Ready for the "Zone System"--but which one? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

I've been playing with my 4X5 field camera, shooting polaroids and transparencies, while I gathered equipment for using and processing B&W negs. Well I've managed an enlarger, a spotmeter, even a cheap working densitometer but now I'm faced with the problem--which Zone System. There's the original AA zone system, the non-technical zone system, zone system 2000, a new zone system, beyond the zone system and son of the zone system. My inclination is to start with Ansel Adams's original scheme as described in the The Negative and when I've some experience under my belt to consider the "beyond the zone system". Any suggestions or comments on the wisdom of this approach?

As an aside any comments using the Aristo w45 light (the older source) with variable constrast papers or whether to even bother trying would be appreciated.

Thanks, Russell

-- Rusell Levin (, November 29, 2001


Go see Harry Pothead & the Mystic's Magical Weed, then come home light up & see the Stoned System. It will make as much sense as reading too many of the books. Try one of them, any one of them. Do the basic tests and take note of your results. Then get the need for extreme precision out of your system, use the basics & go out & concentrate on good composition & having fun taking photos that excite you. There is a 'slop factor' in most LF gear whether we like it or not & getting too precise is a good way to go nuts. Relax, use the basics of the Zone System but realize it isn't rocket science, shutters aren't perfect, temperatures drift a bit & light does change at times between making an exposure reading & clicking a shutter. And, if you get too uptight remember Harry Pothead or his buddy, Willie the Winemaker & sit back & relax with them.

-- Dan Smith (, November 30, 2001.

I agree with some of what Dan said. Pick one authority and stay put until you really feel you understand what is being taught. It's easiest to start with Ansel, since all the "beyonds" and "even more beyonds" start there, too.

There IS a slop factor to LF gear, as Dan said, but it can be minimized by careful work, without having to obsess over precision. If adherence to any system takes away the enjoyment of making photographs, it's not right for you. However, I find that careful attention to detail, including knowing how well-calibrated my shutters and light meter are, results in more consistently good images (technically). Use the system you choose, and your equipment, until they become second nature. Until you aren't thinking about technique, rather you are concentrating on what no Zone System can teach you: making art out of light and shadow. Get that part right and you won't need Harry Pothead to make you feel good!

-- Don Welch (, November 30, 2001.


Don't make this into a complicated endeavor. I believe that the easiest to understand source is a book by Carson Graves, "Zone System for 35mm Photographers". Everything in it is applicable to large format, just substitute your spot meter when he discusses the cameras light meter. It covers every aspect of the zone system. For printing he also has an excellent book, "The Elements of Black and White Printing". Both books tell you exactly how to get the results you are looking for.

-- James Chinn (, November 30, 2001.

I forgot to address the Aristo question. From what I recall, because the light is primarily a blue source it only effects contrast correctly with the blue sensitive emulsion layer and not the green. To correct you can do two things: 1. get a 6x6 40Y color correction filter and place under the light source or inside the housing, 2. buy a replacement bulb, I believe it is a W54 that is color balanced for VC papers. The bulb can be ordered through B&H I think it is about $75-$90 depending on the enlarger you have.

-- James Chinn (, November 30, 2001.

Begin with the simple, fundamental principles of the Zone system. Try not to overcomplicate things or worry too much about the over-technical aspects. First, and most importantly, work out the TRUE speed of your film and use this as the basis for exposure. Second, develop a few sheets of film - one at the recommended time, one under and one over - and work out which gives the best negative for your enlarger/paper. Use these basic skills to go out and PRACTICE. The Zone system will then develop alongside your work. Being able to recognise where the zones correspond to the light reflected in the scene is the real key to the system, and this can only be done by getting out and seeing for yourself. Go

-- Stephen Vaughan (, November 30, 2001.

As in other aspects of LF photography, you'll want to keep the zone system simple and concentrate on the basics, adding refinements if and when necessary. The Leica Manual (my copy is 15th ed., 1973) contained a brief section by Ansel Adams "The Zone System for 35mm Photography," with an introductory note by W.L.Broecker. Short, clear, with tables. FWIW, if you have access to View Magazine magazine, you'll see that when Steve Simmons is writing about his own b/w work, he sometimes takes the reader through the steps of the zone system as he sets up an exposure--previsualization, metering, plus or minus development, etc.

Ansel Adams compared photography to music, and as a struggling instrumentalist I have found the analogy to be right on the mark in several respects. It's not fun at first. In order for LF photography in all its dimensions to become fun, you first have to master a lot of at first difficult technical matters, including but not limited to your approach to exposure. As with a musical instrument, without that mastery it'll never be fun because no one derives pleasure from doing something poorly. Behind every expressive, passionate, free-wheeling musical performance are many hours, days, even years of disciplined study and practice. When it's all internalized, automatic, second nature and you don't have to think about technique, that's when LF photography starts to really be enjoyable, satisfying, and rewarding. My two cents' worth. Good light, Nick.

-- Nick Jones (, November 30, 2001.

Let me add to the preceding post the excellent introduction to the zone system by Steve Simmons, Using the View Camera, ch. 9 The Zone System pp. 84-95. Also helpful is Advanced Black-and-White Photography, Kodak Workshop Series KW-19, "Controlling Your System," pp. 48-71.

Of all the good advice the previous posters have given you, I personally have found Dan's point about "taking note" of your early trials to be the single most important thing of all. I mean literally writing down all the data on each exposure--time of day, position of sun, lens, meter readings, assignment of zone values to different parts of subject, any bellows extension or reciprocity failure corrections, actual exposure setting, film and its EI, and so on. That way, you can go back and discover what you did right or wrong, and make more rapid progress as you discard what doesn't work for you and, by isolating what *did* work for you, develop a technique that will allow you to express your own unique approach, esthetic, and style. Good light, Nick.

-- Nick Jones (, November 30, 2001.

aristo will install the new light source into your cold light head for $102.00. good luck john

-- john nanian (, November 30, 2001.

I agree that the Zone system is based on easy, fundamental principles. The over-riding principle is "expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights." If you think in these terms, then the Zone system will be intuitive.

That is, once you SET the level of exposure for the darker areas of your print, you can select a development time that will give you the right negative density for the lighter areas of your print. What makes the Zone system work is that changing development time has little effect on the darker areas of the print, and a much greater effect on the lighter areas of the print. (The longer the development time, the "whiter" will be the lighter areas of your print.)

Something that you will need is a test pattern so that you can determine your different (N-2,N-1,N,N+1,N+2) development times. Some people suggest using a gray card illuminated by lights. I've found this approach to be problematic. It's hard to get even coverage. A method that I've found to be effective is to take photos of about an 8 inch diameter frosted glass that has been illuminated from behind with blue, daylight corrected, tungston light. In fact, I use two layers, a translucent piece of 1/8th inch white plastic with a frosted glass placed behind, separated by about 3/4's of an inch. I mounted these onto a piece of plywood painted black on the front with an 8 inch hole cut in the center. I used three 250watt bulbs positioned in a triangular pattern, with the bulbs about 7-8 inches apart. With the bulbs about 8-10 feet behind the frosted glass, I get a very dim pattern. With the bulbs placed about 18 inches behind the frosted glass, I get a bright pattern. I placed the bulbs on a horizontal slide (mounted on a tripod) so that I could easily adjust the bulbs by small distances. I tried using regular tungston bulbs, but it didn't work very well. Perhaps with blue lights, I'm matching the light provided in outdoor scenics. But, I also get predictable results with photos taken indoors.

With all due respect to comments regarding "slop", the purpose of the zone system is to be able to produce prints with PREDICTABLE shadows and highlights. So, the less "slop", the better! Be as consistent as you can in your methods. (e.g. consistent temperatures, agitation, concentrations, etc., relating to the developer. Consistent shutter speeds, metering, etc.) But, I agree, keep it enjoyable.

A book I like is the Zone System Craftbook, by John Woods. But, I'm not sure if it's still in print. Whichever book, read passages before buying to see if it comes across in an intuitive way. As for general methodology of picture taking and darkroom practice, Ansel Adams three books (The Camera, The Negative, The Print) are unmatched.

-- neil poulsen (, November 30, 2001.


Get "The Practical Zone System". I think its by Johnson. You can read it in the morning and be shooting that afternoon. Its clear, concise, and has rule of thumb answers.

Good Luck

-- Kevin Kemner (, November 30, 2001.

Just remember, the zone system is just a tool to refine your technique and help you better translate what you see into the "reality" that you want to present in a print. You don't have to have the zone system to get perfectly acceptable B&W images. One time I took a weekend trip and after 200miles realized I left the light meter on the kitchen table. At first I thought no way I will get the kind of images I wanted. But I used the sunny 16 rule, adjusted shutter speed for required f-stop and made two negs for each scene, one with 1 extra stop exposure. Opened up additional stop for bright overcast. Made notes as always about how to process the negs when i got home. All the negatives were fine, most excellent. Could I have improved with the light meter- probably so, but I learned the zone system doesn't make the image, it is only a tool to help refine your vision.

-- James Chinn (, November 30, 2001.

Hi Russell,

I would like to give Phil Davis's Beyond The Zone System (BTZS) a qualified recommendation. My recommendation is "qualified" because I cannot tell from your posting whether you would be comfortable with such a technical approach to photography -- though I note that you have acquired a densitometer.

BTZS requires a very significant upfront effort, as it is an integrated and comprehensive approach to black and white photography. Davis's idea is that we must make negatives that print easily on our printing paper of choice. Since different papers have different characteristics, the first thing we must do is determine what our paper of choice gives us as an available density range (i.e. what are the useful extremes of light and dark in the print). Then we learn how to make negatives that, no matter what the lighting conditions in which we photograph, fit that paper's density range.

There are several advantages to the BTZS approach. First and foremost, I think, is that it gives you a good understanding of the whole process of black and white photography. Aside from the pleasure of understanding a subject thoroughly, this has practical benefits: when something goes wrong it is a lot easier to ferret out the error if you understand how every part of the process, from exposure to final print, actually works.

Second, some important data are very difficult to generate through the more traditional zone system approach. For example, one of the first things you learn in the BTZS approach is that subject brightness range determines development time, which in turn determines film speed. This is obvious if you think about it. If you are photographing a scene with an extreme contrast range you will need to make a very flat (low contrast) negative. A zone system photographer would say that you need N minus development. To get the low contrast negative you will develop less than your normal developing time, perhaps much less than your normal time. But that reduction in development time will cost you film speed. Why is that? It turns out that even those parts of the negative that receive relatively little exposure, the shadow areas, are still affected by development time, though much less than those parts of the negative that have received relatively great exposure, the highlight areas. To compensate for the loss of shadow detail due to the reduced developing time, you must add exposure. In the BTZS approach you do this by downrating the speed of the film and calculating the exposure based on this revised film speed. How much of a correction you need depends very much on your film, developer, and development technique. However, a single set of BTZS film tests will generate all the information you need to work with your chosen film in a very broad range of lighting conditions.

How do conventional zone system photographers generate the data for exposure correction in subject brightness conditions that deviate from the normal? My observation is that most such photographers don't. Of course experienced photographers learn that they must add exposure when conditions dictate reduced development. But a significant increase in exposure would also affect the high values, thereby throwing off the original high zone placements. I think you can see why so many photographers speak of a 'slop' factor creeping into the process.

I do want to emphasize that many large format photographers make magnificent pictures, and very few use the BTZS approach. So BTZS is clearly not necessary. I do firmly believe, however, that BTZS will give you a higher percentage of 'keepers' than will the classic zone system approach.

Good luck and good shooting.


-- David Mark (, November 30, 2001.

As another cautionary note: don't mistake practising the Zone System for Photography. It ain't.

I got so obsessed with testing materials that after a while testing of materials was all I did. One day, I woke up to the fact that I was using it as an excuse not to think and feel and shoot. You see, doing photography was too damn hard. I was happier playing around with materials and fooling myself and those not in the know that I was a photographer.

Don't fall into that trap. Know what the spirit of the Zone System is and not the letter.

-- Erik X (, November 30, 2001.

So many answers so many books. If you've got a spot meter and a simplified densitomemter set up, you have all the tools. What you need to do is to get a stepwedge and expose a film so you get at least 2-3 clear steps (base+fog)when developed at what you consider your usual time/temp. At this exposure time run about 4 more films and develop + and- 10% and 20% off your "normal". Read with the densitometer and plot curves. With these you can establish a true normal Contrast Index, EI for that film/Dev and =/- development. Another easier way to get EI is to use a range of exposures of a grey card 2 stops over and 2 stops under in 1/2 stop increments that your meter suggests. Develop normaly and find which frame gives you a reading of .1 over base+fog. Adjust your meter EI accordingly Use these numbers while taking real pictures, keep detailed notes and see what negatives give you a good print on whatever paper/grade you like.Adjust accordingly. With refernce to the Arista light. Get a V-54 "bulb" and run tests with the stepwedge to see how the filter #'s coorelate to graded papers- because they don't!! #2 is equivalent to graded #3 Now go out and have fun and take some classes. Howard Bond and John Sexton's courses come to mind. Howard's Zone system course is perfect. George

-- George Nedleman (, November 30, 2001.

I would recommned to you the Zone system craftbook by John Charles Woods, it is a simple easy to read book where a lot of the information is explained in a simple concise manner. As to BTZS I found it to make something that is very simpe very complicated, but that is my opinion, many people swear by this method, even some very acomplished photographers like Arentz. I think that you will find there is no "magic" way to do this, but to photograph and gain experience. The books help to understand what is going on, but there is no substitute to being out there making negatives. Good luck and I hope you enjoy LF as much as I have.

-- Jorge Gasteazoro (, November 30, 2001.

Zone VI Workshop by Fred Picker, very simple. Pat

-- pat krentz (, November 30, 2001.

I agree with Jorge about the BTZS being an overcomplication. Of course, some people think that ANY zone system is too much to deal with, but like Neil Poulsen said, the point is to produce a predictable printing situation. That can't be done consistently without effort. Everyone sets out on this path and decides where to camp out, but don't let the worry that you haven't found the RIGHT system yet keep you from making photographs. Your experience with your own equipment and darkroom procedures is your best teacher.

-- Don Welch (, November 30, 2001.


Ask yourself this question: Do you engage in photography to play with the aparatus and dwell on the esoterics of technique or do you have a personal vision that you would like to communicate with others?

If your interest is in the acquisition, possession, operation and technicalities of the equipment and materials then you don't have a problem - read all of the books mentioned & more and between reading bouts get out there and test. Few things will give you the heartfelt satisfaction of a perfectly exposed and developed set of negs of an out-of-focus grey card ... and you'll be able to astound your associated by being able to repeat the production of this wonder time and time again. You will not be alone; techno boffins abound in numerous and vociferous gaggles. Have fun with them.

On the other hand, if it is your ambition to communicate your ideas and attitudes to others, or just yourself, through the photographic medium then do as some others have suggested and follow the KISS rule. Keep it simple, stupid.

Go to the source: Ansel Adams 'The Negative'. Materials and equipment has changed in the years since AA was scattered atop his mountain but the principles of exposure and development of which he exponded have not. I have been engaged in this craft since 1965 and have read many, many books that have tried to expand on or simplify Ansel's information. The unadulterated source is still the best starting point. The only other book that I found worthwhile is 'The New Zone System Manual' (White - Zakia - Lorenz) which discusses varying developer dilution to adjust mid-tones. But even that book is for later.

First: get 'The Negative' - determine your personal Exposure Index for your chosen film (only 1 to start with) and the development time to render Zone VIII as Tone VIII on paper THROUGH YOUR ENLARGER.

Second: get Ansal's 'Examples - The Making of 40 Photographs' because in it he expands on the most frequently mis-used element of the Zone System - 'Pre-Visualisation'. To know what he felt at the time of exposure and to understand his reasoning for implementing the techniques that he did is worth a fortnight of being bent over a densitometer.

The choice is yours. Go for it! in whichever of the two schools you lean towards.


-- Walter Glover (, November 30, 2001.

You're making this more complicated than it needs to be. There's only one zone system. Different people have adapted it to their personal needs in different ways and once you learn the zone system you too may make some variations in its application (e.g. while the common recommendation is to place the darkest shadows in which you want detail on zone III, many people have found that this leads to underexposed negatives and so they place those shadows on Zone IV instead; or while the common recommendation is to place the brightest highlights in which you want detail on Zone VII, many people place them on Zone VIII or higher). But these kind of differences don't represent something different from the zone system, they're just different ways of applying it. So I think any decent book will work fine for you. The zone system is simplicity itself - once you've done the testing. With respect to "Beyond the Zone System" - Phil Davis has said many times that he regrets coining the phrase "Beyond the Zone System" since his ideas and testing methods are based on the zone system, they aren't a substitute for it as the title "Beyond the Zone System" incorrectly implies. I've attended two of his workshops and read the book several times. It's an excellent book and his testing methods are much quicker and easier than standard zone system testing methodology but IMHO the book is too advanced to be used as a starter zone system book. Some of the other books people have mentioned here would, again in my opinion, be better.

-- Brian Ellis (, November 30, 2001.

I agree that AA's books The Negative and Examples are excellent sources. AA explains the Zone System in a very straightfoward manner and does not get overly technical with it. There is a separate appendix that gets into sensitometry which is somewhat important in first doing the film testing but in the end you will find that there are variables that will be out of your hands (call it Mother Nature). After using the system for a while you will probably find that being overly precise by doing graphs and charts as some spouse as important will lead to boredom. The point of the Zone System is to make beautiful photographs, not to plot how a certain film-developer-paper combination will look on a chart !

Examples shows and explains how AA made some of his photographs and he goes so far as to even talk about his mistakes and what he probably should have done, this is how one learns.

-- Jeffrey Scott (, November 30, 2001.


I endorse 100% Fred Picker's Zone VI Workshop. I found it the best source, and his examples of variations in exposure were a surprise to me.

BUT, even St. Anselmo could distinguish the Aspens from the forest behind. All this jazz is just a means to an end. Spend one or two days on getting your film speed and developing time down with one standard film/dev combination (TriX and HC 110 or Xtol), then shoot. I always take one shot at the indicated reading and one more at one stop over, to accomodate the slop factor.

Remember reciprocity failure and bellow extension factors. The real work will come in the movements and fully exploiting them to make it all worthwhile.

Then after you've mastered all the tecnical stuff, when you have big negs, try Platinium or Palladium/Platinum printing for a real revelation.

I hope you have not been overloaded with optoin from this post.


-- RICHRRD ILOMAKI (, December 01, 2001.

I'll chime in as a LF photographer of a bit more than a year now (and SF for 25 year). I found BTZS quite useful, but I simplified everything by assuming an "average paper". This is where the "slop" in the system is critical. While Davis is correct that the range of the paper should ideally be matched with the film, unless you have a large freezer filled with that paper, can you really be confident that you will be printing on that paper emulsion? Since I want to use my negatives decades from now (maybe even scanned, etc.) I strive to create average good negatives and ignore discussions of tuning for individual papers. Contact printing and the like are a different matter of course...

-- Eric Pederson (, December 03, 2001.

Hey guys, Harry Pothead & the Wizards magical mystical weed is a JOKE. I live in Utah, for crying out loud! (where 6 wives is 'OK', but half a gram is a prison sentence) I know many who use the Zone System religiously, even one friend who has the AA red book with the pages all faithfully written down with exposure info for every LF image he has done for over 30 years! His work is excellent. I am a proponent of the Zone System but don't believe in getting too anal about it. The basics... yes. Constant testing... no. Get it close & live with it & tweak as needed.

As for the 'slop factor' in LF, it is there even when we don't like it. A bit of bellows extension, an aperture ring that isn't quite there all the time. A meter reading that is nice & close but not 'exact'. Shutter speeds that test fine on the tester but do change a bit in hot & cold. Film that may have not been treated perfectly. It all adds up. Getting it close & living with it it a lot easier for some of us than obsessing over ever smaller fractions.

No matter what one does, if they are consistent & can learn from the prints that come from the negatives, and understand what a quality print actually does look like, they can do just fine. A 'system', zone or whatever, faithfully applied does help take a lot of worry out of the process and can only help one to create better work as it frees up the mind to concentrate on the image rather than the process.

And no, I don't have 6 wives. But I know a few who do.

-- Dan Smith (, December 03, 2001.

Mercy! 25 different personalities, 25 different zone systems.

Think of the ZS as a concept, not a book of rules to obsess over. Simmons chapter in his book Using the View camera is helpful, as is Picker's Zone VI workshop. Take the concepts and ultimately you'll devise your own system. Like me, if I write N-1! really dark and heavy and with an exclamation mark or 2!!! it means N-2 or 2 1/2 even. Get a grasp on what the ZS is there to accomplish for you, and modify it to suit your personality. When you get good at it (couple of trash cans full of film ought to do it) don't write another book about it. There's already too many. If you're struggling, ask the folks here. J

-- Jim Galli (, December 03, 2001.

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