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.
When a particular composition does contain a full range, from shadows to highlights, the more classic system will come into play. By picking the shadow that should have strong detail (Zone III), metering only that area and then closing down two ƒ-stops, the tone will hold detail. In most instances, the development will need to be cut in order to hold detail in the highlight, which would be a Zone VII. By lessening development times with film, you're squeezing the upper tonalities down into a range that will be printable. This type of negative will then print in a standard manner, making use of all information contained within the negative. For digital capture, simply meter the scene and evaluate the exposure on the histogram. Again, the most important thing is to prevent the highlights from being cut off on the right. If by maintaining the highlights you're losing shadow detail, you're going to have to employ a different technique by compositing two images, one exposed for highlights and one for shadows.
There's a third possibility that occasionally will appear: that scene where lower-end tones are missing, and if introduced, would detract from the image. While rare, the possibility exists, and the photographer should be open to recognizing it. When dealing with this situation, choose the strongest highlight, the one that should have just perceptible detail (Zone VII), and meter it. Then, open the reading up two ƒ-stops, using that as your exposure. This is turning the Zone System on its head, as you are exposing for the highlights and ignoring any other meter readings. As odd as it seems, this will give a workable, high-key image. If there are any shadows in the scene, this technique won't work, as all lower-end detail will likely disappear.
Composition is always frustrating and is the most difficult aspect of the photographic process. This holds true for the sorts of ice photographs shown in this article more than with most images. Cropping out extraneous elements is always good policy, but becomes of equal importance when working with abstract subjects. By eliminating anything that gives scale to an image, by cutting out anything that offers the viewer a clue to the reality of the subject, you're enhancing the sense of abstract while veiling any intrusive elements.
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