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Safety In Numbers
February 12, 2006 2:58 AM   Subscribe

This is not a study for the weak of heart or will. If you do it right, it is gonna hurt. A Simple Guide to Ansel Adam's Zone System.
posted by sgt.serenity (37 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
The text seems like a fairly helpful introduction to the subject, but those greyscale patches in the emulator have to be worse than useless.

Do people use the Zone system with small format photography these days?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:18 AM on February 12, 2006


Did anyone ever use the zone system ? or was it just a cleverly designed piece of nonsense to prevent people from increasing their knowledge of photography ?
Is it helpful to a creative person to be running around sticking giant numbers on everything ?
Indeed , are mathematics and art compatible ?
My own personal belief is that the zone system is not a creative tool at all but a symptom of a desire to control.
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:24 AM on February 12, 2006


that page makes my head hurt. is there a one paragraph explanation of what this process actually entails?
posted by 6am at 3:57 AM on February 12, 2006


if only there was 6am , its very complicated.
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:00 AM on February 12, 2006


a slightly shortter explanation
posted by piratebowling at 4:05 AM on February 12, 2006


Did anyone ever use the zone system?

I did. Or rather, I read all the books and calibrated my equipment. I just wasn't sure that I ever mastered the ability to visualize before shooting. Not really.

I see what they meant about making your brain hurt.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:18 AM on February 12, 2006


I used it - on all the formats I worked with. But then I also used a densitometer to check contrast range of various films and calibrated accordingly. That was what we were taught at RMIT.

You see film, unlike the human eye, can only capture 5 - 6 'zones' of contrast (the eye can render over 100, I believe). If you could quickly render a scene's subject brightness range, you could then establish where you wanted the detail and then plan your exposure accordingly. The rest would be done in the lab - overexposing and pulling (reducing) the development of the film would render the shadow detail whilst keeping the highlights (lowering the contrast of the film and extending its dynamic range), etc. Each emulsion had its own characteristics and reacted differently. Over time, you would start looking at light falling on different textures and tones, and be able to conceive of them as a zone (a grey) in a black and white image. This is what Adams was able to achieve. He knew, for instance, how bright the moon was, which enabled him to make the amazing image of Moonrise over Hernandez.

I am sitting right beneath a Bill Henson image on my wall, and I can appreciate your thoughts on creativity/science Sgt. But, if you ever get the opportunity to gaze at the endless detail and tone in 'Moonrise over Hernandez' and the story behing it - I think there is reason to appreciate Adam's legacy.

It's anachronistic now (just like the bag of Leica equipment I have sitting upstairs) - but I wouldn't fob it off so easily.
posted by strawberryviagra at 4:19 AM on February 12, 2006


Here's some geeky shit about your eyes if you're at all interested (better than the wiki link I embedded above).
posted by strawberryviagra at 4:30 AM on February 12, 2006


My own personal belief is that the zone system is not a creative tool at all but a symptom of a desire to control.

You say that like its a bad thing. If photographers weren't striving to maximize control, we'd all be using pinhole cameras and paper negatives.

What's important is the balance between control and flexibility/spontenity -- hence my question about using the Zone System for small format work. I could always see it's value when using large format cameras because the process itself is inherently slow and contemplative, and the preservation of detail through management of contrast is part of the reason why you're using large format in the first place.

But I felt that it got in the way of the immediacy that I wanted in 35mm work. I have to say though, when I was looking at this site (linked from piratebowling's wikipedia link), I became very nostalgic and felt very tempted to dig out my old Linhof and spotmeter.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:43 AM on February 12, 2006


I have to recommend William Mortenses's texts as a precursor to any ventures into the zone system. His Under/overexposure and under/overdevelopment system of nine negatives is much simpler and easier to understand. AND his texts have scantially clad girls! ;).
Very interesting and mostly forgotten artist.
posted by OXYMORON at 5:02 AM on February 12, 2006


Indeed , are mathematics and art compatible ?

Some of us still wonder if "photography" and "art" are.
posted by RavinDave at 5:24 AM on February 12, 2006


Indeed , are mathematics and art compatible ?

they're not just compatible, they're inevitable ... i don't know photography or art that well, but there is a mathematical element to it ... just as there is to music

My own personal belief is that the zone system is not a creative tool at all but a symptom of a desire to control.

creation itself is a desire to control
posted by pyramid termite at 5:43 AM on February 12, 2006


It's weird, because I only discovered the joys of photography at about age 23-24. I'm 26, now. I wish I had discovered it far earlier. I think I'd have a far more certain grasp on what I want to do with my life than I currently do. For years I've been studying video editing techniques and still-frame digital compositing and and a little bit of 3d modeling, rendering and animation. As all of those things began involving a basic understanding of photographic techniques, both motion and still, I began to realize that the most interesting aspects of what I was learning was the process of capturing light information to a medium.

For that reason alone, I thought this was fascinating. Thanks.
posted by shmegegge at 5:51 AM on February 12, 2006


Ansel Adams was a god. If you are into digital, here is an explanation of the zone system and your histogram.

It kind of cracks me up when people try to show pictures of the zone system on a computer monitor. Most people's monitors aren't adjusted to reproduce the proper ranges. Most skew too dark (the darker percentages all look the same).

posted by spock at 6:44 AM on February 12, 2006


Or, even better — The grayscale below presents 24 shades of gray from pure white to solid black. The pure white block at the far left should merge with the pure white bar along the top, while the second block of very light gray should display a bit darker than pure white. The solid black block at the far right should merge with the solid black bar along the bottom, while the block just to the left should display a bit lighter than solid black. You should be able to discern all 24 shades of gray from one another; if not, your monitor is incorrectly calibrated.

posted by dmd at 8:09 AM on February 12, 2006


Another good reason to learn The Zone or any other silver based system is that in "The Future" no one will be able to read the primitive data storage methods of current digital photographers... I am in the process of rebuilding my darkroom. Beseler enlarger and all that wonderful chemistry. Yum.
posted by Gungho at 8:13 AM on February 12, 2006


> My own personal belief is that the zone system is not a creative tool at all but a symptom of a desire to control.

The idea, as Adams postulated, is to get the best possible image on the negative in the field, so that you have full control once you get yourself into the darkroom (which is where Adams believed the true creative power of the photographer started). The Zone System is all about capturing the full range of tones in the image so you're not missing anything later.

Photography is all about control. You must control your subject, lighting, camera, lens, and film. Adams had near-complete mastery of all of these.
posted by neckro23 at 8:22 AM on February 12, 2006


I vaguely remember a comment by Robert Frank where he made savage, cruel fun of Ansel Adams
posted by matteo at 8:47 AM on February 12, 2006


are mathematics and art compatible

Depends what you mean by maths. But understanding exposure takes maffs, and so does metering for snow, and hell, even ISOs need numbers. The attitude that it's all in the "art" severely limits some photographers.
posted by bonaldi at 9:18 AM on February 12, 2006


"It kind of cracks me up when people try to show pictures of the zone system on a computer monitor. Most people's monitors aren't adjusted to reproduce the proper ranges. Most skew too dark (the darker percentages all look the same)."

Once again, I frickin' love my Apple Cinema Display...
posted by stenseng at 10:10 AM on February 12, 2006


Indeed , are mathematics and art compatible?
Listen to music much?

Some of us still wonder if "photography" and "art" are.
The visual arts are about seeing, yes? About having an image in mind and making it visible to others. If you're good at it, this image can convey emotion and feeling.

How, then, is photography different from sculpture, painting, dance, theater or film?

Is it because you think it takes less effort or expertise?
posted by aladfar at 10:44 AM on February 12, 2006


That digital images are bound to be seen on poorly calibrated monitors and that audio recordings are bound to be heard on shitty, shitty speakers are the twin paralyzing truths of art on the internet.
posted by cortex at 12:20 PM on February 12, 2006


Spock, thanks for the link. I wish it went further.
I used to use Zone with 4 X 5 though never consciously with 35mm. (Not "consciously" because I spent years slowly refining my process from film choice, developer choice, development times, enlarger type, developer, paper type, toning, etc, etc, etc so that the light I liked would produce the photographs I liked - moving to LA blew that all to hell 'cause the light is so different here.) I've never gone through all the calibration necessary to deal with it in digital, but clearly a digital modification of the Zone system would solve a lot of the problems I currently have. So far all I've figured out is to shoot two or three versions of the same image (still) at different exposures and blend them in Pshop. Pain in the ass, but it works for (mostly) still items.
posted by johngumbo at 12:27 PM on February 12, 2006


I think it also bears mentioning that even professional photo people will likely not have their monitors "properly" calibrated because they'll probably be calibrated to match their printers.
posted by shmegegge at 12:45 PM on February 12, 2006



(just like the bag of Leica equipment I have sitting upstairs

Once again, I frickin' love my Apple Cinema Display...

I'm impressed with my 17" Powerbook display, as well. Isn't it annoying when people can't resist the opportunity to brag about their material possessions???

PS... I'll give you $50 for that bag full of anachronistic Leica equipment you have upstairs.
posted by spock at 1:00 PM on February 12, 2006


Another couple of good links: http://www.normankoren.com/zonesystem.html and Digital exposure and metering strategies.
posted by spock at 1:05 PM on February 12, 2006


Isn't it annoying when people can't resist the opportunity to brag about their material possessions???

Only less so than people lacking the imagination to snark about something witty and intelligent. Whinger.
posted by strawberryviagra at 2:14 PM on February 12, 2006


Particularly with small and medium format cameras, much time, mental gymnastics, and visual uncertainty can be avoided by using the simplest Zone System of all [exposure bracketing].
posted by cenoxo at 2:55 PM on February 12, 2006


That's not really using the zone system - that's just hedging your bets.

Although you should bracket when given the opportunity (when multiple exposures are available).

To make use of the zone system effectively, you would determine the dynamic range (subject brightness range) of the subject, then either over/under/correctly expose the film - and push/pull the development time.

If you just bracket in a contrasty environment, then some of your images would have highlight detail (and no shadow detail) and vice versa - you'd then need to make lith masks and do multiple exposures during the printing process (which is a major pain the arse).

Photoshop is such a fantastic tool.
posted by strawberryviagra at 3:09 PM on February 12, 2006


The saddest thing is that even on a properly calibrated monitor, you only get 256 shades of grey. Hello banding!
posted by smackfu at 3:09 PM on February 12, 2006


sv said: Photoshop is such a fantastic tool.

Absolutely, and it's one of the coffin nails for film cameras, not to mention the move away from film by Kodak, Nikon, Hasselblad, and other manufacturers. When the capabilities of Photoshop (and perhaps those of the Zone System itself) are finally built into the camera for automatic adjustments at the time of exposure, the Zone System will—if it hasn't already—become a historical curiosity.
posted by cenoxo at 4:10 PM on February 12, 2006


Do people use the Zone system with small format photography these days?

I use some theory of it -- I spot meter all the time in manual mode and I decide what zone a particular section of the image I'm composing should fall in...

I shoot digital and spend hours in the Gimp working on my few selected shots (my trashbin is bottomless.)

Adam's books (the Camera, the negative, the print) are really interesting reads that I found relevant even in today's digital world.

What I find really hard is understand the light of a particular location. As mentionned before the light in LA is really special (numerous articles will explain why.) and I'm slowly starting to get used to the light here where I live in China.
posted by NewBornHippy at 6:45 PM on February 12, 2006


I did use the zone system a lot, in the late 1960s --with a 2-degree spot meter and Kodak Pan-X film, and a Leica IIIf with a decent lens, and I sure miss having as much time in the day and ability to think about the image as I routinely took then. Adams was right. Even pretending to use his method, as I was with 35mm -- inherently incapable of equaling his huge negatives -- I got wonderful results, with detail at both ends of the brightness range, if I did everything right.

The problem with bracketing is, the leaves and shadows and hairs and eyelashes and dust motes tend to move. Once digital can handle a full range of brightness in one fast exposure, I'll be pleased to switch.
posted by hank at 9:50 PM on February 12, 2006


Story I read somewhere, maybe apocryphal:

Ansel Adams was teaching a photo class the Zone system. He gave an example of taking a photograph of an iceberg. As he finished detailing the proper exposure calculations using the Zone system, a student yelled out, "Meanwhile, the iceberg has melted!"
posted by The Deej at 10:20 PM on February 12, 2006


That's good!
posted by strawberryviagra at 10:32 PM on February 12, 2006


hank writes "Once digital can handle a full range of brightness in one fast exposure, I'll be pleased to switch"

It would be interesting to see a digital camera use a semi-reflective prism to split the output of a single lense onto two different digital sensors which are able to be set at 1-6 stops different. Essentially bracketing every shot. Would make it really easy to extend exposure range in photoshop even in action shots.
posted by Mitheral at 10:40 PM on February 12, 2006


Fred Picker - Zone VI Studios .
posted by ericb at 12:37 AM on February 13, 2006


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