The Zone System method of negative contrast control is as simple as that. Once you appreciate the importance of properly exposing and developing your negatives, it simply becomes a matter of working with the system long enough for the principles to become familiar.Your first attempts at applying the Zone System to your photography might make you very aware of other weaknesses in your technique. No system, however logical or straightforward, can compensate for faulty equipment or carelessness. But, if you are persistent, you will eventually work out all the bugs and develop your own set of shortcuts. At that point, your work will begin to flow smoothly.
One of the first steps in this process is losing your anxiety about making a mistake. This is why the test outlined in the next chapter is so important. After you produce your first successful print with the Zone System, the mystery will disappear.
One of the misconceptions about the Zone System is that it will make photographic printing routine. The goal is not to make photography an exact science but rather to allow photographers to concentrate on the parts of the process that require intuition and imagination.What you will find is that a little bit of understanding and control will go a long way toward solving your technical problems. Once the negative is made, the issue becomes how to best interpret it through creative printing.
When you begin using the Zone System, you may encounter some of the following problems.
First, you may have trouble previsualizing the subject in terms of zones. Any new system takes a while to get used to, but before long you will find that it comes naturally. Keep in mind that for the purpose of determining the correct exposure, the only question you need to answer is Where is the area that I want to be Zone III? Look for an area of the subject that would spoil your photograph if it were too dark in the finished print. Most likely this is the area you want to place on Zone III. Again, it is useful to spend time studying other photographers' work to help you develop a sense of your own standards. If you have a 4 x 5 view camera with a Polaroid adapter back, it is a good idea to practice previsualizing a variety of subjects to see how the results either confirm or modify your previsualizations. You may also try using a panchromatic viewing filter as an aid.
The second important question you need to answer for the correct development time is Where is the Zone VII area of this subject? Practice will make this easier, but a good rule of thumb is, if the area in question is light colored and textured, call it Zone VII.
It is easy to overdo trying to pinpoint specific zones. At first it may be difficult to "see" Zone VII when the contrast of the subject is very flat. The lack of an obvious light value in the subject could make previsualizing Zone VII seem illogical. It could also be that you might not want a Zone VII in that particular image. In this case, consider Zone VI to be the Important Highlight zone for this image and develop the film accordingly.
This also applies to Zone III. If you decide that Zone II is the appropriate zone for the Important Shadow Area of your subject, place your meter reading on Zone II and start from there. (The only danger with this approach is that you cannot change your mind after taking the picture and give that area more exposure later.) The purpose of the Zone System is to give you creative control, not to lock you into hard and fast aesthetic limitations. Whenever you are in doubt about how to proceed with a given image, make a decision and pay careful attention to your results. Be sure to keep careful records when you are unsure. In general, you can count on the obvious associations I have mentioned before. Light clothing, concrete, and white objects in the shade are usually Zone VII. Dark foliage, dark clothing, and brown hair are commonly Zone III. Paper and white objects in sunlight are generally Zone VIII.
Zone System beginners often become confused about which way to turn the meter dial to place a shadow value on Zone III. At first it is easy to turn the dial the wrong way and drastically overexpose the film. I would say that this is by far the most common mistake made by students when they first begin learning the system. The key is to remember that you are trying to make the Zone III area of the subject darker than the meter is telling you to. This is because Zone III is darker than Zone V.
As you turn the dial, watch to see whether the exposures are becoming longer or shorter. If, for example, turning the dial to the right decreases the exposure, memorize that direction for future use.
Many light meters have enough room adjacent to the meter numbers to attach a small Zone Scale like the one illustrated in Figure 57.
Self-adhesive decals of this kind were once available from Fred Picker's Zone VI Studios.These days I would suggest that you simply create one for yourself if this is possible on your meter. Make sure you line up the scale with the Zone V section over the meter's indicating arrow. A scale like this will make zone placement and contrast measurement ridiculously easy. For example, when you want to place a given meter number on Zone III, all you need to do is turn the dial until that number is under the Zone III section of the scale. You can now read the correct exposures and the relative positions of all the other meter numbers directly from the dial. A visual aid like this makes it very easy to think through the placement and exposures you will want to use. Actually seeing the meter readings falling on the rest of the scale will make the process much more concrete.
Another common problem is faulty equipment. After carefully metering, exposing, and developing an image, you may discover that it is ruined because of a seriously inaccurate light meter or shutter. You are less likely to notice a problem like this when you aren't sure of what you are doing in the first place. It is a good idea to take your meter and shutters to a good camera repair store to have them checked before you begin trying to improve your technique.
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