How to Shoot a Roll of Film for Learning the Zone System

Posted on May 19, 2011


Because I often have a camera in my hand, I often get asked questions about photography. In fact one of the reasons I was able to dump so much content up here is because I had it lying around in emails and IMs. No, really, somebody did ask me about the Zone System. Here is the email I sent to her.

This is kind of the follow up to The Zone System and Why You Should Care.

1)      I think I gave you a roll of TMAX400/36 exposure? If not you can get this at Glazers on 8th and Republican down town.

2)      The point of the exercise is to learn the Zone system and how to expose properly for shadow detail while maintaining highlight control. So we’ll make some simplifications to make processing easier.

3)      If possible, adjust your camera for “Center-Weighted”  or “Spot” metering. This means that rather than taking an average, your camera uses on the light in the center 1.5 degrees of the lens. So if you point your camera directly at something and take a reading that exact thing is what is being measured. If you can’t use center-weighting, just walk up to what you want to meter on until it fills the frame, take the reading, and then back up to where you want to take the shot.

4)      Put your camera into Aperture Priority mode. This means that you will pick the f-stop (size of the opening) and the camera will automatically pick the right shutter speed. (NOTE: You can put it in Shutter Priority and do the same thing with film speeds, halving them for each step, I just rarely shoot in that mode.)

5)      Now, let’s go shooting (don’t forget to put the film in the camera ;-)).

6)      You want to find some relatively contrasty subjects. That means large differences between light and shadow. Let’s say you have a tree with a shadow under it and a fair-skinned person in front. Point the camera directly at the shadow, and adjust the meter see what f stop it says to use. Now say there is a person in front of the shadow, point at the person’s face and see what f-stop it says to use. Let’s say you get 5.6 (shadow)  and 22 (face).

F-stops are weird, they are the radius of the opening as a fraction so 22 really means 1/22. So the higher the number the smaller the opening. (1/22 is smaller than 1/5.6). The full scale looks like this:

1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, 45, 64.

7)      As long as the shadow number and the highlight number are 7 stops or less apart then we can easily handle this on B&W film. So back to our example we have 5.6 and 22, a span of 5 stops.

8)      Set the f-stop of the camera at the f stop you get when you metered on the shadow. This will make the shadow neutral gray (whatever you meter on is always going to be grey, I can explain this later). You don’t have to point the camera at the shadow to take the picture, just meter on it, set the camera, and take the picture.

9)      Now close the f stop by one and take the picture again (f 8). You just under exposed by one f-stop and put the shadow in zone 4.

10)   And again (f11). Zone 3.

11)   And again. (f 16) Zone 2.

12)   Once more (f22) Zone 1.

13)   The face remains 5 zones apart so it will go from Zone 10 (pure white), to Zone 5 (neutral gray) as you take these shots.

14)   So that was 5 shots. Make sure you write down the f stop and exposure for each shot.

15)   Do one more with 5 zones of separation.

16)   Now see if you can find something that is 7 zones apart. Always start with the shadow metered number and go down five f-stops.  In this case if the face was f45, and the shadow 5.6, the face will start out as pure white and move into definition as the shadow moves to black.

17)   Just have a blast shooting the rest of the roll as you normally would, but try over exposing everything from 2-4 stops (e.g. if it reads f11, two stops over would be f5.6). Keep notes.

So, this is seems like it’s hard because it’s a lot of steps, but it’s really pretty easy. If you have questions let me know. BTW, you can also do this with a digital camera to get the hang of it but I know the idea was to get into the dark room. If you bring the film pre-exposed like this we can get right to work. Otherwise, I’ll make the time to go shoot with you and show you how it works if it’s confusing.