Zone System, cumulative error,checking and rechecking with polaroids : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

I've shot portraits and people scenes as I've mentioned before for a lot of years. All this time I've used a amb meter and its spot attachment. Whenever I used my meter spot attachment(5 deg.) it was either to read off of a 18% grey card or read off of the highlights and shadows in the scene in which I wanted detail. Having made the move up to LF, I understand that I've got a lot to learn so I'm trying to make an effort to understand the basics of the zone system.

I've been reading "Using the View Camera" by Steve Simmons for quite some time and along with everything else I've audited which includes this forum I've become aware of the basics of the zone system. I don't pretend to completely understand it but I'm starting to get the idea. I've got some questions, and I ask these questions not in an effort to demean or belittle the zone system but to get some other folks slant on it advantages.

It never fails that when I shoot anything of any importance I meter several kinds of ways and invaribly shoot more polaroids than I intended to shoot. My meter could be off a stop, My shutter/lens/film combination could be off a stop, all these variables could result in a cumulative error of 2 stops or more, which along with checking my lighting set-up is why I shoot polaroids. I get the impression from auditing this forum that a lot of veteran LF shooters utilize polaroids for the same reason which of course only makes sense. I've also brought up the polaroid because many times during a shoot no matter what I calculate meterwise, I will after seeing the polaroid just decide to bias the exposure one way or the other because I think it will 'look' better. I'm wondering if a lot of you veteran LF folks do the same thing.

The Zone system seems very methodical and seems to leave nothing to chance. Is this the real strong point of the zone system? I also get the impression that you plan out a detailed exposure for how you plan to develop the film. It seems to be similar to what learned along time ago but it was stated another way. That is in terms of Neg/transparency film, I always understood that with one you exposed for the shadows and developed for the highlights, with the other one you exposed for the highlights and developed for the shadows. I could be missing the whole point which is why I'm asking.

My question is this, is the Zone system a refinement of metering and development technique(and everything we've learned up to now), or is that being simplistic?

-- Jonathan Brewer (, June 24, 2001


While the Zone System takes advantage of the photographic principle, "Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights", I think of it primarily as a system for pre-visualization. Categorizing different shades of gray into zones that one can remember enables one to consider how the final image will appear, as we take light readings of the scene being photographed.

In "The Negative", Adams states that he and Fred Archer created the Zone System to help one teach photography. In the introduction, he goes on to say, "The creativity -- functional or poetic -- lies in applying the Zone System to achieve a visualized image, with almost no limitations on the visualization itself."

-- neil poulsen (, June 24, 2001.

I think more than a refinement, it is to me a methodology to obtain the same results every time you expose film. To me the zone system has nothing to do with creativity, it has to do with getting to know your film, what it can do, what it cant, the local contrast you get with your personal developing, etc. Once you know your film then you can apply your personal interpretation to a scene, knowing full well how your film will react thus allowing you to "create" the image you have in your mind. Also rememeber, after the exposure comes the printing.....which truly separates the real masters from the rest of us lesser mortals..:-)) I cannot tell you if the zone system will be good for you, I only can relate my experience. When I first startarted I tested all kinds of film and developers, etc. Looking for the holy grail, the best film and developer ever, I was sure I was going to find this "perfect match" since I am lucky enough to have a full darkroom with densitometer etc. As time went by I realized I kept comming back to the same film, with the same developer that I had chosen in the first place. My only advice, is do your testing, learn the pricniples, but dont get too bogged down in the technicalities and minutiae of the zone system, go out there and make your exposures, in the end this will be the only proof you have that you are doing something right! Oh, and one more thing, dont place your shadows where you want full detail in zone III, try placing them in zone IV, I htink you will see richer prints this way. Good luck!

-- Jorge Gasteazoro (, June 24, 2001.

If you do a controlled film speed test, and if you do a development time test [let's stop there, large numbers of people skip these steps, which makes the Zone system largely pointless] then you can quickly set exposure in the field. If you know what you want the scene to look like, then exposure determination becomes fast and the results predictable. It takes the discipline to do the testing up front. After you do it, you get a very good printable negative every time, and you can concentrate on some of the other minor issues like, oh yeah, that composition thing... If you still feel like you don't fully understand the basic concept of it, go slowly through The Negative which explains it pretty well. The Zone VI Workshop treatment is connect-the-dots simply.

-- Kevin Crisp (, June 24, 2001.

Ansel Adams described it as practical sensitometry. It is not really a refinement of metering, just a way to meter that takes into account more of the variables--you might say "metering done right" with developing taken into account.

But, consider the following.

1. Nothing is totally without chance, even with the zone system, since none of our materials are 100% consistent. Minimizing the inconsistencies is the best we can do, and technique overcomes the remaining problems.

2. Polaroid seems to have a wide variaiton in speed, moreso than traditional films.

3. Have you tried shooting the scene the way you initially think it should be done, then do it the way you think it should be "tweaked" after looking at the Polaroids? Compare the results and see which way is really the best. It may be the inconsistency is in the Polaroid, and not the standard film, or the more limited tonal range of Polaroid.

-- Charlie Strack (, June 25, 2001.

Polaroids have basically nothing of use in the zone system methodology. The zone system is a means of metering the scene and being able to determine what the development of the neg should be to get the print tonalities that you envisioned in the first place. Polaroids give you no information to that end. If you want to learn the zone system, then get some film and shoot it. And learn to process the film consistently. James

-- james (, June 25, 2001.

Yes agreed, polaroids can be all over the place. I've sometimes made a different choice for my final exposure based on a polaroid and come up short. That has happened from time to time. I still use it because regardless of the exp. variations it still gives me an idea(with b&w polaroids)of the lighting set-up and whether it will be as I had thought it out. I want to take all of any part of what I learn from the Zone System and incorporate it into my work.

The next to the last poster brought up an interesting point about tweaking in regards to the original set-up you had and what you might do after you take a polaroid of the set-up. I've done that and sometimes the result looks lousy, I've done it and sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised with a result I hadn't planned for but looks better than my orignal idea. In 35mm and MF I did a lot of bracketing and/or 'winging' it on the exposure for its own sake because when I did that I would come up with bad stuff but I would also come up with a few 'happy accidents'.

I've done quite a few b&w portraits for example that were done high-key(25R filt.,overexposed 3or4 stops or more!)which turned out well that I learned how to do from bracketing and from some my mistakes if that makes sense. I will do as suggested and learn what I use from the Zone System. I would hope that along with learning about what I can use from the Zone System that I could bring some of that 'happy accident' quality from my smaller format work to my LF work.

I'm not saying that the Zone System would hinder this because I don't know it, I'm just saying these are things that I would like to do in LF, and bear in mind that I'm getting into LF to contact print POP paper. I was inspired by reading about the alternative processes.

-- Jonathan Brewer (, June 25, 2001.

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