View Full Version : Are there reasons not to use the Zone System?

10-Jan-2004, 17:57
If so, what are they? Do they apply generally or only in particular situations and, if the latter, what are those situations?

John Kasaian
10-Jan-2004, 18:11
Perhaps someone will correct me, but I can't imagine using the zone system for aerials, or for that matter, when shooting handheld press cameras, nor (now someone can really jump on my case) I doubt if there would be any advantage. (OK, let the criticism begin!)---------Cheers!

David A. Goldfarb
10-Jan-2004, 21:17
For handheld work or rollfilm, one still might use the zone system, perhaps not spot metering each shot, but metering at the beginning of the shooting session, taking note of the lighting conditions, and exposing and adjusting development accordingly. For instance, in flat light you might just decide to extend development for everything you shoot under those lighting conditions, without spot metering and taking notes for every shot.

It's not the only way to work. If you can recognize a good negative or have someone to show you what a good negative looks like, then development by inspection is just as good a procedure.

Part of the success of the zone system (and related approches), I think, is that it can be learned from a book. With a densitometer and a spot meter you can quantify the brightness range of a scene and correlate it with quantitative values for density on the negative and relatively quickly gain control of the process by understanding what is going on on the film with changes in exposure and development time.

Ralph Barker
10-Jan-2004, 23:07
"Are there reasons not to use the Zone System?"

Sure. In addition to the development-by-inspection alternative David mentioned:

1. Laziness ;-)

2. Shooting under controlled studio conditions where you typically would adjust lighting ratios to suit the objective, rather than being forced to adjust exposure and development.

3. Shooting color (except you can still use some elements of the spot metering element to place values)

As the Zone System provides a means of compressing or expanding the luminence range of the scene to fit the capabilities of the medium, I don't see that the hand-held situations John mentioned would be excluded from considering use of the Zone System - except to the extent that spot metering might be difficult or take too much time.

Ken Lee
11-Jan-2004, 06:10
Are there reasons not to use the Zone System ?

There's nothing special about the Zone system. It just provides a vocabulary that describes ten shades of grey, and teaches you how light meters and developers work.

In the printing world, as in the world of professional audio and video, the tools for describing and controling shades of color and sound are far more precise than just 10 zones.

You could make a video recording of your child playing the piano, and "not use" the focus and the volume setting - but you'd probably feel a little silly, because you know how things work. But when you're in a hurry, you do what you can.

John Cook
11-Jan-2004, 06:31
While the Zone System, or some derivative, is an excellent way of working, it has one danger. One tends to get into the mind-set that lighting conditions are fixed and that exposure/development are secondary and always must be adjusted to fit the static light situation. Any situation. No matter how ugly the light.

A photographer trained in product or portrait photography is taught that light has character as well as quantity. And every object, from varnished wood furniture to black leather, to gleaming chrome and silver, to lead crystal glassware, to human skin, has a light ratio, light direction and brittle/diffuse character which flatters it best.

When using the Zone System it is necessary to know when to adjust your technique to fit the situation and when it would be better to instead adjust the light with something like fill flash or simply wait for the sun to move. There are LF photographers routinely making technically exquisite photographs of very poorly lit scenes.

james mickelson
11-Jan-2004, 07:41
But even most photographers who are taking images in poor light conditions "know" that they might need or want to manipulate their developement to suit the conditions as well as their vision of what they want the image to look like in the end. Which is all the zone system does. It gives the photographer another tool, another way of creating, with the materials at hand and the raw scene elements to create what they see. Too many people get hung up either fearing learning this valuable tool, or being lazy and not using it to it's fullest advantage. No matter how you work, you are using the zone systems elements, unless you are using a disposable camera. The system is not an inviolable set of rules but simply knowlege that can be used to help create a vision. A departure from what is already there in front of your camera. There are many ways to any end point. Any image. It is just easier to get to where you want to go if you have directions, and the "zone system" is nothing more than a set of instructions that can be used to help produce your ideas. Eisenstadt never to my knowlege used the "zone system." Neither did Capa, or Bourke-White. But they knew their materials and equipment, along with techniques that enabled them to create something with their ideas. Don't discount something that many people use successfully just because you don't understand it or don't want to use it. But you might benefit from learning it's guidelines.

jerry brodkey
11-Jan-2004, 08:18
One example is provided by AA himself when he photographed Moonrise. He was driving along when he noticed the picture. He had just enough time to get out of the car and set up the camera. He used an exposure that he thought would work and took the picture. He wanted to take another shot but the light changed and the reflections from the gravestones were gone so he only got one shot.

Alot of our great photographers used to follow the mantra: Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights. Developing by inspection may be key here. The old timers didn't have light meters but they knew their materials.


Gem Singer
11-Jan-2004, 13:14
We "old timers" had light meters, but it took the Zone System to clarify exactly what our meters were telling us. The Zone System is based on the premise that we should "expose for the shadows and develope for the highlights". Tillman Crane made it clear for me when he stated: "Learn as much as you can about the Zone System, then forget it. You will find that the principles of the Zone System will enter into the procedure each time you make an exposure to create an image with a camera". No need to consiously figure it out. Even auto-exposure film and digital cameras have Zone System principles built into their electronic light metering brains.

jerry brodkey
11-Jan-2004, 13:37
Eugene, By "old timers" I meant people like Emerson, Stieglitz, Steichen, Evans, Outerbridge, Atget, etc. The Weston light meter wasn't available until about 1932.


Gem Singer
11-Jan-2004, 20:04
Jerry, I was born in 1930, so I do qualify as being an "old timer".

Armin Seeholzer
12-Jan-2004, 04:20

It is in my opinion good to understand the zone system, but sometimes and not very seldom I work just out of the stomach, but for thad you have to know your materials and thats "the why", not always to change your materials and why I work for a long time with the same film and developer! Good light!

Christopher Nisperos
13-Jan-2004, 14:33
Hi Rory,

Funny question. Makes me think that the Zone System might be dangerous under certain conditions ("Do not use the Zone System in a flammable area!") But seriously, it's more difficult to think of reasons NOT to use the Zone System than the contrary. As an extreme example, I guess you wouldn't use it (or try to apply some aspects of it) in cases where you wanted to exercise control over the results.

I like to think of the Zone System as a sort of "bubble-gum sensitometry" —and sugar-free, at that— because it's not as accurate as the real science, but offers enough to give you the flavor. To that extent, one might say that any black & white photograph taken by traditional means inadvertenty uses elements of the Zone System. Whether or not the photographer consciously applies those elements is another question. I tried once.. not to use it.

My first studies of the Zone System taught me to give enough exposure to the film to ensure adequate shadow detail. Then I read in books on b&w studio portraiture that highlight detail was king. The shadows could go to deep, dark hell, as far as they were concerned! Exposure and development for highlight detail was the priority. A good portrait negative was described as being rather thin. "AH.. here's a reason NOT to use the Zone System", I thought. I followed the books' instructions and made some nice portraits, but I didn't know why it worked.

I was really perplexed. I hadn’t yet understood that the maxim, “expose for the shadows“ assumed that the photographer had no control over the illumination of the scene. The Zone System, in effect, seems to have been formulated primarily for “wild“ light conditions (outdoor, uncontrolled, too-far-for-fill-flash, etc.). Therefore, I kind of agree with Ralph Barker. I guess his point is that shooting under studio conditions negates certain Zone System 'necessitities'. Instead of having to “place“ the shadow values to make sure they’ll be seen … you just light them (or, as John Cook said, “adjust the light“).

On the other hand, Fred Archer, the co-inventor of the Zone System with Ansel when they both taught at Art Center College of Design, wrote a book on studio portraiture (published in 1948) in which he describes the placement of of highlight values. He also talked about “minimum exposure“, “departures from normal development“, developing “ for the contrast needed to print within the scale of a normal grade paper“, and a bunch of other terms in Zone-Systemese! His writing style was pedagogic. Really easy to understand.

Here you have an example of where the Zone System isn’t strictly “needed“, but still proves useful not only for picture-taking purposes, but for educational reasons. Afterall, Archer and Adams devised the system not only as a practical working method, but as a way to “fool“ non-photographer students into learning photographic technique. Sensitometry itself is skimmed over, but enough of its basic concepts, terms and aspects (characteristic curves, threshold, density range, etc.) are conveyed to give the beginner a cursory understanding of the science. Not beyond. “Learn it and forget it“, yes ..but learn it! I believe that the Zone System, while not perfect, is still the quickest way to learn the technical basics of traditional, silver-based photography, from idea to image. Whereas sensitometry helps you think like the film and paper, the Zone System helps you think like the picture. In fact, that's the most important aspect of the Zone System: visualisation. Can anyone really claim to have an artistic approach without it? Plus, even under studio conditions, it’s nice to know if your shadow details will print! Until the Zone System arrived, most beginning photographers just guessed at their results (still do). The Zone System gives us the possibility of humming the music before we write the song.

So, the best reason I can think of NOT to use the Zone System would be for certain types of conceptual photography or photograms and the like. Also, I agree with Ralph Barker that laziness is one reason, but I would add 'time constraints' and impatience.

Sorry for the long answer. In any case, hope this is helpful !

Best regards,

Christopher Nisperos

Pete Su
13-Jan-2004, 19:42
You might not use the zone system if you aren't taking pictures of subjects or in situations that make using the zone system practical.

james mickelson
13-Jan-2004, 22:04
A number of people seem to miss the point of the zone system or any system for that matter. It simply gives you a means of control of your chosen materials. Simple. It is not control of your photography or vision but a means to control your materials and techniques so you can create what you want with your vision. Whatever you do with your material and technique is part of some system. And that is because technique, whatever you choose it to be, has been included within someones written description or recipe. You either gain some element of control over your materials, and create that which your mind sees, or you shoot in the dark, get whatever happens, and the tail wags the dog. Pete, you use elements of the zone system every time you expose film differently from the manufacturers suggested times, and develope that film differently from their processing times. The zone system, or any system, just gives you some type of control. If you don't want a full tonal range from the material, then you manipulate the material through some part of the process to get what you want. That is still a system. And that is all the "zone system" is. You want high key? Low key? Grainy? Lith like? Flat or contrasty? That takes some form of manipulation to get the look you want. If you want to get that look at any time you want it, then you have to use some form of system to come up with the same look at any given time. Call it any thing you want. Call it the "Pete" system. Too much time is spent by too many photographers trying to qualify their methods and not enough time learning to control their materials and methods. Learn the zone system and free yourself to create anything you want within the limits of film, chemistry, and paper.

Jeff Buckels
14-Jan-2004, 18:32
The laws of sensitometry govern contrast, whether one is using the zone system or some version thereof (incident metering) or not. But there are good reasons not to use the zone system, whether they are sufficient reasons in every case or not. Here is one: Study of the zone system gets some people all balled up in one narrow area of imaging-making, to wit, control of contrast in the making of negatives. There are other factors of equal importance (printing), some of greater importance (composition), and some of much greater importance (where you choose to put the camera in order to shoot -- what you put on the groundglass). Oh, and we have a great deal of great work (Cameron, Emerson, early Steichen, Atget, etc. etc.) by people who had only the dimmest ideas concerning sensitometry. I'm concerned that, due to all the fame of the zone system, a great many beginners are misled concerning the importance of contrast control, misled concerning the overall idea of image making. There are a few hints in AA's late-in-life autobio that he himself experienced similar twinges of doubt (consider the anecdote of AA's dismay when he realized he'd discouraged the amateur out at Point Lobos).... One more thing: I don't know much at all about digital imaging. Does sensitometry as we know it have any application there? I sense it doesn't. -jb -jb

John Kasaian
14-Jan-2004, 22:41

I have to agree with you. I see the zone system as a tool, its not THE tool, but its a very good tool, allowing unprecedented control over the negative and print. An unrepayable debt is owed to Ansel Adams, Fred Archer, (and probably some others I'm unaware of) who developed the technique. Hmmm....perhaps if these Pioneers were still around, they'd have been the ones to have unleashed Photoshop on the world? I don't know, but I do know that the zone system is not a religion, though it seems popular to embrace it as such(and woe to the unbeliever!) IMHO, if photography is about art, then one technique is niether superior or inferior to another(anymore than impressionism is superior or inferior to realism, acrylics to oils, or platinum to silver) when it comes to the final product---ultimately, it either satisfies or it dosen't. Certainly gain mastery of whatever tools you choose, but I don't think mastery of the zone system is the same as mastery of photography---if it were, every technically well done but unimaginative "zone" photograph would be a masterpiece and any imaginative photograph that wasn't the spawn of the "paint by the numbers(or zones) school would be relegated to the floor of the parakeet cage. IMHO, Whatever reasons you have for not using the zone system are good enough reasons.