The Practical Zone System for Film and Digital Photography: Classic Tool, Universal Applications / Edition 5

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The Zone System was developed by Ansel Adams over 70 years ago, and it is still a valuable tool for serious contemporary photographers who want to create the best images possible. Learning how to employ Zone System techniques can be challenging, but in this fifth edition of his classic Zone System manual, Chris Johnson breaks it all down into easy, digestible steps. Zone System principals can be used with film or digital photography, and both are covered in depth. A brand new chapter specifically on the application of the Zone System to studio shooting is also included, along with helpful studio set-up lighting diagrams. The most important thing about the Zone System is that it brings creativity in photography to a new level, and a new chapter on the creative aspects of using the Zone System includes well-known, successful images that were developed using Zone techniques. This is the essential guide for any photographer who wants to improve their foundational understanding of the Zone System, whether the focus is on film, digital, landscape, studio, or any other area of photography.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"I wish I had this book 30 years ago. I knew of the Zone system, but heard people talking of measuring densities and base fog and it sounded like a lot of effort. Chris is that rare teacher who can take a subject and make it accessible to all levels. I tell all my photographic friends- GET THIS BOOK. I have given it as a present. My copy is getting dog eared already. This is not just for film. He relates this to the digital world as well. If you aspire to move beyond PHD-(push here dummy) photography, this is essential reading."

"This is one of the easier books to understand on the zone system. It does not get too tied up in the details of the system but describes enough detail to allow the reader to understand the basics of the system. It takes the complex issues of the zone system and removes the calculations and just gives you what you need to know. Think of it like the difference between an art teacher who says 'Color the grass green' versus one who says 'The grass must be green because chlorophyll absorbs the green portion of the light spectrum and so reflected light appears that color.'"

"This book is the current bible of the zone system. Everything you want and need to know about it for both film and digital."

"I never developed a film in my life, but despite the fact that the original edition did not deal with digital photography and this book still talks a lot about film photography, this is one of the best most useful books on photography I've read so far."

"I liked the book. Just after I read it, I saw Annie Leibovitz's exhibition "A Photographer's Life", and the book gave me a much greater appreciation for her work."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780240817026
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 1/27/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 5
  • Pages: 374
  • Sales rank: 673,751
  • Product dimensions: 7.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris Johnson studied photography with Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Imogen Cunningham. His photographic and video works have been widely exhibited and he has conducted workshops and lectured on the Zone System in the United States and Japan. He is currently a Professor of Photography at the California College of Arts and Crafts and has recently served as Chair of the Cultural Arts Commission for the City of Oakland.

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Read an Excerpt

THE PRACTICAL Zone System for Film and Digital Photography

Classic Tool, Universal Applications


Elsevier Science

Copyright © 2012 Chris Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-240-81703-3



"Will It Come Out?"


Before the vast popularity of digital photography, the loneliest people in the world were probably photographers in darkrooms waiting to see if their negatives turned out the way they had hoped. This is true for the many photographers still working with film, and an equivalent problem exists when digital photographers compare the previews they see in their cameras to the results they get when they attempt to make a fine print from the image file.

Add to this the frustration of trying to make a fine print from a bad negative, and it is easy to see why uncertainty about photographic technique can be a major stumbling block for many photographers. The anxiety that you may have lost an important image goes a long way toward explaining the proliferation of automatic cameras and, more recently, digital photography that provides instant confirmation that your image is worth saving.

An important related issue to consider is the fact that very often, the most imaginative and effective rendition of a photographic subject is not one that simply records what the photographer saw in a simple or literal way. The works of artists like Bill Brandt or Wynn Bullock (not related to the above-cited author as far as I know) are dramatic examples of this principle. Direct translations of the visual world are often lifeless and boring.

Smartphone photography is an exciting genre unto itself, but for many kinds of serious creative work, automatic point-and-shoot cameras are too limited.

What many photographers need is a clear and direct working method that allows for creative photographic "seeing" and that produces predictable results. This is exactly what the Zone System is designed to do. When used properly, it will allow you to deal confidently with any exposure or development problem you are likely to encounter, regardless of the kind of photography you intend to do.

Anyone familiar with the work of Ansel Adams or Minor White knows how powerful a creative tool the Zone System can be. Until now, the problem has been finding a way of making the Zone System understandable to photographers who are not technically inclined.

The irony is that, in practice, the Zone System is remarkably easy to use. I discovered this after spending almost two years wading through the available literature and experimenting with homemade densitometers in my basement.

When I began teaching photography, I quickly discovered that if I taught my students what I was doing in the field instead of boring them with the complicated details of why it worked, it was as easy for them to learn the Zone System as it was for me to use it. In other words, it is not the system itself that confuses people, but rather the highly technical details some people use to explain it.

The Zone System can give you a completely new way of photographically seeing the world around you. When you begin using it, the path between what you see or can imagine in front of the camera and what you get in your prints becomes very clear and direct.

Let's consider a number of questions that beginning students usually ask at this point.

What exactly is the Zone System?

Basically, there are two technical problems that frustrate serious photographers. The first problem is how to give your film the proper amount of exposure. It is very difficult to make a fine print from a negative or digital file that is seriously under- or overexposed.

Digital photographers often think that they are immune to this problem because they can instantly see a "preview" of their images. There are two problems with this approach: First, the image the camera shows you is actually more of a "postview" than anything else. The moment and the action you were photographing are gone by the time you see the image. If a different exposure would have produced a stronger photograph, it's too late at that point to make that change. Second, the image generated by the camera is a small JPEG version of the resulting digital file. You don't get to see the true uncompressed version of your photograph until you download it into your computer. This is when digital photographers sometimes discover that their image is full of digital noise in the darker areas of the subject or blown-out highlights.

So-called "averaging" methods of exposure are unreliable, and bracketing cannot assure that you correctly exposed any given frame of your roll.

The Zone System teaches you a simple way of using any reflected light meter to achieve exactly the exposure you want every time.

The second problem is how to produce printable negatives or digital image files from scenes that have too much contrast or, in the case of film, sometimes not enough. The processing instructions provided by film and chemistry manufacturers are not adequate for dealing with the variety of lighting situations facing photographers in the real world, and Adobe Photoshop cannot solve every photographic problem.

With film, the Zone System teaches you how to control the contrast of your negatives by systematically adjusting the amount of time you develop your film. In essence, you will learn that film exposure and development are the only variables that you need to control to produce consistently printable negatives. For digital photographers, the Zone System allows you to avoid many of these problems in the first place.

If all the Zone System did was allow you to record a variety of photographic subjects consistently and accurately, that would be a real advantage to many photographers.

On the other hand, we would all be transformed into sophisticated automatic cameras. In fact, through a key element of the Zone System known as previsualization, the Zone System functions as a powerful creative tool that allows photographers a remarkable degree of creative flexibility and control over the photographic process.

A good analogy can be made between the Zone System and music theory. Music is a logical organization of raw sound that allows coherent melodies to be created and recorded. The Zone System is a functional codification of the science of sensitometry (the study of the way light and photosensitive materials interact) into a simple and manageable working method. Just as a musician who can read music is able to play any annotated score, be it jazz or classical, photographers can use the Zone System to interpret what they see in any number of creative ways.

How does the Zone System Apply to Digital Photography?

Correct exposure and contrast control are just as important to digital photographers as they are to those shooting film. The advantage of understanding the Zone System is that it provides a flexible and consistent method for visualizing and applying effective techniques to your work.

A good example of this relates to the problem of controlling subject contrast or, in digital terms, "dynamic range."

An increasingly popular feature in digital photography is the use of High Dynamic Range (HDR) software. There are artists producing striking work using these techniques, but there is one problem that most HDR techniques can't resolve: Because HDR works by combining multiple exposures, these techniques sometimes don't work as well with high-contrast subjects that are moving, such as water or people or trees blowing in the wind.

Chapter 10, "The Zone System and Digital Photography," provides detailed explanations for how to use the Zone System with digital cameras.

Why is Photographic Technique So Important?

Ideally, there is some feeling, concept, or idea that you are trying to express in your photographs. I think it is safe to say that the more effectively you are able to put your feelings or ideas on paper, the better your photographs will be. It is not possible to come up with a more precise definition of a "good photograph" because the range of creative possibilities is almost infinite.

And yet there is a relationship between the structure of your photographs (print quality, composition, etc.) and their content. In other words, your technique has a lot to do with how well your photographs get your message across.

The balance between structure and content in art is an important measure of mature work. Too much emphasis on one or the other will weaken the overall impact of your images. Sloppy or careless technique is distracting to the viewer, and yet overly structured photographs are often stiff and boring. The goal of students should be to master the technical aspects of the medium so that they can easily give their work the structure it needs to be effective, without that effort impeding free expression. The Zone System is specifically designed to give photographers that freedom and control.

If the Zone System is So Important, How were Good Photographs Taken without it?

By necessity, early photographers became masters of estimating light values and developing by inspection (see Appendix O). If there was any doubt about the exposure, they could always bracket just to be safe. Also, as will be discussed later, the photographic printing papers used by early photographers were extremely tolerant of mistakes in development. With the increase in the speed of modern papers, this is no longer true.

As you will soon learn, standardized methods of exposure and development simply are not reliable. Photographers need a way to adapt their techniques to suit the variety of problems they are likely to encounter. Many experienced photographers have developed personal working methods that are essentially derivatives of the Zone System adapted to their style of shooting. The advantage of learning the system from the beginning is that it will save you a great deal of time, money, and frustration.

Isn't the Zone System Useful Only with View Cameras?

No. With a view camera, each frame is exposed and developed individually. As you will see, this makes applying the Zone System to large-format film photography very simple. On the other hand, the principles that govern the Zone System apply as much to roll film as they do to sheet film. Compromises are often necessary when using the Zone System with 35mm cameras, but understanding the principles involved will give you all the control you need to get consistent results.

Do I need a Spot Meter to Use the Zone System?

No, although spot meters are generally more accurate than wide-angle meters, and they make choosing the correct exposure surprisingly easy.

Camera Manufacturers Give the Impression that Taking Good Pictures can be Simple and Automatic. Is the Zone System Outdated?

The suggestion that any given camera or meter can solve all your photographic problems is designed to inspire confidence and increase sales. Under average conditions, any good automatic camera can give you adequate results. Unfortunately, camera manufacturers cannot anticipate the variety of lighting problems that even a casual photographer routinely encounters. For this reason, automatic cameras, even when used properly, produce disappointing results much of the time.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, it is impossible to design a camera that will adapt automatically to the departures from the norm that are so important to creative photography.

The essence of art is learning how to break aesthetic rules in coherent and effective ways. To depart from average results, you need to understand the nature of the problems you are likely to encounter. The Zone System will provide you with a working method that is flexible enough to deal with these problems and give you creative control over the medium.

Excerpted from THE PRACTICAL Zone System for Film and Digital Photography by CHRIS JOHNSON. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Elsevier Science.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Fifth Edition

How to Read this Book


Chapter 1 "Will It Come Out?"

Chapter 2 Print Quality and Negative Contrast

Chapter 3 The Control of Negative Contrast

Chapter 4 The Zone

Chapter 5 Exposure

Chapter 6 Development

Chapter 7 An Overview of the Zone System

Chapter 8 Zone System Testing: Method 1

Chapter 9 Zone System Testing: Method 2

Chapter 10 The Zone System and Digital Photography

Appendix A Color Management, Profiles and Color Spaces

Appendix B A Primer on Studio Lighting Photography

Appendix C What is a Pixel?

Appendix D Bit Depth

Appendix E Exposure and the Digital Linear Effect

Appendix F Digital Light Meters and the Zone System

Appendix G Films, Developers, and Processing

Appendix H The Practical Zone System Film/Developer Testing Method

Appendix I Film and Developer Commentary by Iris Davis

Appendix J Alternative Methods for Extreme Expansion and Contraction Development

Appendix K Contrast Control with Paper Grades

Appendix L Developer Dilution

Appendix M Compensating Developers

Appendix N Inspection Development

Appendix O Condenser and Diffusion Enlargers

Appendix P ASA/ISO Numbers

Appendix Q Filter Factors, The Reciprocity Effect, and Bellows Extension Factors

Appendix R A Compensation Method for Inaccurate Meters

Appendix S Zone System Metering Form

Appendix T Exposure Record and Checklist For Zone System Testing

Appendix U Suggested Reading

Appendix V A Brief Directory of On-Line Digital and Photography-Related Resources

Appendix W Examples: Zone System Applications

A Primer on Basic Film Photography

A Brief Glossary of Zone System and Digital Terminology


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  • Posted March 21, 2013

    I am so happy I found this book. Johnson explains and illus

    I am so happy I found this book. Johnson explains and illustrates the zone system and how it works. For the neophyte it is simple enough to understand then carry this information to helping make better photographs. Many of us have never used or have little used film, and then possibly only in point and shoot cameras. While digital cameras do a lot of heavy lifting there is much to be gained by understanding the zone system. If you are interested in improving and understanding your photographic process, then this book is one you’ll want to have!

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