Does the Zone System still have a place in digital black and white?
If you’ve explored much black and white film photography, you’ll have come across references to the ‘Zone System’, a technique for optimising film exposure and development. It’s commonly associated with Ansel Adams and has been refined and developed over the last 70 years (see WP for a relatively short overview).
The zone system has always had two important elements for myself. One was thinking about what sort of print you wanted from the scene in front of you (visualisation), and the other was the categorisation of whatever film you were using, both from an exposure and development point of view.
Whilst I find all the zone system history and the reasons for doing it, intellectually interesting, I’ve always had misgivings when I see it advocated as a tool for the purely digital black and white photographer (as I consider myself nowadays).
I’m of the belief that the exposure, development and printing of film is a sufficiently different process to that with digital, that what worked well for film is not automatically transferrable to digital.
The principles of exposure and tonal range maybe, but the inherent non linearity and processing options for film make it sufficiently different that I would not introduce the calibration aspects of the traditional zone system to someone without a film background.
Indeed it’s this measurement and calibration aspect that has done much to scare off many photographers, where it’s (IMHO wrongly) seen as an undue adherence to technique rather than expression.
A while ago, Robert Fisher wrote a guest article here, describing how some common digital exposure techniques could be related to ideas of the zone system :
It’s effectively what I use for a lot of my outdoor photography – in a way it flies against many people’s desire to ‘get it right in the camera’.
I’m looking at my raw files as just a step in the process of obtaining a print that relates to what I thought of when I took the photo. In general, I think of it as a ‘don’t clip what you might need’ approach (or ETTR as it’s sometimes known)
The Hood Canal image was deliberately over exposed (but not clipped) on a dark grey day, so as to get the most data to work on (and lower noise) for a B&W print.
So, in a way, I’m using techniques related to the technical side of the Zone system – but what about the pre-visualisation?
I have to split my B&W photography into two fairly different types to address this.
There is my professional commercial and architectural work where I almost always use a tripod and may bracket exposures so as to keep noise out of the shadows and retain highlights. I may consider filters or borrow some HDR type techniques, but I’m usually wary of anything that produces contrast halos or anything that looks ‘wrong’ to me (obvious graduated filter effects really grate with me). I’m essentially trying to produce the effect of a single image, but with a sensor that may not yet exist in real cameras. This includes using my GigaPan to give the equivalent of a large format camera with a lens that just doesn’t exist in the real world (I see the GigaPan as so much more than a panoramic photo tool)
The second side is my landscape work, which is intended to be ‘of the moment’. I rarely have a tripod with me and may take half a dozen shots (or more) in a few minutes trying to capture an idea, a fleeting instance of how the view or scene made me feel. Here, my exposure rule is likely to be ‘don’t blow highlights you want to keep’.
There are 9 other RAW files shot at the same time as the Hood Canal image above – this is the version that I think works best as a print. I’d love to say that I could have predicted this on that damp morning in Washington State, but I’d be wrong…
[Feb. 2013] I’ve written a detailed article about the whole process of producing the Hood Canal print
My visualisation of what I want to create is there in the scene right in front of me.
The image in the camera is merely some data waiting for me to try and create a print later on. The print will work if it evokes some of the response to the scene that moved me to want to create an image. There is no ‘mid tone’ when I’m looking at the scene. I’m looking at the structure and fabric of the view – tonal balance in the print comes later.
I may decide that it’s OK if some of the sky is blown, but given my liking for cloud structure, that’s not common. The concept of ‘getting it right in the camera’ only extends to things I can’t fix later – focus, depth of field, lens choice and composition (although I’ve no problem with cropping afterwards if it results in an image I prefer)
This is where I find digital so much more liberating for my artistic expression. I am not someone who will repeatedly return to a scene to ‘get it right’ – there is no such thing as perfect. That kills the emotion stone dead for me (YMMV in a big way here).
A personal approach
To come back to the zone system (as espoused and developed for a film based workflow), I see its roots as an attempt to codify and control an unruly and non linear recording medium, where a lot was needed to be correct right from the outset and throughout the process through to final print. Remember that you don’t get a second chance when developing film, whereas in RAW file processing I can potentially come back years later with improved software to get more out of a file.
In a way I am using a zone system in my landscape work, it’s just that there essentially two zones – clipped and unclipped data. There is a third ‘noisy zone’ in dark shadows, which if it contains important detail, is a sure sign that I may be trying to capture a scene that can’t fit into the dynamic range of my camera. Whilst I can and do ‘fix’ this in my commercial work, it usually suggests that I’m not going to get the sort of landscape print I want (since dynamic range for physical printed media is vastly lower than what a modern digital sensor can capture)
A few more zones come in when I’m looking at what can be shown as a print, but they tend to be quite fluid and as much driven by the different types of balance and symmetry I find in prints that work.
I’d be interested to know of how others make use of the zone system or related ideas in their digital work? Also if my suspicion, that it’s only those with a lengthy film background who really push it in digital work, is true?