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Thread: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

  1. #1

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    Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    I'm very much a beginner with large format photography (not that the zone system would seem to be only for large format) and have just started reading up on the zone system in the starter large format book i got (the one recommended by this site).

    It seems a lot of hassle from a newbie's point of view who hasn't even had a sheet of film developed yet, only 1 single roll film via my roll film back.

    Anyways, at a first pass read through it seems that a lot of the zone system is for handling contrast on the paper of choice.. well i'm only planning to scan my negatives onto a computer for the time being.. does this not eliminate a lot of the problems with contrast as i can tweak in photoshop if i need to.

    From my understanding it leaves me as needing to calculate the films effective iso to get good shadow detail at the desired zone III, from here i should be able to make the contrast into whatever i wish.

    Perhaps being more aware of the hilights if i'm shooting with transparency, which apparently isn't tolerant of over exposure like negatives are.

    Just a newbie question, am i really missing the point with this one or can you get by without a lot of the zone system if you are working digitallly?

    Cheers

  2. #2
    Resident Heretic Bruce Watson's Avatar
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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    Quote Originally Posted by jimbobuk
    Just a newbie question, am i really missing the point with this one or can you get by without a lot of the zone system if you are working digitally?
    IMHO, you are not missing the point. The ZS does not fully apply to a hybrid film/digital workflow.

    However (and there's always a "however"), what the ZS really teaches is how to correctly capture onto a negative what you need to make a fine print. And this doesn't change when using a hybrid film/digital workflow. The basic principle is still "garbage in, garbage out."

    What it comes down to is giving the film sufficient exposure to capture the shadow detail you want on your negative, and developing the film sufficiently to give you a Dmax that is optimized for your printing process. IMHO, this Dmax is somewhat lower for scanning than it would be for optical enlarging in the darkroom. But, if you optimize your negative for the darkroom, it will scan just fine.

    The ZS is an excellent place to start. If you learn it, and understand it, you can apply the parts that you want to get the prints that you want.

    Bruce Watson

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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    Quote Originally Posted by Bruce Watson
    IMHO, you are not missing the point. The ZS does not fully apply to a hybrid film/digital workflow.

    However (and there's always a "however"), what the ZS really teaches is how to correctly capture onto a negative what you need to make a fine print. And this doesn't change when using a hybrid film/digital workflow. The basic principle is still "garbage in, garbage out."
    I think that just because the ZS has analogue roots and we're talking about scanning - that the two aren't necessarily incompatible. Let's say this person has a consumer grade scanner that only hits (by empirical measurement with a step tablet) 3.0 Dmax. They could modify normal parameters of such a system whereby they're producing negs that hit a maximum of 3.0 Dmax. I think the ZS is an excellent fit for this purpose. The printing process and it's data would be replaced by the result on the scanner bed. I don't see why that wouldn't work.

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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    Thanks guys, food for thought..

    I will have to get a light meter soon, and a big enough camera bag that i can take an SLR along as well to take pics before deciding if a scene is worthy of unfurling the large format camera.. i've clearly got a good few months of learning to just get a handle on large format photography... maybe one of these days i'll stop buying a new camera system or paradigm and actually knuckle down to trying to develop my eye for a good photo opportunity.

    The zone system makes some sense, i'll definitely have to read up on it some more.

    The scanner's dmax analogy makes a lot of sense as well, which is why i was thinking that getting the shadows right and then not relying too much on getting the whites as white as they should be would be helpful in giving my fairly inadequate scanner the most chance of grabbing all the detail i want, in an albiet flat image that I can then make pop with some levels work on the computer. Of course if i ever do get a dark room and enlargers etc then my negatives would prove to be quite a pain to get good optically enlarged prints out of

    Cheers.

  5. #5
    Resident Heretic Bruce Watson's Avatar
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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    Quote Originally Posted by JW Dewdney
    I think that just because the ZS has analogue roots and we're talking about scanning - that the two aren't necessarily incompatible. Let's say this person has a consumer grade scanner that only hits (by empirical measurement with a step tablet) 3.0 Dmax. They could modify normal parameters of such a system whereby they're producing negs that hit a maximum of 3.0 Dmax. I think the ZS is an excellent fit for this purpose. The printing process and it's data would be replaced by the result on the scanner bed. I don't see why that wouldn't work.
    Have you ever seen a B&W negative that approached a Dmax of 3.0? I have (I made a few) and I've gotta tell you that it ain't pretty. Since I'm drum scanning, I could scan them easily. But like I said, garbage in, garbage out. The film (and therefore the resulting file, and the resulting prints) has a distinct "cooked" look. It's not something you want to do on purpose, trust me.

    Which brings us back to the ZS and a hybrid workflow. If you use the ZS as if you were building a negative for optical enlarging, with a Zone VIII value of around 1.2-1.3, scanning works fine. If you drop that Zone VIII value down to about 1.0, scanning works even better. This is because of the Callier effect - metallic silver scatters the light in scanners just like it does in enlargers. But because you are scanning, you can develop to a lower density, which means less metallic silver, which means less light scatter, which means better local contrast in your scan file.

    So you are applying the ZS to your scanning. Kinda. Sorta. In a way that's appropriate to the medium of choice.

    Bruce Watson

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    Resident Heretic Bruce Watson's Avatar
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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    Quote Originally Posted by jimbobuk
    The scanner's dmax analogy makes a lot of sense as well...
    It does seem logical. It just doesn't work that way in practice. The problem is that film doesn't want to be mistreated this way, and thus produces some odd artifacts.

    Remember that graininess is directly related to density. You'll also find that when the film gets really dense, the grain gets to be pretty ugly - malformed and mushy. Sharpness suffers too.

    But the joy of this photography gig is that you don't have to believe anything - it's just so easy to try stuff on your own. And that is without a doubt the best way to learn. You do the work, and the knowledge gained is yours to keep. No one can take that away from you.

    So go out and play and have some fun. If you learn stuff as a result, so much the better ;-)

    Bruce Watson

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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    I would not worry too much about the zone system at first. Pick a good developer/film combo that will give you a lot of range without having to be too dense. Tmax 100 in Xtol 1:3 works very well. Get an incident meter and start shooting film. If you have a little money to burn, shoot a hundred or two sheets of Polaroid film and you will get up to speed a whole lot faster.

    When you can reliably use the camera and can see what negatives are good and which ones are not, then you can start with the zone system. Of course, you might find that with a modern film/developer combo, you can go the rest of your life without needing the zone system.:-) While I am sure this does not apply to anyone on this forum, there are many LF photographers who seem to use up all their energy testing film and never quite get around to taking pictures.

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    Kirk Gittings's Avatar
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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    As an old ZS user, making the change to a scanning/digital printing workflow has changed how I use the ZS very little. I now want a slightly flatter negative so I am still placing important shadows on Zone III but developing the highlights of negatives to a Z VII instead of VIII. That is the only change. Same old Zone System giving me great negatives taylored to a specific output.
    Thanks,
    Kirk

    at age 67
    "The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep"

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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    Quote Originally Posted by Kirk Gittings
    As an old ZS user, making the change to a scanning/digital printing workflow has changed how I use the ZS very little. I now want a slightly flatter negative so I am still placing important shadows on Zone III but developing the highlights of negatives to a Z VII instead of VIII. That is the only change. Same old Zone System giving me great negatives taylored to a specific output.
    This is pretty much what I was trying to say - but Kirk said it simpler and without the red herring of mentioning the 3.0Dmax (which was meant as an upper limit - to prevent HIGHER than 3.0D from happening - not as a purposely-dense neg).

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    Re: Zone system - relevance when scanning negs digitally

    Jim,

    I agree with everything that has already been said by the posters above. The bottom line here is that the Zone System will help you get a good workable negative.

    If you have a bad neg... I'm not entirely convinced that you'll get maximum value from the scene just because of the digital process. So, the first thing, IMHO, is to get a good, workable negative. Then, apply the digital process to improve what is on the negative.

    If you can access the following two books... they're really well written in regards to The Zone System:

    1. The Leica Manual, The Complete Book of 35mm Photography, 15th ed, by Morgan, Vestal, & Broecker. St. Ansel wrote the chapter.

    2. The Art of Photography... an Approach to Personal Expression, 3rd ed, by Bruce Barnbaum. Chapters 8 & 9 deal with this topic.

    Both of these are great sources of information and, after being away from it for the last 10 years... I'm re-reading the material and learning a lot!

    Lastly, if I were in your shoes... I'd do as Ed suggested. Go out and burn some film. Have fun looking at the end results!

    Cheers
    Life in the fast lane!

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