Zone System - still relevant?

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Eric Rose

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This is an honest question, not a troll. My intention is not to denigrate the ZS but to assess it's merits in today world.

When it was first developed the world of photography was much different. Films, papers and chemistry lacked a lot of the latitude of todays products. The efforts of the ZS photographers of by-gone years were fantastic and produced amazing images.

In todays world however we have film that has greatly increased latitude, MG papers for split printing, bleach for "liquid zone" reduction and lenses with much more contrast than the lenses from the 30's and 40's.

I am wondering if one were able to get a good exposure by finding something in the frame that is equivalent to 18% grey or making a compensation for subjects either lighter or darker and then doing all the contraction expansion in the darkroom is possible.

What I am talking about here are the 85% of the situations we are normally presented with in landscape photography.

I suppose some will think I am commiting heresy here by suggesting that maybe there really is no need for the ZS anymore. But what I would like to do is start an intelligent discussion on the subject.

Eric
 

jmcd

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*this post has been moderated out. Explanation by Jorge below. -Sean
 

Jorge

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Eric, this topic was discussed in the Exposure Forum. Here is the link:

(there was a url link here which no longer exists)


Some good answers there too....
 
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The zone system will always be relevant to some degree. The mere fact that a meter reads at 18% grey makes it so.

Since I can't do my own printing and developing, I really don't use the ZS. To properly use it, you need to do your own darkroom work.

What I do use it for though is a better understanding of how my meter works and of how I should use it.

For example, I know that when I spot meter something, that meter is going to give me a value which will place that part of the picture squarely in the middle of the tonal range. Let's face it, 18% grey is the "beige" of the photographic world. Inoffensive and safe.
smile.gif


I can use that information as I see fit. For example, I will often spot the area where I want detail to be seen in the shadows and highlights. I then add or subtract two stops as is relevant. That gives me the "edge" of my detail. I know that if I spot a shadow, and then stop down two stops, I will get detail there, but no detail in anything darker. Same with the highlights.

Now, is this using the ZS? In a way. It is only after studying the ZS and talking to people that I learned to do this. I am not fully using the ZS. But I am using the whole concept of zones. I have a nice 7 zone spread to work with, and I know how to interpert my meter readings.
 

Jorge

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Ok guys I am having a little bit of a problem with the way this thread is starting.
Ross set a policy that none of the moderators would delete a thread without explaning to the membership why it was done. OTOH we dont want to see this site develop into the kind of site where snide or useless responses are given that we see in some sites, and the taunts that invariably follow. I think one of the greatest appeals of APUG has been its thoughtful and courteous responses. So if you see any topic you find boring or irrelevant please ignore it, one syllabe answers do not contribute anything to the topic and are mostly the beguinnings of flame wars. If you post a topic and get this kind of response, please refrain from aknowledging, I know it is hard but in the end it will be better for the topic you posted as it will keep the responses on topic. Ross and I will make a desicion as to the two initial responses and most likely they will removed.


After your friendly reminder from the APUG staff I will pitch in my two cents.

I think the ZS is still very relevant to learn how a negative should look. I would never be able to develop by inspection if I had not done all the ZS tests and knew what the negative should look like.
Can good negatives be obtanied without the ZS? Absolutely, but the chances of getting it right the first time are greater if one understands all the variables involved in making a good negative than if you do it by trial an error.

You talk about contraction and expansion in your post, how would you know this if you had not studied the ZS a little bit? The ZS is merely a very useful tool to quantify "tones". It is not a dogma, or a religion so I guess people should learn to take what they like about it and forget the rest. I hate testing, but invariable when I start to see problems in my film, falling back on the testing solves the problem and points to my mistakes.
 
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Actually it always has ben possible to achieve a good print using other techniques . Techniques like two bath development , flashing the paper , split contrast printing , etc. etc. , have existed for a while , i doubt that the use of a contrasty lens will give the same effect a N+1 development .
I don't agree that the film is better now , since it is not as rich in silver as it was before .
I see the zone system as a tool not to get to desperate measures to achieve the effect you want in a print . The other techniques require time and in some cases the result is not as good . what's wrong in having a good negative ?
Having said this , i rarely use the detailed zone system because i mostly shoot in situations where the film can record everything .
 

SteveGangi

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As long as people care about the quality of their photographs, ZS will be relevant. It is true that today's films are more forgiving, and the choice of paper is wider, but it still can be used to get The Look (lack of a better term) you wanted or pre-visualized. If you do nothing more than checking the contrast / brightness range before you hit the shutter, you are doing an "abreviated form" of ZS. Many people do just that, when shooting slide film. If like Jorge, Ed and many other people, you are doing your own developing and printing with diferent processes, then you might use a "larger percentage" of the zone system. They adjust the exposure and development depending on the subject and the type of final print they plan to make. I use it to some extent, because I want a negative that is "easy to print". A good negative makes a better print with less effort. In geek terms, I want decent input so I don't get into the "garbage in = garbage out" situation. I don't follow it very stringently, but it does help to at least understand it.
 

GreyWolf

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Interesting question Eric. I really do not know if the Zone System is still applicable to today's products, but I do know that it is helping me to understand exposure and development.

Now a friendly question for you.

Have you actually tried in practice to learn and use the Zone System or is this pure theory that you are basing you information on?

PS. I still idolize Ansel Adams, even if he was not the originator but just the assembler of the Zone System information. From all that I have read about him is that he was always attempting to share his knowledge and in no way trying to set himself on a pedastal.
 

David A. Goldfarb

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I think it is still relevant. If new materials are better than old materials--and I'm not really as convinced as I used to be that they are--then you could still use the zone system to understand their limits and maximize their performance. The zone system offers a good system for finding your bearings, even if you don't have a person who can show you what a good negative should look like, and it provides a method for quickly determining what a new film can do. Once you get the hang of it, you really don't need to do a lot of testing, as long as you stick to the same materials. Also, once you learn how to do the testing, you realize it isn't really that difficult or time consuming.

There are other good systems that people use. If you have a teacher to show you what a good neg should look like, you can learn to develop by inspection.

Above all, it's important to go to galleries and look at good prints--real ones, like the ones you will make yourself, and not reproductions in books or on the web-- to learn what is possible. They you will have an idea of what you might achieve with whatever techniques are available to you.
 
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Eric Rose

Eric Rose

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Well GreyWolf a fair question.

Yes I have used the ZS very extensively over the years. I still use it to some extent although I guess familiarity breeds contempt. Coming from a technical background such as yourself, I have found I can get totally wound up in all the techie stuff and produce exquisitely exposed and printed boring pictures. I guess right now I am swinging in the other direction. While I love using the LF camera, I have found that just taking an incident meter reading towards the subject, and then another away from the subject (towards me) and averaging them has been pretty reliable so far. This seems to work for about 85% of what I do. The remaining 15% is where I have to pull the wizardry out of the can.

Where I have most of my fun these days is in the darkroom. I've been printing for over 30 years and I'm still learning.

Eric
 

Jim Chinn

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The zone system is still relevant as a tool to learn how to evaluate a scene and make logical decisions on how you want values in that scene rendered based on what you know about the film and its response to exposure and development. If you have been exposing film for a long time the zone system becomes second nature and is used even if the photographer never studied it.

But if you understand film response to exposure and development you don't need the zone system. Weston never bothered with such things. He just averaged his meter readings or doubled the exposure indicated. I don't think his lack of technical expertise with the ZS compromised his talent. I have seen prints from both Adams and Weston in the same exhibition and Weston's were by far the better.
 

Donald Miller

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I think that this is a matter best left to the individual photographer to decide for themselves. Do I use the zone system for my exposures...you bet, and I feel that it would be much more difficult for me to come to a visualization of what I want the print to exhibit without it's use.

Fred Picker, God rest his soul, had a longstanding association with Ansel Adams and he got to a point of using what he called his "key day exposures", he got away from even using a meter because of his desire to accomplish what Weston had accomplished. Basically this amounted to nothing more then a downrated film speed, coupled with the "sunny 16" rule adjusted for overcast and hazy conditions. Did it work for him? Apparently well enough to satisfy himself. I have some of his prints and they do not exhibit the glow that I want from a print. But then he was not photographing or printing to satisfy me.

I think that Eric's original question should possibly have been self directed...Use your ideas and see if they work for you. Have the courage of your convictions, for Gods sake. Don't rely upon the opinions of others. Photograph in a way that has meaning for you. Learn your own lessons, if that is what you want to do.

Regards,
Donald Miller
 

b.e.wilson

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I find I apply the zone system, or at least its terminology, even thought I shoot color slides exclusively.

As mentioned above, exposure and development were not new things in Adam's time. His Zone System was really a formalized method of applying what was already known about exposure and development, and included film testing methods to assure consistency.

I've done some tests of my E6 development techniques, settled on an ISO for all films I use (not that many, really), and still try to make exposure corrections for how I want the R3/Type-35 print to look.

But without Adams I still would have done that, because that's what must be done when practicing non-random photography.

His legacy in my life is that I now refer to 18% gray as "5". So his System lives on. Barely.
 

jmcd

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Using the zone system allows you to tailor a scene of given contrast range so it appears on film with your desired range of contrast. One great benefit is that all your proofs can be printed to your standard grade and time, with a minimum of trial and error, and will resemble your vision of the final product. Also, I think in general it is easier to produce excellent prints on the middle grades of paper, so it makes sense to tailor your negatives to these grades.

If you are manipulating exposure and development towards a pre-conceived contrast range, you are building in some safety factor, knowing that your negatives will not need to be printed on the extreme grades, and I think this will definitely save much time in the darkroom.

Any complex process, such as practicing the zone system, sounds tediously complex when explained step by step. But with practice, using the zone system becomes intuitive and second nature. Even if you think, "Flat scene, extra development," you are practicing a simplified version of the Zone System. So, as a tool, I think it is helpful to the photographer, and so relevant.
 

LFGuy

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The Zone System helps me with consistency, and also helps me tailor what I see in the field to what I want to get using certain materials (papers, processes, etc.). I still guess beforehand what the exposure should be, just to check things, but I get pretty repeatable results with the Zone System.
(I do B&W almost exclusively)
 
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You know, maybe a more interesting question would be does anyone use the ZS as AA laid it out.

I've been browsing his three books (The Camera, The Negative, The Print) and I find he is probably one of the most technical photographers I have come across. I also recently got The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes by Chris James.

Comparing the two is interesting. While Adams goes for a very technical, very precise methodology, James goes for a more free-flowing experimental style. While both give you formulas for doing various things, Adams tends to focus more on precision and exactness. James literally says for some things "Just play around until it works for you".

While it may not be fair to compare the two directly considering content, history, etc., I think this illustrates how different people work.

Some people are very technical. They want a mechanical precision to their work. Repeatability. Perfection. Definatly Adams in a nutshell. Most of his work is done in LF with very good lenses (or the best he could get at the time). The plane of focus is sharp throughout the image. You can almost cut yourself on his images they are so sharp.

Others are more 'philosophical' about things. Like James. Most of hsi work that he presents in his book is done on a Holga. When he makes a print he tends to go for visceral feeling instead of technical perfection. While he knows his forumlas and processes, he is not a slave to precision. If it works it works. If it is reapeatable that is better, but he seems more focused on the end product.

How does this relate to the ZS? Well, I think people use the ZS differently too. There are some technical perfectionists who really use it. They take copious notes per exposure, they develop accordingly, and then will spend hours and hours making sure a single print is absolutely perfect. Others, like myself, will take what they can from the ZS. I am sure to Adams I am almost abusing his system in some ways. I think about the ZS for maybe a few seconds for the exposures that I use it on. Sometimes I barely use it! I simply have a vague notion in the back of my head as to what will be in shadow, what will be in the middle, and what will be in the highlights. I've used it on color slides even. I tend to pick it apart and use it as it suits me. Which probably places me more in the James camp. People like him are more concerned with the outcome. In the end the question is not so much is the ZS relevant, but how is it being used. The ZS as Adams wrote about it is probably relevant to very few people. The ZS as a tool which we can mold to our individual uses is probably still very relevant to most serious amateurs.
 

lee

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</span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (Aggie @ Feb 12 2003, 10:00 AM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'> For years I was told, &quot;meter for the shadows and shoot for the highlights.&quot; </td></tr></table><span class='postcolor'>
It actually is meter the shadows and DEVELOP for the highlights. Meter the shadow and then stop down 2 stops. That places the exposure at zone 3. Then measure the highlight and if there are 5 zones in the exposure the development is normal. So, it would count on your fingers z3 z4 z5 z6 z7 thumb to little pinky. Less than that then it is a normal -1 development. More than that normal +1 development. It is not actually that simple but for now that will work. Usually for N-1, the cautious zone system worker might be tempted to increase the exposure to support the shadow end of scene. The opposite is true for N+1 development. How much is the trick and the things tests are made of.

lee\c
 

David Hall

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I have noticed more and more people placing lowest shadow detail on zone IV instead of zone III (one stop down, instead of two). And someone elaborated on the idea by saying that you can always print down a hot negative, but you can never save an underdeveloped one. Makes sense, and I have been trying it, with pretty good results.

dgh
 

jmcd

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"And someone elaborated on the idea by saying that you can always print down a hot negative, but you can never save an underdeveloped one." David, do you mean but "you can never save an underexposed one"?
 

David A. Goldfarb

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That might depend on how you're rating your film. I think Zone III is pretty safe, if you've actually tested the film speed. If you go by the box, placing the shadow detail on Zone IV might be exactly the same as going by the speed test and placing the shadow detail on Zone III, since it's not unusual for the tested speed to be about a stop under the ISO speed for many film/developer combinations.
 
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