SoCal PhotoExchange

Minor White’s Zone System Manual revisited

Posted in Photo techniques, Photography by douglaspstockdale on February 20, 2018

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Minor White Zone System Manual, Fourth printing, copyright 1972 with 19% Gray card

Earlier this month when discussing the Pentax Spotmeter V, I had stated that this was a pretty essential piece of photographic equipment when using the Zone System. I have received some questions about the Zone System and I thought it might be a great idea to expand on what the Zone System is as well as what it is NOT.

First the easy part; the Zone System does not do the thinking for you. As the late Ansel Adams and Minor White stated the Zone System is an enabling technology that allows the photographer to achieve the results that they would like to see in the finish print/image, which in the 1960’s and 70’s is called previsualization. If a photographer wanted certain areas in the photograph print (image) to have some texture/information, it enables them to make an exposure that will exhibit that texture/information in the final print (image).

Adams tried to explain the theory behind the Zone System which became too technical and complicated and it was later that the late Minor White broke it down into the simple terms that belie the basic ideas of the Zone System. To underline the simplicity was White’s famous little yellow Zone System Manual. As you can see of my cover above, the price in 1972 was pretty inexpensive (and I bought it for an even cheaper price at what is now Costco). The one issue with this older book is that it is a perfect bound (glued) book with many of the pages falling out; so it remains togther in my zip-lock plastic baggie.

The Zone System is about understanding light and luminescence (reflected light) such that in bright sunlight, the luminescence range that your eye can detect is broader than the sensitivity of either analog film or a digital sensor. As example for digital capture, if you have a sunny day and your image capture has highlights that are blown out (no texture or complete white-out), then you understand the need for exposure control. The Zone System is essentially the color management system of its day.

What Adams and Fred Archer did in the late 1930’s is evaluate the luminescence scale is in ten steps; from white without texture (Zone 10) to black without texture (Zone 1). The 18% Gray card is Zone 5, right in the middle, which is also the same value your meter, whether digital capture or an analog Spotmeter reads. If you have ever photographed a large area of white snow, but obtain a middle gray (muddy appearing) photograph/image, you may now understand why. Your digital sensor thought that it was metering 19% gray subject and auto exposed to provide that image contrast range.

The real idea behind the Zone System and previsualization is to have an ability to take light meter readings of a proposed composition, understand the luminescence of the brightest area that you wanted to retain some texture (information) as well as the darkest area of texture, then calculate what your exposure should be. For analog black and white film there are some additional processing tricks to either obtain expansions (the subject’s contrast was too limited) or contractions¬†(the subject’s contrast was too great) of the film’s development to attempt to match the intended final darkroom print, as well as some processing tricks to expand or contract the contrast of the printing paper.

The equivalent for digital photography is to look at the histogram of the image capture and then make a determination to either adjust the exposure or anticipate making some post-processing contrast adjustments with software like Photoshop (i.e. curve layer). As stated above, the digital sensors are very sensitive with bright lights and can lose information, even with shooting RAW, so you might error on a slight underexposure to capture the highlight values. For analog black & white film, the opposite is true, there is a potential to lose detail in the dark values of a negative, thus a tendency to slightly overexpose the film to make sure that the dark values are captured by the film.

If you are having issues with your film or digital capture exposures and you are not getting your intended image results (what you had previsualized), then you might want to spend some time understanding the basics behind the Zone System.

Cheers!

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Pentax Spotmeter V – User Report

Posted in Camera equipment, Photo techniques, Photography by douglaspstockdale on February 7, 2018

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Pentax Spotmeter V 2017 copyright Douglas Stockdale

For my analog/film photography, I have been a long time user of spotmeters, my first was made by Soligor and when I dropped that too many times, I replaced it with the Pentax Spotmeter V. The Spotmeter V is an analog spotmeter that has since been replaced by Pentax with a digital version. The meter will measure the luminescence of a very precise area of the subject designed by a round spot much like a bullseye within the meter.

What brought me to use this precise light meter tool was my introduction into the zone system many, many years ago. In a future article I will discuss the zone system in more detail, suffice to say when using black & white film that was hand developed, there were a number of film processing tricks a photographer could use. This was predicated on the fact that they knew the lighting conditions of their subject and what the black & white values that they wanted in the resulting print. The secret trick to make this happened depended a lot on using a spot meter that could record exact light readings in various places within the subject; from the lightest values, mid values to the darkest values.

One thing that I did not like about the lesser expensive Soligor spotmeter was the undersized handle grip, which was rather annoying and maybe a reason that I dropped this delicate instrument one too many times. The Pentax in turn has a large handle and from that perspective alone is a delight to use. You can really get a grip on this little beauty.

The second was the Soligor had a two phase scale; you had one set of values with a slight squeeze of the button and if needed a different sensitivity, you squeezed a little harder to get the second set of light values. In comparison the Pentax has one continuous scale within the view finder, which is much easier to use, especially if the light values were in the mid point of the scale that for the Soligor had the readout jumping between the two values and a bit confusing to know exactly what was going on.

To use this spotmeter requires the photographer to take the value(s) viewed inside the meter and then translate it to the rotating scale on the outside of the meter, see below, to determine the required camera settings. As example, if reading a gray card (18% gray) and the meter pointed to the value of 10 & 1/2, you moved the dial to point at the 10-1/2 mark and for an ISO 100 film, you could chose a series of exposures that provide you with an appropriately exposed film (e.g. 1/15 sec at the half click between f/8 and f/11).

The final luminescence value determined for the mid-point is called the exposure index (EI) and when using the older Hassleblad lens, there is a corresponding EI scale on the lens. Thus this meter and lens make a great combination. When the EI is set on the lens, the aperture and shutter speed sequences were coupled together and locked in. A change in the aperture created a corresponding change to the exposure time. Thus a photographer could make one exposure and then quickly change the coupled exposure index settings for a different combination and still have the desired film exposure.

Although I no longer hand-process my film, I still depend on this meter to evaluate the lighting of my subject and then determine what my exposure should be.

This Pentax Spotmeter V has been a work-horse for me and has been trouble free for the past ten plus years. recommended.

Cheers!

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