Still try it for a day and if it doesnt work for you, forget about it.

As far as the Picker vs full Zone method goes, you are right (although I meant making notes, seperate devlopment etc rather than metering in the field) but I find chromogenic film goes a long way in achieving the same effects (albeit with more darkroom effort) and given I use a lot of roll film, that is a good compromise for me.

-- mark eban (, July 27, 1999.

Chris, thanks for the consideration, I appreciate it. You lost me in the physics example though. I do have a question for you or anyone who cares to answer. I understand that there are 15 EV's out there, my question is how do you go about placing 15 stops on a material that is only capable of 7 stops? I talked with a Kodak rep today and he told me that all b/w films had a latitude of 7 stops and that included T-max. Now I do understand the idea of compression in computer files, but I also know that print paper is only capable of 9 stops, at least accordding to Ansel, zone 1 being black, zone 9 being paper base white, where are you going to place zones 10-11-12-13-14-15 and have them show as distinct seperate zones? I would like to know where Mark found this situation that showed 15 stops, no offense Mark but my meter has 20 EV values which have to be placed somewhere in the 8 zones on my meter, 9 if you count the 0, to my eye there is no difference between 0 or 1 or 2, I can see the difference between 2 & 3, so how do you get 15 stops, maybe its just semantics, but I am willing to be instructed. The other thing the Kodak rep pointed out to me was that none of their photographic materials were based on any Zone system, that all the Zone systems were setup by individuals who wanted to get a better negative than the one obtained by following Kodaks suggestions. Pat

-- pat j. krentz (, July 27, 1999.

This is an interesting discussion. I have used both approaches, having read the negative several times before reading Fred Pickers Zone VI Workshop, The Zone VI Workshop is a very easy way to understand the basic concepts of the Zone System.

I got in trouble a few years ago on a forum by repeating what a workshop instructor had said in that the Zone VI Compensating Developing Timer would not work down to 55 degrees as Picker claimed. Several people gave me the Picker advice of "TRY IT". I placed my developer tray in the refrigerator aand brought the developer temperature below 50 degrees and much to my amazement the print made at a normal temperature was very close to the print made at 48 degrees.

Fred also makes the claim that most all "normal" scenes will fall in an eight stop range. Well, I have "TRIED IT" and it is very easy to prove this wrong. Use his example of placing something something dark in the shade and a bright sunlit highlight, it almost always read more than 8 stops for me using several meters including the Zone VI meter.

Kodak has really come around in trying to give good information to photographers using black & white materials. Their approach is more along the lines of that from Beyond the Zone System by Phil Davis than that outlined by Ansel in The Negative. The idea is still the same, YOU must find out what your materials will do for YOU. Have Fun.

Jeff White


-- Jeff White (, July 28, 1999.

Pat, first off, let me apologize for being so cranky the other night.

Ansel actually allocated 11 zones to the zone system (0-10)

The amount of contrast in a scene relies more on where you will place the shadow detail, i.e., if I go for full detail in shadows that means my highlights will be way up out of the "normal development" range, if I go for shadows with little or no detail all shades of contrast (or zones) will move to the left on the scale (at least on my meter!) and the highlights will be more in the "normal range". If in the priest shot I didn't want detail inside the church, the priest's robe would have come down on the scale of contrast--simply because I placed the inside detail lower on the scale. Its all relative.

To pull that kind of range into a normal scale takes a highly dilute development. Hc-110 from stock solution, diluted 1:30 (almost water) 18 to 20 min development time with agitation only every 3-4 minutes for about 15 secs. What happens is that the developer exhausts on the highlights much quicker than on the shadow areas, allowing the shadow areas to catch up, also you need to give an extra stop of exposure to help the shadows. The times are approximate; you should test this out for yourself of course.

-- mark lindsey (, July 28, 1999.

Mark, thanks for the info, I will try that in the fall, right now my darkroom as we speak is 92-F (no a/c), but I will set up the photograph and try it both ways. Pat

-- pat j. krentz (, July 28, 1999.

This has been fun reading all the various responses. Lots of good discussion and ideas out there. Just a few quick responses.

Actually Mark, Newtonian mechanics is not wrong, it is just limited in its application. Similarly, Picker's method is not wrong, I just wouldn't use it if my shadow detail to highlight detail EV range is greater than 5 or 6 stops.

Jeff, it's good to hear from you and to see your work on your web page. (Jeff and I attended a Ray McSavaney/John Sexton workshop together 5 or so years ago.)

Pat, to add to Mark's suggestion for compensating development technique and times, I'll e-mail you some additional times to start with that I got from Don Kirby, Ray McSavaney, and Bruce Barnbaum (all the info is at home right now). I'll also e-mail you the name of a compensating developer that Neil Chapman recommended for T-Max that he says easily handles a 15 stop EV range. He used it for the environmental portraits shown in Photo Techniques a couple of issues ago.

-- Christopher A. Cline (, July 28, 1999.

Both Brett Weston and Imogen Cunningham said they thought the zone system was a crock; both they and Adams took pretty good pictures. You decide.

-- swelle (, July 28, 1999.

Swelle, they all practiced the zone system to some extent, after all, it is nothing more than applied sensitometry. What takes a Cunningham or a Weston years of trial and error to learn about film and the exposure of the same can be grasped in a very short time by someone who studies the zone system.

-- mark lindsey (, July 28, 1999.

Swelle, I find the comment of Brett & Imogen a little humorous, since Adams is the person who invented the zone system, and Brett's father Weston came up with a light meter which was based on the zone system. Pat

-- pat j. krentz (, July 29, 1999.

To answer Raven's question, you meter for the shadows and underexpose by the number of stops it takes to place the "important" shadow detail where you want it. Then the highlights will fall wherever they are. You place either highlights or shadows with exposure though I would always place my shadows due to how differently developement affects shadows and highlights. Most zone users place this shadow detail on zone three though some very precise techs place it on zone two which is the first zone with texture if not detail. Then you find out where the important highlights fall and process the film with the idea of how dense you want the highlights to be on the neg. In other words you expose for the shadows and process for the highlights. But you must test for your film speed to be able to know at what iso you will have shadows with detail on the print. If you meter a shadow and underexpose the two stops to set it at zone 3 but your film speed is too high, you will not have sufficient density to have shadows at zone three on the print. If too low a film speed you will have too much density to have the shadow at zone three. You must test to find this out. Ain't no other way. Been there and done it. Wasted lots of paper and film. It's an easy test. Shoot a neg and process it then print it. Adjust your iso setting and do it again till you have the shadow detail you want in the print. Next find a scene that has a 5 stop range and shoot it. Process using your normal dev time for that film. If your highlights are to dense to print with a number 2 filter then you have to subtract a little time from you dev time and shoot again. Process till you have your highlight detail where you want it. Now find a 4 stop range scene and repeat processing adding dev time until you are once again printing with detail using your number 2 filter. That is your +1 dev time. Same goes for your over 5 stop scene. Subtract till you get the densities that produce a 5 stop print. Easier than writing about it. And I would be careful using Picker's method without first testing it a bit. If you place the Z8 and let the shadows fall where they may it better be a 4 stop scene or you can kiss shadows goodbye. There are many out there that use a grey card and that's it. They get beautiful prints too. Learn a system and then try another till you know what works best for you. But in my wanderings about the countryside I see 10 photographers/printers that use the AA zone system to every 1 that uses something else. Take it for what it's worth. Those that use Picker's system usually use PMK Pyro or platinum/palladium printing so they don't worry to much about highlights or should that be shadows? Pat could tell better than me. Just don't get locked into just one system. It confines you just like shooting with only one lens. Man! What a waste of opportunities. Give me a zoom anyday. Of course they don't make zooms for 4x5/8x10 damnit! Happy shooting. James

-- james (, July 30, 1999.

Boy! What a long, involved thread!! For what it's worth, here's my 2-cents-worth on the Fred Picker method of placing the highlight on Zone VII. Although I do not use this system, preferring the more flexible full-blown version of the Zone System, I do understand the advantage of placing the shadows "too high", which is what the Picker system is all about. What one must first understand is that Fred Picker seems to have limited himself to subjects which didn't require N minus developments, i. e. ones with a less than 7 stop range. Also, he limited his develpment schemes: He exposed two sheet of film for each subject and developed one normally and the other at N+1-and-one-half and relied on changes in contrast during printing to take up the slack. Now, given a subject with a low brightness range where the areas you want important detail in are only, say, 3 stops apart, and you are planning on controlling the contrast with paper grades, not development, you are much better off placing the high value in Zone VIII and letting the shadow fall high on the scale, e.g., in Zone V, even though you want it in Zone III in the final print, rather than placing the shadow on Zone III and letting the highlight fall on Zone VI. This gets the shadow values up off the toe of the film (and the Tri-X Picker uses has a rather long toe) and up into the straight line portion of the characteristic curve, thus allowing greater separation in the shadows when printed on Grade 4 paper or equivalent than the other scheme would have. Picker's idea was: Why spend so much time worrying about negative developments to control contrast when it can be done in the darkroom, and I end up doing it anyway? Two development schemes were enough for him. I use 6 or more, but still place "high" when I really want that straight-line separation in the shadows. Also, for those who use roll film, Picker's simplification of the Zone System assures more printable negatives, or at least more negs with printable shadow detail. Regards, ;^D)

-- Doremus Scudder (, August 02, 1999.

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