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Zone System Basics

Lesson 7 from: Introduction to Black & White Film Photography

Daniel Gregory

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Lesson Info

7. Zone System Basics

Lesson Info

Zone System Basics

What we are going to jump into next is the Zone system. The Zone system is one of those things if you're in black and white photography you hear about and you either do this. (laugh) We aren't going to talk about that again. It's stupid. Nobody uses it. Or you're like the Zone system, how does that help me? Or you're like that's that thing that does something and it works in the camera's meter. We are going to cover the Zone system because it's actually really cool. And it doesn't matter what kind of photography you do if you're in black and white you need to know the Zone system on a basic level. So we are going to cover that. And we are also going to talk about how I use the Zone system even in my street photography because it's not something that slows down your photography once you understand it. It's really an amazing tool. It was developed originally for the black and white print to help us understand the black and white print. Because remember we talked about film. Film has a la...

titude of about 18 stops, but the Zone system has 10 stops. And that's because the printed paper has 10 stops. So when we talk about the Zone system, we're fundamentally talking about paper and the printing of a black and white image. The way I like to get people engaged with it is if I describe to you and tell you, "oh well look at your photograph," and I'm judging your photograph, and I'm like "oh this shirt here. Yeah, that gray. There's this gray in your photography and I need you to fix that gray, "It's too dark a gray." And you're like, "well which one?" and I'm like "the gray one, the one that is kinda sorta gray" and I'm like "Okay, that one yeah? And I need you to make it less gray. Like how much less gray? Like somewhat less gray." So it's a real archaic way of describing things. So the Zone system gave us a way to start to identify certain tones. And we knew that what we call the Zone V was the middle gray. That's the 18 percent value of a print. It's middle gray because 50% is actually too bright so it ended up being 18. Lot's of nerd math. Don't worry about it. But that 18% gray is what the meter sees, so that Zone V is what you're actually metering. If we know what Zone V looks like and I know what a Zone VII looks like. And I know what a Zone III looks like. And I tell you, I'm looking at your Zone III, and I think it needs to be printed a little lighter like a 3.5, almost a four, we now start to have a common language to describe the architecture of the tones of the print. That's one of the cool things about the Zone system. The other thing it does is it helps us understand how exposure and development works. Remember, I told you about exposure is shadow based. Developers highlight based. I'm going to highlight that phrase a thousand times a day. We expose for shadows. We develop for highlights. The developer controls the bright parts of the image. The exposure controls the darker part of images. And they are tied together. And we are going to learn how they are tied together. But that movement back and forth of those two are really important. So when I'm thinking about exposure and I'm thinking about all my details with the Zone system, it gives me a way of figuring out in the camera what's going to happen, what could potentially happen in the print, and coming up with a plan. And I'm going to tell you how I'm actually going to put that into play in a second. The other thing that's really important is Zone V is universal to the meter, but arbitrary to the photographer. So this is the other thing that you have to decide in black and white world. And we are going to talk about this a lot. Where you decide as the photographer, what becomes Zone V, Zone II. You are going to make a placement of a zone and then everything falls in place respective to that initial placement. In the color world you don't have much of a choice unless you are going to go into Photoshop and do some crazy color adjustment. I got blue. I got gray. And I got red laces. That's kind of what it is. But in the black and white world I can make this lighter, darker. I've got some control there because I've abstracted the world of black and white. So that's one of the cool things about black and white. There is photographer named Monte Nagler out of Michigan. And Monte describes color photography as like going to the movies and black and white photography is like reading a book. There is just an abstraction there in the black and white world. And so working that, understanding how we get that messaging is the power of the Zone system. So how do we break this down? We have basically the darker zones. Zone zero and one are full all intents and purposes the exact same thing. There is technically a doubling of light. To get from Zone zero to Zone one we double the light. The cool part about the Zone system is every zone is one stop removed from another zone. So Zone two and Zone three are one stop apart. F8 and F56 are one stop apart. One sixtieth of a second, one thirtieth of a second, one stop apart. The Zone system is tied in to exposure stops. So when I say, oh we want to move that from Zone IV to Zone III we make a one stop change. Zone II has half the light of Zone III, Zone IV has twice the light of Zone III. So it stops just like in the camera. We are going to work our way from pure black up to middle gray. The most important zone when we are learning the foundations of Zone system, the very basics of Zone system, and proper exposure is Zone III. Zone III is we're fully rendered texture appears in the shadow. I want all the texture to appear so if you are going to photography me and you want to see all the subtle details in my pants, if that's Zone II, it's basically black. In Zone III, you get a really rich black, but you get the detail. So Zone III becomes our important one on the bottom. When we look at the lighter zones, we pick up a Zone V again, and then Zone VI, Zone VII becomes our most important highlight zone from a exposure development standpoint. Because Zone VII is the point at which we have fully rendered highlight detail before it starts to move into tones. So Zone VIII gives us some texture and tone. Zone IX is just tones. Zone X is paper white. So I want to make sure I'm playing a little bit with that Zone VII and III. Those are my key components. Now those are five inclusive stops: Zone III, Zone IV, Zone V, Zone VI, Zone VII. So my inclusiveness of printing is five stops. When I think about exposure, I'm thinking about five stops, okay. So, like I said, each stop equals a zone. If you can get that down, you are really going to be able use the Zone system to understand your prints and understand your exposure. Stop, zone, stop, zone, everything is the same. We double it or we cut it in half. So if I want to go on ahead and make a decision about an exposure, about a print, and I say oh I'm thinking I want a really dark image. I can make my exposure development choices to slide into the bottom part of the Zone system. Now when Ansel and Fred created the Zone system, they were talking about a fully rendered print. So when you think about those contrast images from Ansel and the landscapes, he had a one and a nine, and a tiny bit of maybe specular tin in there. He wanted that full range. But you aren't required to have that with the Zone system. This is one of the myths of the Zone system is that a Zone system print needs to have all ten zones. You could have if we go back, if I push the button and go back. I could just have six, seven, and eight, and have a gorgeous high key image with essentially no black. Now what will happen is Zone VI we'll start to perceive and we'll create in those microcontrast elements of the film will create a black. Minor White talks about how we will create a black in the absence of a black because our brain wants that contrast. So I can use that sleight of hand trick that our brain does and place in the high zones. So I'm not required to have all 10. That's one of the first things that I think is really important about understanding the zone system. I don't need all 10. I don't have to use everything. Now, I can. Absolutely can. When we look at the Zone system scale, Zone 0, so this is kinda zero to ten, so this is the paper. On the negative the lower zones appear lighter, it's a negative, it's inverted. We are going to do a scanning and processing your negatives digitally for film. And you'll see that the darker parts are lighter on the negative. Because it's reversed. It's a little weird when you get on the light table. Lighter areas appear darker. Film has no noise extensively so we don't worry about more noise, less noisy. Grain shows up sorta the same every where. It's a little more pronounced and easier to see in the highlights just because we can see and use a little more detail. But grain is equally diminished. Equally distributed. A much better word there, across the zones. Okay, so let's take a look at some example images. So this is an image from an absolutely wonderful photographer, Gordan Parks. This is from Southfield, New Jersey, from one of the early interracial camps they had. And Gordon Parks was working for the federal government and so he was out taking these pictures. So if we look at this image, we are going to go through a couple of these pretty quick. Because I got a couple of these before we actually get some neater elements. But we just look at the Zone system. We can see some pants here and on the monitor it's even a little brighter than the actual image. The pants have full detail. So that's kind of a Zone III and look back in here, you don't hardly see any detail. That's that Zone I. We look at the skin tones in here where the six potentially seven. We got beautiful Zone IV, V in there. Some Zone IV in here. We look over in here and this wood moves from a five, six, seven that's in there. So we have all the different zones that pull together in the image. And it's the combination of all of those tones create the photograph. Now we look at the next one, This is an image from Dorothy Elaine. If I remove the bottom part here, that's a pretty high key image. So our black tones, our Zone II, III, are down in here. But we end up with this beautiful seven, eight. Her skin tones in a seven, six, seven up in there, almost into an eight. Her hair you can actually see a little bit of the detail in it. So that ends up being a Zone III. So if I look into a dark area of the photograph once it's printed. And I can see full detail and it's still really dark, that's my Zone III. And the highlight where I can still see all the detail that's my Zone VII and everything else is in between. So what's happening there is she's making a decision on her exposure to make sure that what amount of shadow detail do I want to preserve, and how much highlight detail do I want to preserve. That highlight detail is going to be controlled by the developers. So she's going to make a decision, then we'll talk about the developer in a little bit. She's going to make decisions about how to develop the film based on where that highlight lives, and she's going to set that exposure. Next one is from Dorothy Elaine as well. This is the classic migrant mother. There's two versions up here and I'll explain why in a second because I'm about to ruin this photograph for you. This is one of the most gorgeous photographs. You can actually get copies of all the photographs I'm showing you from the Library of Congress. They were shot on the former Administration and you can call and get a sore gel to print made by your mother, as a taxpayer, you paid for the photographs. So in here, beautiful photograph, there is actually five or six plates of this. So she approached to shot the photograph, but again we end up with kind of a four, to three, to two over there. We kinda end up with a four there. We've got sixes and sevens in here. We've got some nice little Zone II in there. We've got some nice little fours and fives here. So we end up with a really beautiful rendering. But again that's a relatively flat image compressed into the midtones. Part of that also is a nitrate negative. So this is one of the ones that can talk fire. But so it's a nitrate negative. Now, this is the original plate. So this is the original four by five plate we shot. That thumb right there, if you look you can barely see the ghost image of that thumb. She felt that that was a visual distraction and was caused because our eyes go to the points of brightness. We say we go to points of brightness but that's not entirely accurate. We go to the point of highest contrast first. And so what happened in this, is because we are pretty muting tones that white element of the thumb became something your eye would gravitate towards and she didn't want you to come to this part of the frame. So they worked and they actually helped pull that out. That was actually a change that Dorothy approved. This next image is from, I would say our internment camp in California. So Ansel Adams went and shot this. This was an Ansel Adams photograph. This is a scan of the original negative. And so we come in here and you can see you've got this beautiful high, nice Zone VII sky. The clouds are kind of a seven, eight. We end up with some nice twos and threes down in here, a little contrast. Now, think about what you know about Ansel Adams. Ansel is like I love contrast. I love deep skies. I love that booming contrast. There's Ansel's print. So this is a scan of the print that Ansel made. And you can see if I took this bottom part off. That's kind of the classic Ansel landscape. So now if we come back, there's the negative. There's the print. So the goal in shooting film is to give me as much latitude as possible so that I can then make the change in the print to get the aesthetic I want. The more flexibility I give myself to the manipulation of the zones in the Zone system gives me the flexibility to create the print I want. Because, if he came back here, and made that sky placement a Zone III, he could print it darker. But what if he said, "Oh I put it in a three but I want it printed as a five." You can always print darker but you can't extrapolate up. So that's why that exposure is so important and where we place that exposure. Because if I want to make sure I have the ability to manipulate the print, shift the print, I want to make sure I have all of that data in there. So a lot of that Zone system is about getting the proper placement so that I can get that shadow detail, so that I have the control in the print. This last image is from Walker Evans. So this is from a general store in Alabama. This print oh my God is gorgeous. The tonal range in this print is absolutely sublime and so end up with this beautiful transition from almost a nine, eight, seven across that back. Sevens and eights here. You get these beautiful threes back in here. You get a nice five, six across the top. A nice three back in there. But there are all these small subtle shifts in this print that is absolutely gorgeous. So if you ever get a chance to see the original print of this it is absolutely, absolutely mesmerizing.

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Ratings and Reviews


I am really fond of Daniel Gregory as a teacher. He does a great job. To me, his enthousiasm, his passion for and his dedication to film photography are infectuous. It's great that CreativeLive makes place for film photography and for such a pro teaching it. It can never do so enough for me. Thanks. I am a fan.

Texas Beauty Photography

Great class!! It's jam packed with usable information for anyone wanting to shoot, process, and print black and white images. There is so much detail presented in this class, I can practically guarantee you'll come back to it again and again. I successfully used this class to capture b/w photographs, process the negatives, capture them digitally, and finally, produce beautiful prints that I'm proud to show my friends and clients. This may well be one of the best classes on all of CreativeLive. Highly recommended!


This is an excellent course and Daniel is a great teacher! I'm coming back to shooting film and darkroom work after 20 years away. I have some wonderful film cameras sitting in my cabinet and I decided I wanted to use them--so I have decided to shoot BW with film, and shoot color with my digital cameras. I will develop the BW film myself and scan and print digitally. This class is perfect for me!

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