Zone System - tonal range

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I have no problem making exposures in high contrast situations and reducing development accordingly to bring highlights into the printable range. However, I am unsure of how to handle scenes taken in low contrast light - scenes with a narrow tonal range. If I expose for shadow detail, often there are no highlight tones which reach Zone VII/VIII. However, if I overdevelop to increase contrast won't I be distorting the natural contrast? I want to represent the true nature of the light, but also don't want to make a flat and dull print. It is a question of delicate rendition..... Any advice greatly appreciated

-- Stephen Vaughan (stephen@vaughanphotos.freeserve.co.uk), September 13, 2001

Answers

The whole idea of expanding contrast by development or changing paper grades is to "distort the natural contrast" so that you won't have that flat print you don't want. Only rarely does expanding contrast to achieve a print with a wide range of tones result in unwanted harshness locally as long as your development places the highs where you want them (that is, not too much development). Be carefull to make sure your mid-tone values don't end up in a place where you don't want them however. Sometimes a comprimise is the only solution. Then you must rely on printing controls to get what you want. If the print would benefit from even greater local contrast, i.e. the contrast within areas of neighboring tonalities and textures, then the best way is to use a higher paper grade, possibly in combination with more development if the overall contrast is also low since contrastier paper separates close tones better than development changes. As far as the "true nature of light" is concerned, you simply need to have a good enough grasp of your materials and technique to expose a negative and make a print that has the qualities of light that you envision. Natural means different things to different people in different circumstances and a photographic rendition is necessarily only an approximation of the natural range of tones. Simply put, you need to know what to do to get what you want, and only experimentation and experience will help you learn. Hope this helps, ;^D)

-- Doremus Scudder (ScudderLandreth@compuserve.com), September 13, 2001.

Any printed rendition of a natural scene is a distortion of the true tonal range, because it's rarely possible to represent the full brightness range of the original scene within the limited reflectivity range of a piece of paper. The characteristic curve of photographic printing paper is far from linear too, and you also have to take into account the ability of the eye and brain to adapt to ambient lighting conditions. The eye will take the brightest part of any scene as its 'white point', no matter how dim the light really is.
All this makes any photographic print, or painting for that matter, a distortion of reality, and the best we can do is aim to capture the mood of the scene. If that means expanding the true contrast, so that the print doesn't look dull, lifeless, and grey, then that's what needs to be done.

-- Pete Andrews (p.l.andrews@bham.ac.uk), September 13, 2001.

Stephen, I'm aware of the problem. I think there are two points: the technical and the aesthetical (psychological).

From technical point of view if you don't want "artificially" raise the contrast, you inevitably get a flat print. But "flat" is not always bad, sometimes it can reflect the mood of the scene (by the way I don't think that every print must show full tonal range that the paper can show; for example look at http://masters-of- photography.com/S/stieglitz/stieglitz_spring_showers_full.html).

Another my observation: if the viewer fully recognize the way the scene is lighted, the contrast of the print can be somewhat raised without destroying the mood: the viewer's brain does some "compensation".

Finally, if the low contrast scene has a small detail at the end of tonal range of the scene and this details shows high contrast structure (for example a piece of dark twig in the foreground with very deep and high contrast texture it can be achieved with burning this small area with different filter# if you use MG paper), then the very fact of the presence of such a detail shows, that not your print is flat, but the rest of the scene is soft. The similar trick often used in high-key shot, where small dark area establish a "reference tone" and saves the whole image from to be considered as heavily overexposed.

Sorry for my broken English.

-- Andrey Vorobyov (AndreyVorobyov@yahoo.com), September 13, 2001.


Since you are a large format photographer: I have found that developing film in a staining developer, such as a pyro or pyrocatechin formula, enables me to retain printable high values in very long scale situations, and that even the longest scale negatives can be contact-printed on Azo with little or no dodging and burning.

-- Ed Buffaloe (edb@unblinkingeye.com), September 13, 2001.

I concur with Pete. When I began with Large format I found it difficult to translate highlights and quality of light I remembered into a negative. The prints always were flat and lacked any real impact. What I discovered, as Pete explains, your mind keys on the highlights and constructs the contrast of the scene you remeber based on those highlights. To achieve satisfactory results I learned to expose and develop for slightly more contrast than you would normally expect (also considering this may mean reducing development slightly less then you had been doing) or using a faster film such as TMY or HP5 and pulling to slightly increase highlight seperation. With the detail available in the highlights you can use printing for more contrast control. highlight detail even when printed down always seems to give the impression of more luminosity then the same area with no detail IMHO. There was a post about pulling certain films for zone increases on the film and processing board. Hope this helps.

-- Jim Chinn (Jim1341@dellepro.com), September 13, 2001.


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