Mastering the Zone System – Part 1: Zone System Metering

Mastering the Zone System – Part 1: Zone System Metering

2800 1867 Cory Miller

Most of us have experienced the feelings that accompany any big change; a combination of fear juxtaposed with excitement. First leaving home for college or starting a new job, or maybe picking up our first film camera, or making the jump to a new format. Sometimes we let fear get the better of us and delay our journey. Some of us quit before we even start. Change can be scary, yes, but it’s also the only way to grow and develop. When we finally work up the courage to embark on one of life’s new paths we realize there’s nothing to fear.

The climb to every summit inevitably starts with the first step, so the platitude says. This article serves as the first step in what will be a multi-part series surrounding mastering the technical aspects of photography. You will read a lot about Ansel Adams and the techniques he developed, how they forever changed our understanding of exposure and the precision with which it can be controlled. These techniques are universally relevant across all types of photography, from large format view cameras to the latest whiz-bang mirrorless marvels. 

Before we begin, I think it’s important to get something out of the way – whenever a discussion of the technical comes up there is always an apparent conflict with creativity. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely a subset of photographers who love playing with densitometers and plotting curves. Conversely, there are also those who rely solely on creative or intuitive methods. Neither group is necessarily wrong, but both are likely coming up short of their desired results.

Technique is like a tool in your toolbox – it doesn’t always have to be used, but it’s there when you need it. Don’t be that person who says they are a natural light photographer simply because you don’t know how to use flash. Don’t say you don’t bother with exposure calculations because you don’t understand them. Instead, lets work on improving our skill and mastering our craft.

Technical mastery is freedom. When we can control our process and know what results we will get, we will be free to create whatever kind of photograph we want. We don’t have to bracket and hope for the best. We don’t have to wonder if our image will turn out. With the proper technique, we know. 

Ansel Adams and the Development of the Zone System

Few people have the unique ability to be both a skilled practitioner and a good teacher. Ansel Adams was an exception. He not only became the most well-known photographer in his time (and since), but has left behind in writing all of his knowledge for those of us who care to learn it. 

For Ansel, mastery wasn’t always the case. He admits in his book, The Negative, that his early days were spent working via trial-and-error. His decades of experience allowed him to utilize intuition, like developing for more or less time depending on how contrasty a scene was, but he admits, “The process on the whole was empirical, uncertain, and often fraught with failure.” 

It was when he began attempting to teach others that he noticed his own shortcomings. The only thing he had to offer students was a demonstration of his own particular technique with the hope that they would be able to arrive at a similar result through their own experimentation. His analytical and scientific mind drove him to develop a new technique that would not only deliver precise, predictable results, but one that would apply to any genre of photography. 

Ansel Adams developed his famous Zone System along with Fred Archer at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the 1940s. The roots of their system were based on the experiments of John Davenport, who demonstrated that the same density on a negative could be achieved with different amounts of exposure by changing the amount of development. Consequently, the Zone System is rooted in sensitometry, which is the measurement of light transmission through a negative.

The genius of Adams and Archer’s technique and the reason all of this mattered and still matters is that they developed a metering and processing method that allows the user to measure the light and achieve the result they want whether it be a literal representation of the scene or a dramatic departure from it. 

The Zones

There are ten zones in the Zone System, and each zone represents a difference in exposure of one stop. The zones range from total black at Zone 0 to pure white at Zone X. Zone System Metering allows us to take a light meter reading of a subject and place it anywhere on the range of tones from total black to pure white. I should add that although the majority of this series discusses (and will discuss) black-and-white film, the principles are the same for color negative film, color slide film, and digital imaging, with certain considerations (which I will cover later in this article). 

Value Range Zone Description
Low Values Zone 0  Total black in print. No useful density in the negative other than filmbase-plus-fog.
Zone I Effective threshold. First step above complete black in print, with slight tonality, but no texture.
Zone II First suggestion of texture. Deep tonalities, representing the darkest part of the image in which some slight detail is required. 
Zone III Average dark materials and low values showing adequate texture.
Middle Values Zone IV Average dark foliage, dark stone, or landscape shadow. Normal shadow value for Caucasian skin portraits in sunlight. 
Zone V Middle gray (18% reflectance). Clear north sky as rendered by panchromatic film, dark skin, gray stone, average weathered wood. 
Zone VI Average Caucasian skin value in sunlight, diffuse skylight or artificial light. Light stone, shadows on snow in sunlit landscapes.
High Values Zone VII Very light skin, light gray objects, average snow with acute side lighting
Zone VIII Whites with texture and delicate values; textured snow; highlights on Caucasian skin
Zone IX White without texture approaching pure white, thus comparable to Zone I in its slight tonality without true texture. Snow in flat sunlight. 
Zone X Pure white of the printing paper base; specular glare or light sources in the picture area.

It will be useful to reference back to these zones frequently and commit them to memory or create your own chart to stash in a camera bag or wallet. Tattoo it on your arm if you’re really committed. 

Tools of The Trade – Light Meters

You might have surmised it would be difficult to discuss the topic of Zone System Metering without talking about light meters. Before we get into specific models, it is important to understand the two basic forms of light measurement: incident and reflective.

Incident meters measure the light falling onto a subject. They are the meters with the white globe that portrait photographers shove under a subject’s chin. They are incredibly useful and accurate meters when your subject is in close proximity to you and in the same light. Because they measure the light falling onto a subject instead of light reflected off of it, the different tones or light values of the subject will register on their proper zone automatically. There are certain methods that are variations of the Zone System that use incident meters, but for the most part the Zone System relies on reflective metering.

Reflective meters measure the light that is reflecting off of a subject as opposed to the light falling onto it. Unlike incident meters, reflective meters require interpretation from the photographer. A dark subject reflects less light than a light subject because they possess different subject luminance. As a result, a measurement of the highlight and shadow of a subject in the same light will produce dramatically different meter readings. The biggest advantage of reflective meters is that the photographer does not need to be in the same light as the subject. It would obviously be impractical to hike to the top of a mountain to obtain an incident meter reading in a landscape. Although reflective meters may seem more difficult to use initially, they are the type of meter that opens up the world of creative interpretation via the Zone System. 

With both types of meters, it is important to remember that they are machines and incapable of interpreting the light they are measuring. All meters are calibrated to 18% gray or Zone V. Therefore, unless you are metering a gray card or a subject that is equal in luminance to middle gray, your exposure will be off without adjusting your exposure up or down depending on where it falls among the different zones. In order to isolate the different tones of a scene and obtain the most accurate reading, we want our meter to measure the most narrow area possible.

With the different forms of light measurement out of the way, lets discuss some specific examples of meters and how they may or may not be suited to our needs.

In-Camera Meters – In-camera meters are reflective meters. They have varying utility to the Zone System depending upon the size of the area which they measure. Average meters measure the entire frame and are therefore relatively useless for isolating different tones in a scene. Center-weighted meters take in a large portion of the frame with the emphasis being on the central 20-30% and are therefore slightly more useful. Most modern cameras and some vintage cameras come equipped with spot meters, which are ideal for the zone system, although some have larger fields of view than others. Matrix meters are a more recent development and attempt to replicate the Zone System by taking multiple measurements within the frame and then using an algorithm to predict the type of scene being captured. The camera can then adjust the exposure accordingly. Although some matrix meters are extremely good at dealing with tricky lighting situations, they remove the creative input and wrestle control from the photographer. 

Smartphone Meters – Metering apps on today’s smartphones are reflective meters. They utilize the phone’s camera to measure light. If your camera doesn’t have a built-in spot meter, this is the cheapest (i.e. free) way to start experimenting with the Zone System. The downsides are that the area in which the meter reads is typically pretty large and you have to hope your phone doesn’t die while shooting. An exception to the phone camera meters is the Lumu meter, which plugs into your phone and functions as an incident meter. 

Incident MetersSekonic L-308, Sekonic L-358, Gossen Luna-Pro, etc. These meters are great for studio use and up-close subjects, but not for the Zone system. 

Combination Incident/Spot Meters – Sekonic L-508, 558, 758, etc. This type of meter combines the best of both worlds with separate incident and spot meters. If you want a single meter that can do everything, I would recommend something similar to this. 

Pentax Digital Spot Meter – This is my preferred meter for Zone System use and my recommendation for anyone who wants to get serious with this technique. It is only a spot meter and is extremely simple in operation. It measures a one-degree spot through a massive viewfinder. It reads reflective light in terms of exposure value (E.V.) and reads in one-third stop increments. The reason this type of meter is superior to other types of spot meters is because of the scale that rotates around the lens.

Although complicated in appearance it is extremely simple in use. It allows the light reading to be placed in any zone quickly and without counting stops in your head. The E.V. system allows you to see all equivalent exposures at the same time depending on which aperture or shutter speed you want to use. It is rugged and simple in design, and runs virtually forever on a single battery. 

Practical Application of Metering Technique

Now that we understand the basis of the Zone System and how different light meters work, let’s dive into how to put this metering method into practice. You have most likely heard the phrase, “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights.” We will get more into the develop portion in a later part of this series, but for now we will focus on the “expose for the shadows” part.

In black-and-white negative film, the shadows represent the areas of the negative with the least amount of density. These “thin” areas allow the most light to pass through the negative, which results in a darker positive print. 

Looking back at the chart of different zones, we see that Zones III through VIII represent the “textural zones.” The important parts of our scene must land in this range in order to retain detail. We can control highlights to some degree through development techniques and printing or editing in a hybrid workflow, but there is no way to recover shadow details that are not recorded on the negative. Therefore, in most instances, we determine our overall exposure by placing the shadows where we want them and then evaluating where other parts of the scene fall along the different zones based on that exposure. A greater number of zones between highlight and shadow represent a scene with higher contrast. 

Procedure for Zone System Metering

  1. Evaluate the scene and visualize how you want the final print to appear.
  2. Take a meter reading of the darkest part of the scene that needs to retain shadow detail and place it in Zone III. (Remember that all meters read for Zone V. In order to place a reading in Zone III, it needs to be two stops darker so either increase shutter speed by two stops or close down aperture by two stops). This is your exposure.
  3. Using the exposure you set in Step 2, evaluate other important areas of your scene. The brightest important highlights that need to retain detail should be no more than 3 stops over your exposure (i.e. Zone VIII)

As with most things, understanding comes from practical application. Below are some real-world examples of Zone System Metering.

This first series of images above, along with the second series below, illustrates how your meter tries to make whatever you are metering land in Zone V. In the first image, I metered the darkest shadows (the exposed roots on the hillside in the middle of the frame) at E.V. 12. I decided to use an aperture of f/11 so my shutter speed was 1/125th for TMAX 400 exposed at box speed. In the second image, I metered the highlights (sky) at E.V. 17, which gave me an exposure of  f/22 at 1/1000th. There is a five stop difference between these exposures because the meter automatically places each reading in zone V. You can see in the two images that the tonality of the roots and the sky is the same. The third image was made by placing my initial shadow reading of E.V. 12 in Zone III, which gave an exposure of f/16 at 1/250th. At this exposure, the sky fell into Zone VIII, which is within the tonal range of the film.

In the example above the important shadow detail was the pole in the foreground metered at E.V. 12. The brightest important highlight was the white metal roof of the barn in the background, which I metered at E.V. 17. My exposure in the third image was made at E.V. 14, which placed the pole in Zone III and the roof in Zone VIII 

In the image below we see a good example of how a meter can show us things our eyes cannot perceive. The gravel in the foreground appeared darker to my eye than the blue sky, but they both metered at E.V. 16 and you can see they are the same tone when reproduced on black-and-white film. The roof was E.V. 17 and the pallets were E.V. 15. My exposure was made at E.V. 16, which made both the gravel and sky Zone V, the roof Zone VI, and the pallets Zone IV.

The color image above is a simple cell phone photo of the scene. I metered the shadows (dark areas of trees and grass under tongue of trailer) at E.V. 10 and placed it in Zone III on my meter’s dial. The highlights (brightest reflection on Airstream) metered at E.V. 15 and fell on Zone IX. This was fine for this scene as the bright reflections did not need to retain textural detail, but are not totally blown out either. 

In the image below, the most important detail to me was the clouds. I wanted them to pop with brightness, but not lose detail. The brightest section of clouds metered at E.V. 15 2/3, which I placed on Zone VIII. The fence fell just above Zone VI and the grass at Zone V. If I had placed the grass in Zone III, the brightest cloud would have fallen on Zone VI and the scene would have appeared muddy and dark.

The photo above was taken moments after the previous example and was metered similarly for the highlights. The brightest clouds registered at E.V. 15 and were placed on Zone VIII. The grass fell on Zone V with the darkest areas of shadows in the leaves of the tree creeping into Zone II. Raising the exposure of the leaves to Zone III would have resulted in a loss of detail in the clouds.

The image below is another example of placing your most important value where you want it and evaluating where other tones fall along the scale. The windmill is white and metered at E.V. 16, which I moved to Zone VIII. The clouds also fell on Zone VIII, the stones in the foundation of the windmill are Zone VI. The trees in the background are Zone IV with the shadows at Zone III.

Other Considerations

Color Slide Film – The Zone System is not only applicable, but a virtual necessity for predictable results with slide film. Slide film has a more narrow exposure latitude than black-and-white film. Because slides are a positive instead of negative image, our most important detail is the highlights instead of the shadows. Similar to underexposure in black-and-white, over-exposure in slide film results in clear film base with zero detail. Therefore, it’s important to preserve highlights at all costs when shooting slides. Generally speaking, you have about two stops of useful dynamic range on either side of Zone V. When metering it’s important to make sure highlights don’t extend beyond Zone VII or they will be blown out. Shadows below Zone III will be black. 

Color Negative Film – Color negative is basically Zone System on easy mode. Modern color negative film has tremendous exposure latitude on the side of over-exposure. However, like black-and-white film, under-exposure is bad news. Under-expose your image and shadows will appear muddy with increased grain and color shifts. When metering, place your darkest shadows no darker than Zone III and let your highlights go as high as they want; you won’t blow them out. 

Digital – Think of digital as a combination of color negative and color slide film. By this I mean that modern digital sensors have amazing performance. They have huge dynamic range and produce clean images at ISO settings film could only dream of. They also avoid all the headaches of reciprocity failure when exposures extend beyond a few seconds. The only worry is over-exposure. Like slide film, if your highlights blow out on digital you can kiss them goodbye. When shooting check your histogram and as long as your highlights aren’t clipped you’re good to go. 

What’s the point?

Above we see a flat scan on the left and a final darkroom print on the right. I placed the shadows underneath the waterfall on Zone III. The majority of the highlights (snow) fell on Zone VIII except for the snow-covered boulder on the right of the foreground and the snow to the left of the top of the waterfall, which were Zone IX.

When in the middle of any journey, it’s easy to lose sight of the destination. For photographers, that endpoint is the final print. The entire purpose of the Zone System is to produce a negative with as much information as possible based on our visualization of the scene.

Ansel Adams, also a highly trained pianist, was fond of comparing the negative to the score and the print to the performance. Sometimes his prints were fairly faithful to the real world and other times they departed wildly from reality approaching the surreal. With a good negative full of detail you, the photographer, have the raw material to play whatever performance you wish. Whether in the darkroom or on a computer, you won’t have a poorly exposed negative holding you back. 

Now that we’ve covered Zone System metering, the next part in this series will focus on testing for the ideal personal film speed of individual shooters, and developing times based on individual equipment and technique. 

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Cory Miller

Cory Miller is a hospital pharmacist and film evangelist. He lives in central Ohio with his wife and photo assistant/chocolate lab. Photography serves as a stress relief and creative outlet combining his love for science and art. His current obsessions are making silver prints in the darkroom and exploring the zone system.

All stories by:Cory Miller
44 comments
  • Great article! l’m gonna use my new OM4 to really get into the zone system. Looking forward to the upcoming articles.

  • I was under the impression an incident meter gave an accurate rendition of the entire subject. You seem to suggest that, like a reflective meter, it gives the subject a brightness of 18% gray.

    • Hey Tony, thanks for the great comment! Yes, incident meters generally give an accurate rendition of the entire subject IF that subject is evenly illuminated. Incident meters are calibrated to 18% gray like every other meter. They work by gathering a large sampling of light from all directions falling onto a subject through the white bulb which acts like a diffuser. This diffused light then hits the metering cell which gives a Zone V or 18% gray reading for all the light that strikes the bulb.
      Consider how they work if the subject is not evenly lit: if a model is illuminated by side lighting, you will get different incident meter readings if you point the bulb both at the light and away from it: you will get a highlight and shadow reading, respectively. Additionally, some incident meters (sekonic 358, 508, 558, 758, etc.) allow you to retract the bulb which essentially reduces the area of light in which the meter samples which further isolates highlight and shadow values.

      • I see it now Cory as I found another simply worded explanation. The incident meter is calibrated to give a reading that would make an 18% gray card appear as an 18% gray in the given light IF THERE WAS AN 18% GRAY CARD DIRECTLY BEHIND IT. Whether there is or not doesnt matter as everything would be given the exposure it deserves in relation to 18%gray.

  • Thanks, this was so in-depth and explained incredibly well! Does make me sad that the meter on my Olympus 35SP is non-functional though. Also, regarding digital: although it’s true that ‘if your highlights blow out on digital you can kiss them goodbye’, this is only really a problem for the highlights you actually care about. I’ve learnt that (with my ageing GF1 at least), there’s no point trying to avoid highlight clipping completely by under-exposing drastically. I’ve turned off the feature that flashes overexposed areas, and I am to just nail the exposure I want in-camera. If I’ve blown the highlights on my subject’s face, of course the photo’s ruined. But if I’ve blown the clouds in the background, and they were never an integral part of the scene, I don’t care at all. Sometimes it’s a creative choice too: essentially placing the whole sky in zone IX/X.

    • Callum, thank you for the kind words! Shame about your 35SP meter, but hopefully you’ll be happy to know I have a full review of the camera on deck!
      That’s a great insight about digital and I must admit I haven’t shot digital in any significant amount since 2014. Sensors have come a long way since then for sure.
      You did hit on something I think is important: you mentioned retaining detail in the highlights you care about. This is wonderful thing about the Zone System: the detail retained in the scene is entirely up to you as the photographer and your creative vision. We can either choose to reproduce a scene as faithfully as possible or isolate the brightest parts and let the rest fall into shadow.
      Thanks again for reading!

  • That doesnt make sense to me. you are saying that the meter will read in a way to make the well lit object 18% gray! BUT what if the object is not a zone 5 object? Everything I’ve read says the objects will be rendered as they actually are not zone 5. A reflective meter makes a well lit subject 18% gray or zone 5. Why use an incident if its just going to give you the same result as the reflective meter?

    • The metering cell inside an incident meter is calibrated for 18% gray like all other meters. The way it differs from a reflective meter is that it is placed in the same light as the subject and pointed back towards the camera thus measuring the light falling onto a subject instead of reflecting off of it. The diffusion dome ensures that meter cell measures a much larger area and gives an average reading for the light coming from all directions. If you have a meter that can retract the bulb like some sekonics, you are essentially reducing the area from which the bulb measures by shielding the sides.

  • I have a Sekonic L-308 light meter and was under the impression that it can function as both a reflective and an incident light meter, just not a spot meter. With the white flash dome over the sensor, it serves as an incident meter, measuring light falling on a subject from nearly 180 degrees. You can move the flash dome off to the side, exposing the sensor itself, which is somewhat recessed in the body of the light meter. Using the “ambient” setting on the meter, you can point the meter in the direction of your subject or scene and the meter will give you a reading based on an average of the reflected light in your scene. Using the L-308 in this manner gives the meter a field of view of approximately 40 degrees. So you’re getting an averaged Zone V reading for your entire scene or subject. It’s a decent reference point to start with when factoring in your aperture and shutter speed settings. A true 1 degree spot meter would be better but I’ve gotten decent results using my L-308.

    • Hey Lee! Yes, that’s exactly right. The 308 can do both incident and reflective, but like you mentioned the large field of view limits the usefulness of the reflective mode for measuring specific parts of a scene

  • The Zoan Cistern is based on a fundamental error: that the contrast of a negative/print should be adjusted to make all prints have a similar tonal range regardless of the subject brightness range. This is false. The contrast of the ‘system’ (negative + positive) should be kept within a narrow range, as this provides a ‘natural’ look to the mid-tones, especially. If a scene has a low subject brightness range, so should the print! A ‘flat’ scene should look ‘flat’.

  • (From: Negative Making for Professional Photographers, Eastman Kodak, 1956.):

    “As the portrait photographers have their adage, so also do the commercial photographers who say,
    “Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights.” Is this sound advice? First, let us
    examine this statement more closely. Admittedly, adequate exposure is desirable to record the
    important shadow tones. But to “develop for the highlights” implies that the time of development,
    or in other words, the gamma, should be varied in accordance with the brightness range of the
    scene. The idea is, of course, to prevent over-development of highlights, so the scale of tones can
    be kept within that which photographic paper can render. Thus, should a negative of a short scale
    subject, such as an average building exterior taken on an overcast day, be developed to a higher
    gamma than a negative of the same scene taken in brilliant sunlight? The answer is generally no;
    both negatives should be developed alike. This is probably contrary to the practice which some
    professional photographers advocate. The reasoning for this answer follows: Although photographers
    speak of “important highlights” and “important shadows,” for the most part it is actually the
    middle tones which are most important of all. Middle tones are, of course, the range of grays
    between highlights and shadows. Stated differently, middle tones of a negative or print are those
    densities which are not associated with toe or shoulder areas of the characteristic curve.

    It has been found through a series of comprehensive tests that for the great majority of scenes
    the middle tones should be reproduced at a gradient of 1.0 on a tone reproduction curve. This
    curve is a plot of densities in the print versus the logarithms of the luminances or
    “brightnesses” of corresponding areas in the scene. A gradient of 1.0 means that if there is a 10
    percent difference between two tones in the scene, then these same tones should be reproduced with
    a 10 percent difference in the print. Generally speaking, the middle tones should be reproduced
    with a gradient of 1.0, even if this can be done only at a sacrifice of gradient in the highlights
    and shadows.

    In other words, the majority of people want the middle tones of the print to reproduce most
    original subjects as closely as possible, regardless of the lighting conditions that prevailed
    when the pictures were taken. To do this, all negatives should be developed to the same contrast
    or gamma for the same printing conditions and paper grade.

    There are exceptions, of course. The “majority” of outdoor subjects in the tests mentioned
    previously included about 85 percent of picture-taking situations, such as portraits, landscapes,
    and architectural pictures taken in sunlight, in shade, and on overcast days. The remaining 15
    percent of the scenes had, for the most part, large and very deep shadow areas which comprised an
    important part of the subject. It was these latter scenes which the majority of observers thought
    were best printed on a paper one grade softer than normal. Thus, even for subjects with a long
    scale of brightnesses, it was found satisfactory to develop the negative as though for a normal
    scene and to let the range of paper grades compensate for the unusual nature of the subject. In
    other words, the varying lighting conditions may demand the use of a paper grade other than No.2
    for best results.

    However, unusual subjects in which heavy shadows may either be present or actually predominate the
    scene are usually treated differently by professional photographers than they are by amateur
    photographers. The professional uses fill-in flash illumination, whereas the amateur does them
    without the benefit of supplementary illumination. The flash converts an “unusual” subject into a
    “normal” subject, and as such requires a normal negative development and will print on a normal
    grade of paper.

    The degree of negative development for some subjects naturally depends on the photographer’s
    “artistic intent.” For example, suppose he were to photograph a sailboat at anchor during foggy
    weather. If it is thought that the fog lends a desirable pictorial effect to the scene, then it
    can be reproduced as the eye saw it with a normal negative development and a print on No.2 grade
    paper. If, on the other hand, a clear record picture of the boat was the photographer’s object,
    and the exposure could be made only under a fog condition, then the negative should receive more
    than normal development to compensate for the contrast-reducing action of the fog particles. In
    this case, over-development of the negative is desirable only if a print from a normally developed
    negative on No.4 paper grade would contain insufficient contrast. Accordingly, in view of the
    desirability of reproducing most scenes with a gradient of 1.0, and because of the wide control
    over contrast possible with various paper grades, it is highly advisable for the professional
    photographer to develop the great majority of his negatives to the same gamma.

    A sensible approach to planning a standard photographic technique, including the degree of
    negative development, is to strive for a negative that will print best on a normal grade of paper.
    Although there is no necessity to confine oneself to anyone gamma if several paper grades are
    available, it is only logical to aim for No.2 paper. If this is done successfully, the printing
    problem is simplified by using one grade of paper for most negatives. At the same time, the
    photographer is protected on both sides of normal by papers with greater or less contrast
    capacity, should an underdeveloped or overdeveloped negative accidentally result.

    Kodak processing recommendations for film are generally based on the use of diffusion-type
    enlargers, or on contact printing which results in prints of approximately the same contrast,
    everything else being equal. Obviously, these same processing recommendations should be modified
    by a reduction of 15 to 20 percent in gamma to suit condenser-type enlargers if prints of the same
    contrast are to be obtained.

    Individual preferences are shown in a survey made of several individual newspapers and the
    principal news photo services. The results showed that films were developed to gammas ranging from
    0.62 to 1.18, with an average of 0.85; that Kodak Developer DK-60a was the most popular of the
    developers, although a number of others were used; and that developing times ranged all the way
    from 4 ½ to 8 minutes. The photographers who preferred the lower range of gammas used condenser
    enlargers. The ones who developed films in the intermediate range used tungsten-source, diffusion
    enlargers, and those using the highest gammas employed mercury-vapor enlargers. In a similar
    manner, commercial and, to a lesser extent, portrait photographers also modify the basic
    development recommendations according to individual conditions.”

  • Kenneth Lundgren June 30, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    I bought The Negative and The Print books in early 80,s. Then I bought my OM4 1983, still use it.

  • None of this is necessary or desirable. B&W photography does not require this sort of voodoo! Pay no attention to the man behind the focussing cloth!

  • This all makes sense if you develop every image individually. But what is the benefit wit roll film? Even more if using a compensating developer (as we usually do with roll film)?

    • You’re absolutely right, of course. The zone system is absolute garbage from top to bottom.

    • The advantage is getting the desired exposure on the parts of the photo we deem important

      • It’s not that complicated. Just expose enough to capture shadow detail. Meter from the shadow area (usually grass) and go. That’s all there is to it.

        • Yes, that is enough to get the shadows exposed correctly but it wont tell you the range of brightness of all the objects in a scene and whether that range falls within the dynamic range of the film. this is information that allows the photographer to decide if he wants to shift his exposure from the ideal to capture detail in the highlights that might otherwise be lost

          • No, the negative can capture more than can be printed in some extreme cases. Film does not have ‘dynamic range’ (that is a music and audio term). The point is that if you always expose enough to capture shadow detail (meter grass in the shade) you will get a good negative. If the scene has extraordinarily high subject brightness range (SBR), you may not be able to print it all, so you will have to choose what to sacrifice, but in no case should you reduce the contrast of the negative or the paper. This distorts the tones, and it is very obvious. Negatives exposed under extremely high SBR will have a greater density range (NDR) than negatives exposed under low SBR conditions. Everything claimed in Zone System mythology is wrong. Every single thing.

  • Of course film has a Dynamic Range!! and it is less than the eye can recognize so one end or the oter will be truncated https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/dynamic-range-explained

    • No, film does not have ‘dynamic range’. Film has latitude. Dynamic range refers to the loudest and softest parts of a musical piece, and by extension to electronic signals representing music, and by further extension, to the capabilities of music storage mechanisms (such as tape, CDs, etc.).

      • you are wrong! It is not to be confused with dynamic range, the range of light intensities a medium can capture simultaneously. A recording medium with greater dynamic range will be able to record more details in the dark and light areas of a picture. Latitude depends on dynamic range. If the same scene can be recorded using less than the full brightness range available to the medium, the exposure can be shifted along the range without losing information in the shadows or highlights. Greater exposure latitude allows one to compensate for errors in exposure while retaining quality.

      • A release by Kodak showcased that most film has around 13 stops of dynamic range. Today’s modern digital cameras all average around 14 stops of dynamic range, with high-end units such as the Nikon D810 reaching almost 15 stops. Film continuous to deliver incredible dynamic range, but today’s digital technology can easy match it.

        Independent testing of dynamic range on film cameras, such as the tests conducted by Roger N. Clark, showed that high-end digital cameras in 2005 began to show “huge dynamic range compared to [scans of] either print or slide film”. Films used in the testing included Kodak Gold 200 and Fujifilm FujiChrome Velvia.

        https://petapixel.com/2015/05/26/film-vs-digital-a-comparison-of-the-advantages-and-disadvantages/

        • dy·nam·ic range
          noun
          noun: dynamic range; plural noun: dynamic ranges

          the range of acceptable or possible volumes of sound occurring in the course of a piece of music or a performance.
          the ratio of the largest to the smallest intensity of sound that can be reliably transmitted or reproduced by a particular sound system, measured in decibels.

          • Love your selective use of definitions! lol

            Photography

            Photographers use “dynamic range” for the luminance range of a scene being photographed, or the limits of luminance range that a given digital camera or film can capture,[52] or the opacity range of developed film images, or the “reflectance range” of images on photographic papers.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_range

      • http://www.artdecocameras.com/film/latitude/

        DYNAMIC RANGE
        The dynamic range of film is the ratio between the largest and smallest values of light intensity that the film can handle. Most negative film has around 13 stops of dynamic range. A stop is the doubling of the light intensity. This means that the highest brightness it can handle is 8192 times the lowest it can handle. This compares favourable with digital where only high end units can top that.

        LATITUDE
        When you frame a scene, it will also have dynamic range. For instance, a scene on a foggy day may only have a dynamic range of 7 stops whereas if you are pointing the camera towards a window from inside a room, the dynamic range between the room interior and the scene outside may be 12 stops. The dynamic range of the scene needs to be fitted into the dynamic range of the film by choosing the correct exposure value. As you can appreciate, it will be easier to ensure that the whole dynamic range of the foggy day is accommodated by the film. The ease by which you can accommodate the scene’s dynamic range on film is called latitude.

        Having a degree of latitude is important for vintage cameras, especially those of the Art Deco period, because you sometimes have very little control of exposure values. For instance, the Beau Brownie has a single speed shutter of about 1/40s with only 3 aperture values available – f/11; f/16; f/22. However, for most scenes, the degree of latitude is great enough to expect a reasonable image even though the correct exposure value is not possible.
        It is generally accepted that it is possible to overexpose film by at least 3 stops or underexpose by 1 stop and still get a useable image. Films like Kodak Portra have a documented useable range of +5 stops to -2 stops. However, to be safe, it is better to limit overexposure to +3 and underexposure to -1. As you can see, it is better to overexpose than to underexpose negative film.

        • Correction please:
          https://i.ebayimg.com/images/g/YwEAAOSwCE5bmff3/s-l1600.jpg

          Latitude
          The latitude of film is the ratio between the largest and smallest values of light intensity that the film can handle. Most negative film has around 13 stops of latitude. A stop is the doubling of the light intensity. This means that the highest brightness it can handle is 8192 times the lowest it can handle. This compares favourably with digital where only high end units can top that.

          Subject Brightness Range
          When you frame a scene, it will have subject brightness range. For instance, a scene on a foggy day may only have a subject brightness range of 7 stops whereas if you are pointing the camera towards a window from inside a room, the subject brightness range between the room interior and the scene outside may be 12 stops. The subject brightness range of the scene needs to be fitted into the latitude of the film by choosing the correct exposure value. As you can appreciate, it will be easier to ensure that the whole subject brightness range of the foggy day is accommodated by the film. The ease by which you can accommodate the scene’s subject brightness range on film is called latitude.
          .

          • Lol. You can call it what you like but that doesnt change what it in fact is. and 99% of the people involved call it dynamic so thats good enough for me. the point is you called it latitude and your post here clearly shows the difference between the two. so you just confirmed your own ignorance on the subject. my work is done here.

  • Tony:

    It makes all the difference in the world what terms you use. ‘Dynamic Range’ has a specific meaning, and it has nothing to do with ‘Subject Brightness Range’.

  • Well dozens of experts use the word dynamic to describe the range. and NOW youre using the term brightness to describe the same range. I’ll go with the experts thanks. AND I’ll remind you that you originally claimed this range was called the latitude but now your posts are confirming the fact that latitude and range are two different things. You try and pretend you never said that, and cloud that fact with all this nonsense about proper word usage but I have your claim in writing so spare me your pretense of expertise. Like I said, my work is done here

  • Read my posts again. My usage is consistent and correct. As far as ‘experts’ are concerned, read the Kodak literature.

    Scenes have Subject Brightness Range. Negatives have Density Range (or ‘Tonal Range’). Prints have ‘Tonal Range’. Scale refers to the slope of density change.

  • and film has dynamic range. give it up pal!
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_range

    Photography

    Photographers use “dynamic range” for the luminance range of a scene being photographed, or the limits of luminance range that a given digital camera or film can capture,[52] or the opacity range of developed film images, or the “reflectance range” of images on photographic papers.

    The dynamic range of digital photography is comparable to the capabilities of photographic film[53] and both are comparable to the capabilities of the human eye.[54]

    e.

  • I dont recognize your authority to declare the majority of photographers wrong and you right. They use dynamic range and have an entirely different use of the word latitude. You are just another opinion and in an obvious minority so I choose not to give a damn what you say. So in future when I use a phrase used by the vast majority and you dont like it, keep your opinions to yourself.

    • I repeat:

      Those photographers who do use the term that way are using it incorrectly. There has already been, for decades, a term for describing the subject brightness range. It’s called (amazing coincidence!): ‘subject brightness range’. There has been for decades, a term for describing the range of densities that a negative encompasses. It’s called ‘Density Range’. There is a term to describe the range of luminance that a film can accommodate. It is called ‘latitude’. If this value is exceeded by a significant degree, the film will actually begin to lose density, as can be seen at 23 seconds into this video, where the light is so intense that the explosion looks black, briefly:

      https://youtu.be/7dfK9G7UDok

    • From: Negative Making for Professional Photographers, Eastman Kodak, 1956.)

      ———————–

      THE COMMERCIAL NEGATIVE
      Commercial photography encompasses almost all subjects not included under the portrait category previously discussed. Commercial negatives would be typified by normal negatives of product illustrations for advertising, display, or catalogue purposes, press shots, and many types of industrial photography.

      Whereas in portraiture the photographer is primarily concerned with the reproduction of facial tones, in commercial photography he is interested equally in both highlights and shadows. In other words, the commercial photographer wants to reproduce all important portions of his subject with a minimum of tonal value distortion. In general, this means a slightly more dense negative in order to avoid the tonal distortion of shadows occurring in the toe portion of the characteristic curve. Many commercial photographers feel that these conditions are fulfilled if the average commercial negative receives about one stop more than the average portrait negative. Thus, the recommended technique for making a meter reading by either reflected light or incident light will produce negatives of the desired exposure level.

      It has been customary for commercial negatives to be developed somewhat more than portrait negatives. However, there is no photographic reason why an average commercial negative should be developed to a higher gamma than a portrait negative.

      As the portrait photographers have their adage, so also do the commercial photographers who say, “Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights.” Is this sound advice? First, let us examine this statement more closely. Admittedly, adequate exposure is desirable to record the important shadow tones. But to “develop for the highlights” implies that the time of development, or in other words, the gamma, should be varied in accordance with the brightness range of the scene. The idea is, of course, to prevent overdevelopment of highlights, so the scale of tones can be kept within that which photographic paper can render. Thus, should a negative of a short scale subject, such as an average building exterior taken on an overcast day, be developed to a higher gamma than a negative of the same scene taken in brilliant sunlight? The answer is generally no; both negatives should be developed alike. This is probably contrary to the practice which some professional photographers advocate. The reasoning for this answer follows: Although photographers speak of “important highlights” and “important shadows,” for the most part it is actually the middle tones which are most important of all. Middle tones are, of course, the range of grays between highlights and shadows. Stated differently, middle tones of a negative or print are those densities which are not associated with toe or shoulder areas of the characteristic curve.

      It has been found through a series of comprehensive tests that for the great majority of scenes the middle tones should be reproduced at a gradient of 1.0 on a tone reproduction curve. This curve is a plot of densities in the print versus the logarithms of the luminances or “brightnesses” of corresponding areas in the scene. A gradient of 1.0 means that if there is a 10 percent difference between two tones in the scene, then these same tones should be reproduced with a 10 percent difference in the print. Generally speaking, the middle tones should be reproduced with a gradient of 1.0, even if this can be done only at a sacrifice of gradient in the highlights and shadows.

      In other words, the majority of people want the middle tones of the print to reproduce most original subjects as closely as possible, regardless of the lighting conditions that prevailed when the pictures were taken. To do this, all negatives should be developed to the same contrast or gamma for the same printing conditions and paper grade.

      There are exceptions, of course. The “majority” of outdoor subjects in the tests mentioned previously included about 85 percent of picture-taking situations, such as portraits, landscapes, and architectural pictures taken in sunlight, in shade, and on overcast days. The remaining 15 percent of the scenes had, for the most part, large and very deep shadow areas which comprised an important part of the subject. It was these latter scenes which the majority of observers thought were best printed on a paper one grade softer than normal. Thus, even for subjects with a long scale of brightnesses, it was found satisfactory to develop the negative as though for a normal scene and to let the range of paper grades compensate for the unusual nature of the subject. In other words, the varying lighting conditions may demand the use of a paper grade other than No.2 for best results.

      However, unusual subjects in which heavy shadows may either be present or actually predominate the scene are usually treated differently by professional photographers than they are by amateur photographers. The professional uses fill-in flash illumination, whereas the amateur does them without the benefit of supplementary illumination. The flash converts an “unusual” subject into a “normal” subject, and as such requires a normal negative development and will print on a normal grade of paper.

      The degree of negative development for some subjects naturally depends on the photographer’s “artistic intent.” For example, suppose he were to photograph a sailboat at anchor during foggy weather. If it is thought that the fog lends a desirable pictorial effect to the scene, then it can be reproduced as the eye saw it with a normal negative development and a print on No.2 grade paper. If, on the other hand, a clear record picture of the boat was the photographer’s object, and the exposure could be made only under a fog condition, then the negative should receive more than normal development to compensate for the contrast-reducing action of the fog particles. In this case, overdevelopment of the negative is desirable only if a print from a normally developed negative on No.4 paper grade would contain insufficient contrast. Accordingly, in view of the desirability of reproducing most scenes with a gradient of 1.0, and because of the wide control over contrast possible with various paper grades, it is highly advisable for the professional photographer to develop the great majority of his negatives to the same gamma.

      A sensible approach to planning a standard photographic technique, including the degree of negative development, is to strive for a negative that will print best on a normal grade of paper. Although there is no necessity to confine oneself to anyone gamma if several paper grades are available, it is only logical to aim for No.2 paper. If this is done successfully, the printing problem is simplified by using one grade of paper for most negatives. At the same time, the photographer is protected on both sides of normal by papers with greater or less contrast capacity, should an underdeveloped or overdeveloped negative accidentally result.

      Kodak processing recommendations for film are generally based on the use of diffusion-type enlargers, or on contact printing which results in prints of approximately the same contrast, everything else being equal. Obviously, these same processing recommendations should be modified by a reduction of 15 to 20 percent in gamma to suit condenser-type enlargers if prints of the same contrast are to be obtained.

      Individual preferences are shown in a survey made of several individual newspapers and the principal news photo services. The results showed that films were developed to gammas ranging from 0.62 to 1.18, with an average of 0.85; that Kodak Developer DK-60a was the most popular of the developers, although a number of others were used; and that developing times ranged all the way from 4 ½ to 8 minutes. The photographers who preferred the lower range of gammas used condenser enlargers. The ones who developed films in the intermediate range used tungsten-source, diffusion enlargers, and those using the highest gammas employed mercury-vapor enlargers. In a similar manner, commercial and, to a lesser extent, portrait photographers also modify the basic development recommendations according to individual conditions.

      (From: Negative Making for Professional Photographers, Eastman Kodak, 1956.)

  • Kenneth Lundgren July 15, 2019 at 5:43 pm

    Tony, let him go. Enver Hoxha was an Albanian president known for crushing opposition brutally. Sems to be a fan follow his work.

  • youre right of course, Kenneth. I’m done with him. He’s a pompous ass

    • May I assume that you label everyone who knows exactly what he’s talking about a ‘pompous ass’? I assure you that my posts are accurate and correct. The Zone System is invalid, based on faulty reasoning, and useless. Read the quote from Kodak’s book, above, and then try to refute it using facts, not name-calling. (Of course, you cannot.) B&W photography does not require any arcane, mystical processes like the Zone System. It’s actully quite easy to get beautiful results.

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Cory Miller

Cory Miller is a hospital pharmacist and film evangelist. He lives in central Ohio with his wife and photo assistant/chocolate lab. Photography serves as a stress relief and creative outlet combining his love for science and art. His current obsessions are making silver prints in the darkroom and exploring the zone system.

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