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Craig Pindell


The Zone System for Small Format

God Rays West of Cheyenne Wyoming by Craig Pindell

     God Rays West of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Nikon FE, 200mm lens, Ilford HP5 film


I will start with I believe in the Zone System, and I know that from the time I actually learned the real Zone System, the methodology, and the principles that makes the system work, the technical side of my photography has improved exponentially. 

    There are many truths in photography that cannot be changed no matter how we try. For example - developer before fixer.  Another example – f/11 is ½ the volume of light of f/8. The ultimate photographic truth - Good Prints come from good negatives.  It is a fact. Well exposed, well developed negatives make a difference.

    Before I go any further into this, let me say I have heard and read the “Zone System Is Dead” fanatics work very hard to convince photographers (especially new photographers, or recent film photography experimenters) that there is no benefit to a systemized approach to creating negatives.  My feeling is that every photographer has the absolute right to use the processes or systems that allow them to create what best represent what they want in the finished product. For me, the Zone System works.  Better negatives make better prints.  Haphazard negatives are difficult to print, and seldom lead to the best results.

      Modern film stock is very forgiving.  Black and white film currently being made is much less finicky and much more robust in terms of storage, of development, and of poor exposure techniques.  Color negative film has always had wide latitude for inaccurate exposure.  Color transparency film, is much less forgiving, but also much less available that it was even just 20 years ago.  This latitude allows the photographer to set the camera to Auto and fire at will.  Many photographers feel that 1 or 2 “keepers” per exposed roll is a reasonable goal.

     For many photographers, there is no need to spend any more time than that on the technical side.  Film speed is selected by what is printed on the label, or by recommendation from a trusted photographer.  The film is exposed and sent to the nearest or cheapest processing lab.  The photographer affixes blame for poor results on themselves, not knowing exactly what went wrong.

      Large format photography works very well for Zone System practitioners. Single sheets of film carefully exposed and developed precisely for the desired range of tones on the film.

      The Zone system is also not difficult for medium format photographers who use camera systems with interchangeable backs, such as the Hasselblad system, or the Mamiya RB/RZ system. One back can be for Normal Development, another for N-1, N-2, etc.

      On the other hand, the Zone System has always been more challenging for 35mm users.  From my experience, the smaller the negative, the more precise the technical aspect needs to be.  In other words, the format that would benefit most from the Zone System is the format that is the most challenging to use with the Zone System.



       I find 35 mm to be lightweight, and much more nimble than view cameras.  There are times when it is the perfect equipment for the situation.  These times are no reason to compromise the quality of your work.  I would argue the smaller the format, the more precise the photographer needs to be to create the highest quality images.

       My preference is to only carry one or two cameras. I have used my 35mm cameras for many years, so they are all comfortable and familiar.  When shooting 35mm, I don’t usually carry more than a few lenses. Of course, the number of lenses and number of bodies depends on the situation I expect to photograph.

     It is important for the cameras to have a manual mode.  If you are not adjusting the exposure to match what you meter, this system will not work well for you.



      For me, fewer mental mistakes are made when I keep the variables to a minimum.  This means I usually only use one film stock at a time, even though I may carry two or three, in order to be able to adjust to changing situations.

      Also, I shoot short rolls.  Back in the day, it was possible to buy 12 exposure rolls.  Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.  The shortest seems to be 24 exposure rolls.  When you meter and expose carefully, 24 exposures can take an eternity to shoot.  And, when you make a few exposures requiring an N-1 development, you can be sure the next scene you find will require an N+1 development.


           Over time, I have sorted out how to make short rolls with my loader.  I have had this same loader for many years.



     My ideal roll is 6 exposures.  When I bulk load film, I load several canisters with 6 exposure rolls.  I then expose 1 roll per scene.  Similar to large format and the 1 sheet per scene philosophy. I also will load some 12 exposure rolls as well, to use when the light situations are not changing, or I expect to be making several exposures of the same scene.

     Occasionally I will use 24 exposure rolls, but not very often.


      When I am not bulk loading my film cassettes, I buy 24 exposure rolls, and cut them to 12 exposures, using the original cassette for the half of the roll and an after-market cassette for the other half. These can even be cut in half again, but for me this is not practical because of the loss of film due to the leader on each roll.

      I put a small piece of masking tape on each film cassette, showing the number of exposures on the roll, and so I can mark which development scheme the roll is to receive, and I can mark the roll number on it.  This helps me keep my reusable cassettes reusable by not having conflicting information written on the cassette.

An Alternative:

       There are times when bulk rolling or cutting rolls is not practical.  Also, there can be times when long rolls make sense, due to dust, wind, snow, rain, etc.  For times like that I will use multiple camera bodies.  I mark each body for the planned development, then when I meter a scene and determine the development scheme, I use the appropriate camera for that exposure.

      I almost never use N+ development for 35mm.  For my eye, it adds grain and diminishes highlight detail.  I find that I can print with a more contrasty paper and compensate for the loss of contrast. If even more contrast is required, I can selenium tone the negative as well.  When carrying multiple bodies, I also compromise by not carrying a body for N and a body for N-1, etc.  If I carry one body for N and another body for N-2, when I photograph a scene that requires N-1, I expose it on the N-2 roll, and give the scene a bit more exposure.  This adds more exposure to the shadows, but still does not overexpose the highlights.  The alternative would be to carry 3 or 4 or 5 cameras.


Exposing Film:

     Proper metering and exposure are important.  Often, metering will take longer than making the exposure.  This requires a bit of discipline.  For me it works best with a 1 degree spot meter.  I have known photographers who used a 15 degree meter and had excellent results.

     If you can meter to your satisfaction using the meter in the camera, by all means do that.  I have not had good luck doing that.  It is important to be able to measure the light in the shadows and place those shadows on the proper Zone.  Then measure the Highlight and determine the correct development scheme for the film.  I have a visual aid on my spot meter that helps me do this without having to do any math.



     One of the reasons I use 6 exposure rolls, rather than 1 exposure rolls, is to allow me to bracket exposures if needed.  Without a great deal of experience, it is best to rely on a good light meter to determine the correct exposure, and the correct development. 



     When I am ready to develop my film, I group all of the different schemes together.  All of the N, all of the N-1, all of the N-2, etc. If a roll is 24 exposures, I load it on its own reel.  For 6 exposure rolls, I load 3 on a reel, taping the rolls end to end.  (Side note: I use 3M vinyl electrical tape for taping film in the cassettes, and for taping the films end to end for processing. This tape has less static discharge than most, and does not come undone in the development process)

     As a general rule of thumb, I seldom use the film manufacturers suggested development as my Normal development time and temperature. I find the best development time through trial and error, for the best highlight detail on a normal scene (as indicated by the spot meter as the highlight being at Zone VII 1/2 to Zone VIII). For N+1, I add 10% development time. N-1 is the normal development time minus 10%. N-2 is the N-1 time, minus 10%.



Film Speed:

      Proper exposure requires you know the actual speed for a film stock/ developer combination.  This can be determined by testing.  I have seen countless different methods to test for film speed, and I am sure there are those who can point out which test is the best. The correct speed is the speed that records shadow detail at Zone III 1/2 to Zone IV.  I don’t know of any way to spoil photography faster that to reduce it to an exercise of testing materials.  A true advantage to being able to bracket exposures is that you do not have to know the exact film speed to have the perfect exposure.  Assuming you are using 6 exposure rolls, and you bracket ½ stop for each exposure, with what you assume to be 100 ISO film, you can bracket from EI 50 to EI 320.

     As you utilize this system, you can work out that if your “perfect” exposure is consistently the EI 200 exposure, your real film speed is ISO 200. The most accurate testing is in actual conditions with the equipment you will actually be using.



     It is important to make a proper contact print of the images for evaluation.  I make contact prints on variable contrast RC paper, using a grade 1 filter.  The proper contact print exposure is when the print is dark enough that the sprocket holes are barely visible.  If you cannot see the sprocket holes, the print is too dark and it will be impossible to determine the best negative.

     When the contact print is correctly exposed I can tell which negative contains the proper detail in the shadows and has detail in the highlights.  When the negative contains this information, it will print well.


A Note on Notes:


      For me, note taking is an important part of the learning process.  I have known many brilliant photographers who take almost no notes. I have created myself various sheets for recording data as I shoot.  When I am shooting 35 mm, I do not take the same detailed notes that I do when shooting sheet film. I usually use a Photo Memo book.

     I encourage you to take notes as you learn, but after all, we all do this to make photographs, not to make notes.  As you work with this system, you will sort out what works best for you. Some photographers make exhaustive notes in the field, but record nothing in the darkroom.  Others take minimal notes in the field, and record every detail in the darkroom.  Some go overboard one way or the other.  Do what works best for you and what allows you to continuously improve.  Most importantly, photography is to bring joy, and not to be tedious.   

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