Casework: Loch Duich
Cottage - Loch Duich
We'd walked along the far shore of the loch, opposite the castle for a few miles. It felt as though we had the whole lake to ourselves. As we rounded a small headland, I saw this house and jetty, sailing boat moored in the background. The peaceful scene called out to my camera, but the lighting challenged any automatic exposure technique.
My photographic exposure technique has always followed Ansel Adams "Zone System". I first heard of Adams when very young. My father talked of Adams' "Zone System" and how complicated it was. At that young age I never understood the complex theory of zones and exposure. I would gaze upon those Ansel Adams landscapes in awe believing I'd never make such grand photographs. Ansel Adams left us a gift, a method of exposing, developing and printing that guaranteed good results. Through the years I have learned the beauty and the simplicity of this system. It has provided me with the easiest negatives for printing and an awareness of how we can fit so much light into so small a negative "space".
The Zone System, at its simplest, describes two photographic essentials. First, that your negatives have a limited dynamic range and cannot reproduce the range of light we observe. Second, that we can expose and develop in a way that 'fits' what we see onto our imperfect negative and paper media. From Adams we learned that by taking care of the shadows we will print details in those darker parts of the scene and by using careful development for the highlights we will tame them bringing them down into a printable range.
The Zone System doesn't ensure that all the shadows will show detail or all the highlights will be nuanced, in fact, that would make for a rather flat and unpleasing print and I always work to have some true black and some paper whites to provide a nice contrast*.
Exposing for the shadows:
In my experience, a film with five stops between the shadows and the highlights will maintain enough important detail and be easiest to print. With that in mind, we first examine our scene and decide which is the darkest part that needs detail and which is the lightest. With black and white film you start with the darkest part, the shadows, these are the focus for your exposure. I looked at the scene and decided the prominent shadows in front of the cottage needed detail so they didn't become featureless black. With my camera's spot meter I measured the near shadows. This gave me 1/320 @ F2.8. This reading would render the shadows near the house medium grey (two stops too bright for detailed shadow) so I closed down the lens two stops from that reading to 1/320 @ F5.6. Now I knew the shadow detail would print well.
That's how to take your exposure, measure the shadows and close down two stops with either your aperture, your shutter speed or a combination of both.
I looked at the scene and realised the highlight problem would be detail in the roof of the house. The sun bounced off it and it could easily become burned out. A featureless white roof would look awful. I therefore spot metered the roof and found it measured 1/1280 @ F16, six stops brighter than the shadow (1/320 @ F5.6 to 1/1280 @ F16 = six stops). I wrote this down in my notebook, I'd deal with that problem later, in the development.
Develop for the highlights
At home I studied my notes from the day's shoot. This scene of Loch Duich was my focus for the film. In order to create a good print from this six stop scene I needed to bring the negative down to the 5 stop printable range. Put another way, I needed to reduce highlight development time by one stop. To achieve that I would use D-23 stock and develop for 30% less than my normal development time which would bring down the highlights. My book covers this in more detail and explains why and how this works. It also explains how to expand the contrast range of the film.
Ansel Adams taught us that before taking a photograph we need to visualise the scene and understand the light. By understanding the range of light, from shadows to highlights and deciding where we want printable details to be, we can expose and develop effectively making our printing easier. By slowing down at the point of capture we speed up results in the darkroom.
I invite you to comment below on your experiences with the Zone System, ask questions, or give feedback on my technique.
*The system also allows for placing tones in the photograph against certain grey levels (zones) but that's beyond the scope of this post.