Fred Picker Zone VI Newsletters

Posted on May 18, 2011


Recently won an auction for 63 (out of 81?) issues of the Zone VI Newsletters.  Fred was a Vermont photographer who is noted not only for building his own cameras, but for his own take on the Zone System. (I’ll post on the Zone System in a bit, as it applies equally well to digital and color as it did to B&W when Ansel Adams helped develop it.)  Not only was photography his business, it was also his passion. He calculated he shot for himself /worked in the darkroom 180 days/year – with a 4×5 or 8×10 camera. That is some serious dedication for a man who started photographing when he was 40.

Basically Ansel said, “Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.”  For you analog-challenged readers, that is essentially saying “push the histogram to the right.” (The difference being that in analog the film’s histogram goes out much further than the paper’s histogram, so you have to “collapse” the zonal values in development and printing. In current digital technology, you have the opposite problem, solved by HDDR to get more dynamic range in the print than the CMOS sensor can capture.) What Fred Picker said was “Put your highlights on Zone VIII.” (Zone VIII is the whitest zone that contains texture.)  This is very interesting in that it takes the math out of your darkroom time. For digital, it would basically be saying put the edge of the histogram on X and go from there.  Then you would be able to process all of your digital images with the same workflow (or even not process them if you found a “sweet spot” that resulted in images you liked).

In the first issue of the newsletter, he talks about establishing a basic exposure.  Using his system, on any sunny day you would use the same EI (shutter, aperture, and ASA) for any picture. Then you would also be able to develop and print these negatives identically to get a base image, which you can then explore with different papers, toners, etc.  His basic tenet was that you should make the easy stuff mechanical and then you could concentrate on the creative aspects. I think he said something about photography boiling down to where you placed the camera.

Unfortunately, Bruce Barnbaum convinced me that you can capture images up to zone XVIII, you just have to figure out how to get that on paper. One of my challenges is that because of this, I never even used to meter my highlights.  I would just deal with them in printing. The step I was skipping was developing the negative to make printing as easy as possible. Because I was aware of this hole in my technique, I have an entire shelf of film I’m afraid to develop until I get better darkroom controls. This is complicated by the fact that when I finally did my darkroom testing I got not the 8 zones that every text claims is the maximum you can develop for by easily 10 zones.

But that is another entry. I’ll also be posting more from Fred’s letters as I peruse them. I’m sure they will lead me into interesting and productive tangents.

Posted in: Photography, Zones