Zone System/under over exposure : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

If one uses the Zone System, is it a fact that you won't have under or over exposed negs? So when I shoot a snow scene, for example, and meter the highlights and shadows of the scene, and of course develop properly, I won't need to bracket because I'm using the Zone System? Thanks for the imput.

-- Raven (, January 07, 2001


Only if you know exactly what you are doing from experience and if you are a good zoner and are controlling the film development development and matching the negative exposure and development to the paper you anticipate using. Life is short; film is cheap.

-- Ellis Vener (, January 07, 2001.

Raven: Ellis is right on. I still like to bracket at least one stop on the side of overexposure, knowing that I can print through the density if I need to. Also, the perfectly exposed neg is not always the one that gives the best "feel" to the print. Besides, you need a backup neg for when you step on one in the darkroom.



-- Doug Paramore (, January 07, 2001.

Unless it’s a really tricky exposure, I usually don't bracket - but I've been using the same film for years and feel comfortable with it's characteristics. But I do shoot two plates and "bracket" the film development. I develop one as I had marked in the field. If that neg is bad for some reason, I have a backup (stuff happens :-). If it's good, then I'll develop the other from one to one half stop more or less and evaluate it during printing. This helps with graded paper.

... and if it's a tricky exposure? I bracket the exposure and bring home 4 plates :-)

I agree – film’s cheap, but the scene at the moment of exposure is priceless.


-- Doug McFarland (, January 07, 2001.

Raven, Yes to all of the above. Once you get to know your film/dev. combination under exposure becomes a thing of the past unless there's a fault with shutter/f stop settings also long time exposures are difficult to predict accurately.

I always take at least two shots of the same image but they are 99% of the time the same exposure. I do this to try and safeguard against developing faults, dust, scratches or whatever bedevils one on the path to perfection (which I shall never obtain). Regards,

-- Trevor Crone (, January 08, 2001.

Raven, I have found in talking with others that most times, when an overexposed negative makes for a better end result, it was not really overexposed at all. Rather, the first (under) exposure failed to account for things like reciprocity departure or bellows factor. Other posts point out similar failings that result in miserexposed images. I, like Trevor prefer to make two identical exposures most of the time. This, to insure I've got a backup negative in case dust or scratches become a problem, but also to give me a second chance to process differently if I feel doing so can improve the printability of the negative. I don't think bracketing when using the Zone system technique is really necessary except at first, when perhaps you are still trying to get a grip on all of your controls or when a particularly difficult or rare situation arises and you want to defer certain decisions until you're in the darkroom.

-- Robert A. Zeichner (, January 08, 2001.


The Zone System is all about when to over and under expose. Ever see those wonderful images where the white trees seem to ‘glow’ against the dark background? Generally this effect is created by underexposing the negative by about a stop to a stop & 1/2 and then giving N+1 or N+2 or sometimes even N+3 development. The same is true for Adams' famous image of the clearing winter storm in Yosemite.

On the other hand, it is probably more common to overexpose a negative to get good detail in the low values and then contract development to prevent blocking of the highlights [Z8, Z9, and Z10]. This is the old saying "expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights". The zone system just allows you to consistently predict the response of your system to various combinations of exposure and development. I have found that I very rarely give normal exposure with normal development to a negative.

You should shoot at least two plates of each scene if you can. Generally, if you are going to bracket, you only need to go in one direction. A one-stop difference is usually enough for me. If the first negative is wanting in some regard, this indicates the correct development for the second plate.

Remember that intuition and experience play a big part in this. Ed Weston rarely used a light meter and when he did he usually doubled the suggestion of the meter. He then worked miracles in the darkroom. Likewise, Adams did his share of burning and dodging as well.


-- Jason (, January 08, 2001.

The reason to use the zone system is to produce an ideal negative; not acceptable negative, but one that mets your previsualisation of how of how the scene should be; to extend (compact) the contrast range beyond what would normally be possible. By using the zone system you are accepting that you might have to use different development procedures for each scene shot. Now after going through all of this trouble you are going to leave it to chance that you didn't get results you were expecting?!!#$@%!!

The number of variables increase (not decrease) with the zone system, and if I were you I wouldn't fret about throwing a few more sheets on the barbi. Other wise you are likely to get discouraged before you even get started. It takes a while to develop a system that works using the zone system. The expansion and compaction development formulas are just a starting point. Some of them are going to work, and some aren't. After all the goal to met your previsualisation, and only you can know what you want and how to get there. Black and white sheet film unlike color is relatively cheap, and since you're processing your own film, you development costs are minimal, so experiment.

-- g. wiley (, January 08, 2001.

Expose for the shadows and develope for the highlights. Pretty simple. Anything else you throw into it makes it more difficult than it needs to be. If you don't calibrate your system then bracketing isn't going to save you. Calibrate your system, then all you need, outside the dust and scratches, is two sheets. That's what the zone system is all about. You will never get a perfect negative. You can get close but you'll never get a perfect neg. Why? Because as you print the neg, you reinterpret it. Weston didn't use a light meter at first because there weren't any. But he trained his eye to see the contrast range of the subject. And he threw away a lot of negs. So did Ansel Adams. A.A. visualized "Clearing Winter Storm" and developed the neg to print it just the way he visualized it. The reason he used any printing controls (dodging and burning) on it was because he visualized the scene differently than it was when he exposed the film. It was about as flat lit a scene as you can get but he wanted more from it. He gave it, I believe, an N+2 development and then dodged and burned selected areas to create that which wasn't really there. If you calibrate your exposure, developement, printing and toning system then there isn't any guessing involved. But if you are lazy then bracketing isn't going to save your ass either. What does bracketing accomplish other than to give you the same "contrast range" on a denser negative? A denser neg and that's all. Manipulating the "contrast range" is what the zone system is all about. No more and no less. You still won't know what the development time should be to increase or decrease the density range unless you calibrated your development scheme to increase or decrease the density range. Where do I want the highlight densities? So get off your butt(s) and calibrate your system and get close to what you want everytime and have a backup neg for the unforseen problems like dust and scratches. Calibrating your system is much easier than most people make it. James

-- lumberjack (, January 08, 2001.


I disagree with your statements about _Clearing Winter Storm_. This image is not like _Frozen Lake_ [taken on the Sierra Club outing] in that _Frozen Lake_ was re-interpreted many times over many years whereas _Clearing Winter Storm_ was not. Ansel knew what he saw, exposed the film for expansion, and printed to meet his original visualization. He did not make other interpretations once he got the now famous printing solution.

I mean lets face it, no one is ever going to get the 'exact' negative they want even is they know at the time of exposure exactly what they want in the print. So the photographer exposes and develops the negative as best as he can and burns/dodges/masks/tones/... to get what he visualized at exposure. Or, as you have correctly stated, the photographer can employ these techniques to re-interpret the visualization post development. However, this is not what happened with _Clearing Winter Storm_. Ansel manipulated the printing to get what he saw at the time of exposure.


-- Jason (, January 08, 2001.

Jason, just a point of clarification. James wrote>>A.A. visualized "Clearing Winter Storm" and developed the neg to print it just the way he visualized it.<< Meaning just what you said, that Ansel like his original visualization and stuck with it. That print is heavily manipulated. As Ansel said "dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships!" I believe the point that James is trying to make is that knowledge of your system is better than not having this knowledge. People always like to point to Weston and say that he didn't use the zone system, realize that we rarely ever see anything that he produced in his first 30 years of photography. So yes time will solve all problems or you can take more direct steps today and calibrate your system.

-- Jeff White (, January 08, 2001.

Thankyou Jeff. You are right Jason in that he did visualize the scene a certain way and stuck to it. The scene had no more than a two stop range so he gave it the exposure necessary for the shadows he wanted and the development for the highlights he didn't see in the scene but knew they could be put there. He saw what he wanted and did what was necessary to bring that about. My intent was to get other people to understand that bracketing isn't the answer to good negs. Calibration is the only answer. Too many people start in 35 mm and learn the aweful habit of bracketing because film is cheap and never calibrate their system. People also think that calibrating their system is difficult. It is very easy to do if you know what you are looking for in the first place. It takes at the most 10 sheets of film, but they get Davis' book or some other photographic tome and get lost without ever using their noggin. They never ask what they are doing. Expose for the shadows and develope for the highlights. That's all. They blindly settle for empty shadows or worse, full heavy shadow densities and flat prints. No one should ever have a reason for bracketing unless they are trying to get a certain instant of light or they are shooting bigfoot from 10 meters and want all the insurance they can get. As far as metering goes, I watched in amazement as Ray McSaveney shot flowers with no metering at all. Of course when I thought about it, he instictively knew what the lighting ratios were from years of practice. James

-- lumberjack (, January 08, 2001.


My bad. Reading too late at night. That is exactly what you were saying about _Clearing Winter Storm_.

The comments that threw me in your first post were:

"You will never get a perfect negative. You can get close but you'll never get a perfect neg. Why? Because as you print the neg, you reinterpret it."

Anyway, it is true, calibration is the most important key to consistently appealing tonal ranges in a photographer's prints.

Ditto on Phil Davis' Book. I have degrees in Physics and Mechanical Engineering from Penn State [not meaning I'm any kind of mental giant] and still I get bogged down in the math and charts. A.A.'s testing methods are the best I've found so far.


-- Jason (, January 09, 2001.

I like AA's one liner with respect to this situation. "I'd rather have two sheets of film exposed correctly, versus two sheets of film exposed incorrectly!" (e.g. over and under exposed in bracketing. And, I'm paraphrasing.)

In this way, the second exposure can be used to optimize the photograph at development, depending upon whether one wants to slightly expand or contract the development.

I know I've had situations where I didn't take that second exposure, and my highlights just weren't there. This is not an exposure problem, it's a development problem.

So, the moral to this story is to take six shots of each photo: two at the estimated exposure, two that are under-exposued, and two that are over-exposed. This should cover all bases. (Just kidding.)

-- neil poulsen (, January 09, 2001.

Kodak would love that. Matbe we could get back HIE in 4x5. James

-- lumberjack (, January 09, 2001.

This is my first time here on the Q&A forum, and lucky me that I can find such an interesting argument along. I should hang around more to learn.

I have been spending recent couple of months on B&W developing and maybe I can share my experience (though might not be truth).

By varying the exposure, it can surely deliver different contrast in theory. But whether it can delivers your required contrast, density, tonal change, graininess, film base clarity etc. at the same time, or with each element under your expected range of control? It is highly questionable (esp. in B&W development when your method is highly unstable).

Personally, I think the key idea of AA's zone system is to collect the necessary details that you want to the film where you can transform such infomation to an effect you want on the photo. In other term, it highly relates to contrast control. In order to vary the contrast of B&W, people have created a number of methods. Some use filters, some use chemicals, some use different darkroom equipment, some adjust time / temperature / dilution / agitation / exposure.....some do it in a more "clever" way by scanning the film and adjust contrast on screen, or buy a different film for different occasions. As long as the method fits into your requirement, I think its fine.

And if you are trying to use the darkroom developing techniques to resolve the problem, my experience is that you really have to spend some time on practising. The key matter is consistency. You have to adopt a strict procedure to control your development, including liquid temperature, dev. time, agitation styles, dev. timing etc.. Say for an example, you can start with Kodak's film datasheet and use their development datas as a start (say like T-Max 100 roll film, tank development, 21 degree). Then take a number of pictures with consistent exposure (I prefer to use grey card, grey scale and with consistent branketing) and see the result (density, contrasy, graininess, tonal change etc). Say like if you found the best film which works along with your requirement (eg. fits to your enlarging equipment), and under this development method it can render details within range of over-3, under-3 range of exposure with acceptable graininess. Then ongoing you know what you can capture on the film when you press the shutter, and also understand on which side you should lean on (over/under) that deliver what you want. This method basically derives from zone system, and it really takes time to practise, and my advise is to make it simple first and try for at most two / three development combinations (usually Kodak will offer you the dilution / temperature combinations) for each film. Personally, I have tried 1:1, 3:1, pure liquid at the moment with D- 76 and T-Max 100, with a number of development time / agitation method / temperature combinations. If you can deliver stable result on your devp skill, and each time you can adjust a single element of developing and see the result (ie. Kodak suggests we use developing time to control contrast, does it really works, or by what magnitude it works, or even by what time the contrast / development time relation comes to inverse?). It is fun, but it is also pain over the neck. Nevertheless, it renders you with the information required to handle different lighting situations, even the extreme ones, and get the required details you like into your film.

I have seen a couple interesting articles of AA on the story befind his photos, and I think he has taken a lot of pain and puzzle in order to derive the zone system which we still use today. I think it worths to pay some time in the darkroom in order to understand his wisdoms (and also discover the things untold by AA).

Brian Kong

-- Brian Kong (, January 10, 2001.

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