Book Store




Random Thoughts


The Ancient Ones


Nature's Treasures

Human Impact


Never Forget

Magic Maysville

Hawai'i Waterfall Zen

Photo Journalism


Building a 617 Camera  

Test Print / Safelight Test

Zone System Thoughts

Small Format Zone System

Investing In Perfection

My Bomm V810 #12 Camera

My Darkroom

Meters and Metering


Craig Pindell

Zone System Thoughts

By Craig Pindell


         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.  Many would argue that I have not improved my photographic vision, and they may have a point, but it is easier to create photos when you have confidence that what you have the skill to put what you see on the negative. It takes much more than creating a well exposed and well developed negative to create a worthwhile photograph, but not having the technical skill to make the well exposed and well developed negative reduces the entire process to a crap shoot, at best.

       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 represents 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. Photographers who scan negatives rather than make silver prints in a darkroom seem to be less deliberate because they can fix everything in "post".

       For many photographers, there is no desire 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.  These photographers affix blame for poor results on themselves, not knowing exactly what went wrong. These photographers are not allowing themselves to experience the satisfying feeling of creating a high quality product.

        I was this way. I had a great relationship with the local drugstore where I took my film for processing.  I paid and they gave me back my processed work.  It took many, many rolls of film before I realized that when I expose two rolls the same way in the same light, that the results should be the same.  As I progressed I eventually felt that it couldn’t always be my fault that the gorgeous sunsets in Wyoming made awful photographs.

       40 years ago, when I began trying to sort out what I was doing wrong, I didn’t have the luxury of Google.  I had this weird building called a library.  I was able to go to this building and look at photography books.  At first I wondered how many rolls of film these published photographers had to shoot to get enough pictures good enough to fill a book.  Then I wondered why every picture in the book looked so much better than even my best.

       Completely by accident I photographed the Tetons and Snake River from exactly the spot as some newcomer named Ansel Adams.  I had not seen Mr. Adams photo before I made mine, but when I picked up my film at the drugstore and saw that print, I felt I had really made a special photo.  Then a friend brought his new Ansel Adams book to my house one evening, and I saw how different mine was from Adams.  His image had luminance and feeling. His clouds looked like clouds, not grey blobs.  We had composed the same, but I had really missed the mark.

        My next logical step was to buy intelligence.  I bought Ansel Adam’s The Print.  I would read that book, buy a better enlarger and become a great photographer. It only took an hour of reading that book to convince me I was far too dumb to ever be a photographer of that caliber. I had absolutely no grasp of what that book was telling me.  I did not buy the enlarger, instead spending the money on a larger camera.

       By moving from 35mm to medium format, I greatly improved my “keeper” ratio.  I went from 1 or 2 per 36 exposure roll, to 1 per 10 exposure roll (usually).  I obviously was getting better.  I did not realize that the drug store did not send the medium format film to the same lab as the 35mm film.  The improved quality of the negatives wasn’t all attributable to the larger negative.  I could see a significant difference between the small and medium format films when I laid them side by side. 

       One of my photographer friends had his own darkroom, and after one of our many photo outings, I hung around to see how he developed film.  I was very surprised at how much different his home developed film looked from my drug store developed film.  I decided that was the direction I would go.  It was time to buy more intelligence. I bought Ansel Adam’s The Negative.   It was far above my head also, but I was able to grasp one or two nuggets of knowledge that kept me trying to improve.

       Eventually, I moved up to 4x5 large format photography and my keeper rate plummeted.  I made mistakes with exposure, with focus, with tilt, with swings, with rise and fall.  I found ways to screw up that I am sure no other photographer had ever found.  Over time my issues with the hardware worked themselves out, and I found that I seldom make the same mistakes with the camera more that 4 or 5 dozen times before I learn.  Even with the larger, better focused negatives, I still felt my negatives were not up to par.

       A very close friend and excellent photographer, Graig Marrs, called one day asking if I would be interested in attending a photography workshop with him, sharing expenses and driving duties.   The workshop was in Washington state, 2 days driving from where we live in Wyoming.  I talked it over with my wife and decided to go.  We were not financially well off at the time, in fact we were quite poor, so the workshop fee was a bit of a hardship.  I also was required to take a portfolio of 10 prints of my current work.  Graig helped me understand the prints should be at least 8x10, mounted and matted, and should be the best prints I could make.

     The workshop was with Bruce Barnbaum. The first day, Bruce showed a set of 16x20 photos of his work, and I was amazed.  The depth and light and internal glow of his images was incredible.  The second day Bruce asked how many of us understood the Zone System.  I had read The Negative, so I of course raised my hand.  I was the only one to raise my hand.  Graciously, Bruce did not question me about the Zone System and show the other attendees how little I knew.  He did seem to look my way quite a bit as he explained metering, and development and visualization. This clip is an example of his straightforward approach to teaching   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlnt5yFArWo&app=desktop (Bruce Barnbaum – Placing the Shadows at Zone IV)     By the end of that day, I was completely convinced that the Zone System was the tool that would make the difference I had been looking for. During this workshop I made nearly 100 photographs around Bruce’s property and during the field trips the group took in the area.  Every negative was correctly exposed and developed.  Bruce’s way of teaching the Zone System completely clicked with me, and became my go to immediately. It works for Black and White film, for color negative film and for color transparency film.  It is a lifesaver for large format color transparency film, due to the material’s precise nature.

      I have been to several other workshops since, with Bruce, with John Sexton, Don Kirby, Jay Dusard, Huntington Witherill, and others, and each workshop has helped me improve and refine my photography, but nothing has had even close to the impact that learning the Zone System had for me and my photography.

      When I see other photographers struggling with under/over exposed/developed negatives, I cautiously suggest they try the Zone System.  The majority of the time they do not even try it, especially photographers who have migrated to film from digital.  The habit of fixing it in "Post" is hard to break.

      I know from my experience, learning how to make well exposed and well processed negatives makes a world of difference for me and my enjoyment of photography. 


Back To Top