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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.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The natural world offers an unlimited cornucopia of subject matter for the discerning black-and-white photographer, ranging from delicate details to classic grand vistas. The display of potential compositions can oftentimes be dizzying, making the selection and cropping of any given scene very difficult. These compositional choices are perhaps the most difficult aspect of the photographic process. Technical control, while occasionally daunting, is gained through repetitious practice, and once mastered, will never abandon the photographer. The elusive and intuitive ability to see—to select powerful compositions and produce fine prints—is never guaranteed. They're always shaded with a certain amount of doubt.

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.

Wintery conditions with snow and ice can be tricky to expose properly. Using the Zone System will help you get a handle on these sorts of high-contrast exposures. Maintaining detail in the highlights and the dark areas usually can be accomplished if you take your time and plot out the Zones properly.
This problem can be offset with the extreme flexibility offered through the Zone System. The system was developed for film, but its principles apply to digital shooting as well. With a film-based workflow, you manipulate tones within the negative through a combination of exposure and development. As an example, if there's a two ƒ-stop range between the tones in an ice scene, and if you expose and develop it normally, the final print will only contain highlights, rendering it fairly harsh and boring. By taking a meter reading of the lowest tone, which may be taken either with a spot meter or by placing an averaging meter close to the desired tone and then closing the indicated reading down two ƒ-stops, you'll effectively drop that area down two zones. If need be, the tonalities may be lowered more than two stops, and this is done by closing down more ƒ-stops.

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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