A Zone System Example

Posted on May 12, 2014


Featured image was purposefully exposed to send these shadows “into the black.”

There is one post on here that gets a least one hit a day. Lot’s of hits, no comments, go figure. It’s my post about B&W HDR. And I’m really glad that gets so many hits because I really spent a long time thinking about it, and I think it answers some important questions I haven’t seen elsewhere (like why I don’t like digital B&W as a rule).

Buried in the bottom of that blog was this section, which upon further reflection really could, and possibly should, stand alone. So, I’m republishing it here to resurface this idea, while editing it to be a bit more prescriptive.

Here is another blog I wrote on zones to introduce the ideas here (it might be my first actual blog post). You should probably read it first.

HDR B&W Film Example

HDR is a great tool in the digital workflow, and maybe even a required one. But in film, HDR is inherent in the image itself, and most B&W photographers deal with it all the time. Let’s take an example and discuss how to apply Zone System to an image. The Zone System basically has three parts:

  • Expose correctly
  • Develop correctly
  • Print correctly

Where “correctly” means to get the image you want or “previsualize.”

Previsualization through Metering

I actually took this image to explain the Zone System to my sister who was standing next to me. It is an interesting image, with a lot of problems you might typically find in an image. The sun had just broken over the ridge and was reflecting off of the top of the falls (like 30s earlier and I wouldn’t have this issue!), and there was this cave on the bottom right that was full of flotsam which I wanted to capture. I had metered on the cave and placed it in Zone 5. That put the white of the falls in Zone 14, a 9 zone difference.  When the sun popped out it shown right at the top of the falls, putting it in Zone 18, for a total dynamic range of 13 zones.  (Had it shown directly on the falls, I would not have even taken the picture.)  In addition to the range, I wanted to make sure that I had definition in the water, not just a big white stripe down the middle of the image, and the wind was blowing. So I needed a pretty fast shutter speed.

Snoqualmie, Twin Falls

Snoqualmie, Twin Falls


I had to make some decisions. I decided I would let the top of the falls blow out and become pure white so that I could get the detail in the cave. I think the exposure was about 1/15th of a second. You can see the branches which overlap the falls are slightly in motion. I can live with these things. This was back before Kodak reformatted their 400ASA TMAX film to have the same grain as the 100ASA. Now I shoot the 400 exclusively to have more options  in these situations.

Traditionally, I would’ve shortened my development time to bring the 9-14 zoned highlights in a bit, then used local controls in printing. I still have not had much luck with changing development times and TMAX has so damn much latitude, I’m not sure what I would gain from it. I only even started metering my highlights recently, before I entirely ignored where they landed. Usually I can just handle this with printing “tricks,” see below.

Develop for Contrast

In a scene with too few or two many zones, you can use chemistry to make the negatives’ overall contrast greater or lesser, and then you have various local controls you can use when you print the image. I rarely do this with my film as I find the range of TMAX doesn’t require it.  The only time I ever did was for this image which only had a contrast of 1.5 zones and I wanted to pump it up.

I actually have another set of film I took in the Tye river after 5′ of snow. That scene is so contrasty, and this experiment was so trying, that I’m kind of terrified to develop it. In that case I have about 18 zones and would need to figure how to shorten development times correctly.

Clipping photo from Ellen’s page made it a little blurry, oops.

Little did I know I would get a negative requiring 30 minutes in the enlarger. I posted about this aspect of the Zone System here.

Thinking Negatively to Control Your Print Contrast

You have to think negatively to understand contrast controls a bit. The whitest parts of the print are the darkest parts of the negative, requiring the longest times under the enlarger.  So, the dark cave details pop up right away and will continue to get darker and darker (as they are in the lightest part of the negative allowing more and more light onto the print). The highlights can take 2,3,4, 20x as long to come in. (In the first print above, I have various areas of the print get between 30 seconds and 30 minutes of exposure.)


To help the highlights come in, I pre-exposed the paper to light. You do this to bring in highlights which are the densest/blackest part of the negative and which need the most light to register. In straight development, by the time you got definition in the highlight, the rest of the print would be over-exposed. So you expose a blank piece of paper right up to the threshold at which it will show an image (established with test prints) so that any additional light will add detail. This is how I got all of that great graduation in the water instead of just a big white stripe (an affect of moving water photography which I always find distracting).


An image I won’t print because of the large undistinguished white area in the center.


Then I put my hand over the cave to withhold light (dodged). Again, this is the darkest part of the print and then thinnest part of the negative, so it will go black instantly if we don’t hold back a light for a portion of the total exposure time. In the first print of the hornets nest above, after the original 30s exposure of the area to the left of center, I had to hold it back (dodge it) for 29 min and 30s.


Finally I used a piece of paper with a small hole in it to add extra light (burned) just at the top of the falls to reduce the glare area much more than it is in the negative scan here.  So I shined light on just this portion of the print (the densest of the negative) for 3 or 4 times longer than the base exposure to get as much definition as possible. Because I had looked at the negative on the light table, I knew a portion of it actually was completely black and that no detail could be forthcoming from the very center of it. You cannot print information you do not record.

Because I had previsualized it, I got the final print in just three tries, a major milestone for me. In the final print there is tremendous definition in the water, you can count the logs in the cave, and the big rock center right glows like a ’49 Buick grill.

'49 Buick grill, the "Million Dollar Smile"

’49 Buick grill, the “Million Dollar Smile”

What if I had done this digitally? Well assuming I could capture 5 zones on my camera, with even the 9 zones I would have to have had my base exposure, one two stops more, and one two stops less. Some people faced with such a range would actually take five, or more, exposures – one for each f-stop. But then the water would not have been frozen, the branches would’ve moved, and I still would not have had any information at the top of the falls to burn it in.


Here is one of my most successful images, a straight scan of a 10-zone image (it has pure blacks and pure whites). In this image I used the fourth contrast control: I bleached the final image.

Marymere Falls

Marymere Falls

To increase the contrast of the “wings” of the waterfall, that lighter area on either side of it created by algae which grows under the fall at high water and which is very apparent in color images. You have to see the final image to appreciate it, but it shines like metal. Likewise this print was pre-exposed.


A color shot of the falls showing the green “wings.”


P.S. Who Are You and Where are You From?

Who is visiting me from the Ukraine?

WordPress gives me these awesome reports and I can see how people find me, where they live, how they found the blog, what pages they visited. I see people from Europe, Asia, South America, and I always wonder who they are. I would love to get comments from  you!