Tuesday, February 14, 2012
How To Use The Zone System In Challenging Conditions
High-contrast scenes like late-winter snow and ice can be difficult to render in a photograph. Use the Zone System to get your best results.
The abstractions that occur in nature are wondrous and demanding, requiring an open mind and intuitive eye. As an example of a type of scene that's particularly challenging, but also rewarding, I've selected ice formations. This is an excellent time of year to photograph ice, and the late winter has a lot of variety. Ice, such a quirky subject matter, has become over many years my favorite obsession. It takes many shapes and forms, ranging from small, delicate details to large, grand views of still lakes and rivers. As with any subject, ice presents certain technical pitfalls, photographic problems that must be solved. These solutions, after being worked out, often will hold true whenever the same subject is photographed.
Solving The Tonal Range Challenge
The first technical conundrum will be the tonal range. There are often no true shadows in ice compositions, especially in details. The tonal range tends to start around Zone VI (a light gray) and run up to a bright white. While there's no rule that a black-and-white print must have darker tones, high-key prints—photos with only highlights—tend to be harsh, offering the viewer no compositional base.
Each drop in aperture translates into one lower zone. As a rule, you won't want to lower any given tonality more than three stops, as the shadow detail will begin to disappear. In cases where the lower tone detail isn't important, the drop in aperture may be as extreme as the scene requires.
Dropping the lower tones is the first step in spreading out the range. Raising the upper tones will finish this process, and this is achieved through development. The cornerstone of the Zone System is that exposure controls shadow densities, and development sets highlights. Cutting development depresses the highlight densities, and extended development time expands them. When a range requires spreading, a push in development is called for. Taking the recommended normal time, gradually begin to push past it, using small, incremental increases. If a normal time is 5 minutes, push the film up to 61⁄2 minutes. This will approximately equate to a one-zone push. Pushing the time up to 8 minutes will translate as a two-zone push, extending the highlights even further up the scale.
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