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»The Zone System is Dead«


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I came across this article http://www.johnnypatience.com/the-zone-system-is-dead/ called »The Zone System is Dead« by Johnny Patience and thought it may be interessting for some of you, too.


The author used to overexpose (up to five stops) and overdevelop (up to three stops) Tri-X, while getting a very dense negative that scans and prints beautifully.


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I do think the point is well made in his article that the negative film used then, by Ansel et al, is a very different beast to the emulsions we have to work with now, hence the many discussions on how in the classic Zone system N-1 and N+1 and certainly the +/- N2 are very difficult to achieve these days. I did post a reply to that effect.
Also that the Zone system classically refers to pre-vision of the scene working from exposure and developing to the intended print when in reality the final print can be, and was, heavily manipulated, and that is not a criticism of the working practices of Adams.

The classic system utilises the zones on the "best" straightest part of the curve there is considerable, more now then then, room to move up or down and get results that are "good enough".
As said above there is more than one way to get to the end point and if it works for an individual good on them. My reversal film legacy leaves me still undershooting in the digital age compared to current practice, each frame has to count.

Each to his or her own.

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What you have in the article is yet another photographer doing the equivalent of re-inventing the wheel. Many photographers have done the same things for the same reasons. I was taught pretty much from day one the Zone System because I was/am a landscape photographer and educated in the landscape tradition. But shock and horror, Ralph Gibson came along in the 1970's and over exposed his film and over developed it and he got the results he wanted that helped to make the types of print he wanted.


From Johnny Patience's article I suspect thus far he's been under exposing his film, so when he thinks he's found a radical solution all he is really doing is finally getting it right. He's not found a new way, he's done what any photographer should do and found the way that suits him.


There is also one aspect of his article that I doubt, that he gets good scans from his dense negatives, simply because even the best scanners have a limited dynamic range and can't see through 'black' as easily as an enlarger. But given he only mentions scanning once then devotes himself to darkroom printing it may have been a typo.


For anybody interested in discovering how maverick some well known photographers can be in their exposure and development regimes the excellent 'Darkroom' and 'Darkroom 2' published by Lustrum Press have some cringe worthy examples. But of course the common denominator is that however cringe worthy the divergence from standard practice is the prints are still beautiful and every chapter shows how photographers have many ways to achieve their unique vision. 



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Bottom line - the "pure" Zone System is dead the instant we begin developing multiple images on a roll of film, as opposed to individual pictures on sheet film. Unless one uses interchangeable roll-film backs so that all the flat scenes can be exposed on one roll, and all the high-contrast subjects on another roll, and so on. (Ansel adopted the Hasselblad for just that reason).


If you can't give this particular frame 10 minutes of development "for the highlights", and the next frame on the same roll 4 minutes - no zone system. You buy graded paper (or multigrade filters) to correct contrast range instead.


But that doesn't mean the Zone System can't still provide some guidance and knowledge, such as the tests to determine actual film speed, or best base "normal" development time for a 9-stop scene, or paper speed ("just enough" print exposure to get to black).


Two "war stories":


Henri Cartier-Bresson's printer said that HCB was not all that consistent with his exposures - one famous image was so overexposed that printing it amounted to starting the print exposure, and then going out for a 45-minute lunch. That ties in with Steve' comment about dense negs and scanning - with an enlarger, you have more or less "infinite" time and cumulative light to punch through a dense piece of film. A scanner has a fixed amount of light and a fraction of a second to penetrate film.


It also makes the point, however, that "perfect exposure and development" and "great photography" are not the same thing.


Bill Pierce had a column in Camera 35 decades ago on "down and dirty metering." In it, he described a dream in which he was trying to photograph a flower, anally metering the top of each petal, the bottom of each petal, and every other part of the subject. Ansel Adams walked up to him, leaned over, and whispered in his ear - "Bracket!"

Edited by adan
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