Mastering the Zone System Part 3 : Making the Final Print

Mastering the Zone System Part 3 : Making the Final Print

2560 1440 Cory Miller

This is the final article in our series surrounding the Zone System and printing techniques developed by Ansel Adams. In Part 1, we discussed metering via the Zone System. Part 2 demonstrated a method for determining personal film speed and developing times. In this last article, I will walk you through the process of pre-visualization to the final print. 

One of my favorite quotes about photography comes from Jim Richardson who said, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”

I don’t claim to be a good photographer, so finding interesting stuff is of critical importance. Since we’ve been exploring the techniques developed by Ansel Adams, I couldn’t think of a better place to point my camera than Yosemite National Park. My wife and I visited the park most recently in November during a greater road trip in which we fulfilled our dream of #vanlife by driving to and camping in some of the most beautiful places in this nation. It was truly a trip of a lifetime and one we hope to repeat in a different part of the country next year.

The image that is the subject of this article was Half Dome taken from Sentinel Bridge. This is by no means a unique vantage point. In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit I stood next to more than a couple people armed with smart phones as I metered and composed my shot, and I’m sure they all walked away with great images of an iconic feature of the park. 

My wife took this photo on Portra 400 using her Nikon FE.

I was using a Mamiya 6 with a 75 mm lens and Kodak TMAX 400. I used my Pentax Digital Spot Meter to measure the light. Shooting square, I wanted to emphasize the symmetry of Half Dome and it’s reflection in the Merced River that flows through the valley of the park. I took the photo around midday and as a result, the dynamic range of the scene exceeded that of the film. I knew that the print would require some work in the darkroom, but I wanted to maintain all the detail of the trees in the foreground so I placed the darkest shadows in Zone III. As a result, the top of Half Dome and the Sky fell on Zones IX and X, respectively. 

I processed the film in XTOL diluted 1+1 for 8:00 minutes as determined from my testing, which I outlined in Part II of this series. Once dry, I took the negatives into the darkroom to start the process of printing. The first step is the contact sheet. It is preferable to print contact sheets at a low contrast grade in order to better see all the detail captured on the negative. As expected, the foreground has good detail, but the sky and top of Half Dome are too bright. 

From the contact sheet, I knew that I wanted my final print to have slightly more contrast so I increased my filter to Grade 2 and made a full-size straight print to better evaluate what work the negative required. I make my contact sheets and test prints on resin-coated paper to save money and processing time, but make my final prints on fiber paper. 

A red marker is used on the proof print to form a game plan for how I will approach the final print. In order to add interest to the foreground and draw the eye into the frame, I dodged the trees on the distant riverbank one stop. I burned Half Dome and its reflection for one stop. The sky received two stops of additional burning time to bring back the detail that had to be sacrificed during exposure. The lower corners of the frame received a half stop burn to further draw the eye into the scene. After these changes, I still wanted more detail in the face of Half Dome so I switched to a Grade 5 filter and burned it for an additional half stop. 

I made the final print on Ilford fiber-based warm tone glossy paper. Working in f-stops instead of seconds for burning and dodging makes switching to different papers much simpler. I only have to do a test strip to determine the base exposure time on the new paper and calculate the burns and dodges from that. Once I was happy with the print, it was toned in Selenium diluted 1+9 for four minutes and washed thoroughly. 

When the print was dry, I flattened it in a dry mount press and then dry mounted it to a 4-ply piece of cotton rag board. A spotting brush and archival dyes are used to hide the inevitable specks of dust that snuck past the rocket blower on the negative. The print is then signed and over matted with the same material. I framed it behind glass in a square oak frame.

Much like Adams’ technique in general, this print is just one example. There are many paths to the same summit. I have endeavored to deconstruct his methods derived from a life’s work into digestible chunks that make it more approachable for mere mortals like myself. I am by no means a master, but I can confidently say that studying the teachings of Ansel has improved my photography.

It is my sincere hope that those of you who have stuck around for this series have learned something about the way he worked. Feel free to incorporate all, some, or none of it into your own work. As mentioned in the first part of this series, technique is nothing but a tool in your toolbox. I certainly don’t bust out the spot meter every time I shoot (aperture priority is actually my preferred method of everyday shooting), but when time permits or when on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, it’s nice to know that I can call on Uncle Ansel to help make the photo I envisioned. 

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Cory Miller

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
2 comments
  • My father who was the best human lightmeter I have ever come across, used to try and get my brother and I when we were young, to learn this knack by pointing at something and saying something like: “64 ASA and 1/125, what aperture?” It is basically the sunny sixteen rule and judging how many stops/EV are you down from that, then a mental calculation. I never got remotely as good or quick as my dad, who could switch instantly from 10 ASA Kodachrome I in his Leica IIIa to 400 ASA HP3 in either his Super Ikonta or Contax IIa and he virtually never got it wrong. I mostly use a tiny Voigtlander VC2 meter with either my Screw Mount or M Leicas but when it is important to get it dead right, I use a Polaris pro digital spotmeter. Just occasionally I will use my rebuilt Weston Master V. Once I have a reading, I do know how to bias it from looking at the scene and saying to myself +2/3 of an EV etc and dialling that in.

  • You know nothing about photography.

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Cory Miller

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