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#1 william koon

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Posted 01 August 2007 - 05:26 AM

can someone please explain in plain language what is zone system in cinematography? Thank you in advance
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#2 Robert Hughes

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Posted 01 August 2007 - 09:55 AM

The Zone System was developed for b&w still photography by the F/64 group which included Ansel Adams and Minor White. It is a method of controlling the dynamic range of the negative and print for optimum image quality.

Basically, the exposure scale is subdivided into 10 regions, from Zone 1 (black, no details) to Zone 10 (specular highlights, no details). By controlling image contrast through lighting, filters, development process and printing adjustments, a photographer utilizing the Zone system will render images with the maximum amount of dynamic range the photographic medium can provide.
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#3 Robert Hughes

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Posted 01 August 2007 - 10:09 AM

For reference, an 18% gray card often is considered in Zone 4.
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#4 e gustavo petersen

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Posted 01 August 2007 - 01:25 PM

I am fully aware that there are several interpretations of the Zone System but, I believe the system is generally considered to have 11 zones (from 0 for black to 10 for white) so that you do have a middle number in 5 which is you 18% or middle gray.

http://en.wikipedia....iki/Zone_system

This should be a good starting point for you to review William to get your feet wet as to what the Zone system is about. Photography websites are abundant online with examples of the system as well as the various deviations of the zone system.
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#5 Dominic Case

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 06:48 PM

I think of the zone system as sensitometry without the maths. In fact it is so devoid of numbers that Ansell Adams used Roman numerals to designate the zones up to IX. On a print, zone X (10) would be totally white paper with no image detail at all. Zone 0 is total black, corresponding to no information on the negative whatsoever. Strictly these extremities fall outside the zones. (In fact 0 is not even a Roman numeral, the Romans had no concept of the number zero in their counting system. )

Originally Adams developed the system to help him obain the best exposure (for density range) and development (for contrast) both in his negatives and his prints. It's a matter of looking at the scene in fornt of the camera and visualising where you want each shade of the original scene to sit in the tonal range on the print.

Google will produce heaps of good links. This is a simple one to start with.

BTW, in my ignorance I had not heard of the photographer Minor White. He'd be roughly a Zone VIII sort of person I guess.
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#6 Nick Mulder

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 09:26 PM

In large format stills (4x5 up to ULF cameras as big as a car) photographers could bracket exposures of the same picture or simply take the same picture multiple times so when it came to developing any density, contrast etc... issues could be dealt with on the remaining undeveloped 'clones' - So once they had their super duper perfect neg they could then work away at achieving a super duper print

The zone system when it comes to Cine work is a bit limited due to the fact a negative and its corresponding print will more often than not have a image that is dynamic in terms of density eg. the beginning of a shot might have more range than the end ...

Once flashing, push/pull, deliberate over exposure, filters, production design with an eye for the cinematography etc... have been taken care of in shooting I suppose a good colorist in a supervised transfer is really the 'zone system' of cine ? Its all about keeping as much visual information available whilst at the same time achieving the look you are after

yes yes - no ?
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#7 Nick Mulder

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 09:35 PM

I thought I remembered reading about zone system here before -

a quick search reveals the original poster here has already asked the same question:

http://www.cinematog...mp;#entry174941

You've twice been linked the wikipedia page on the Zone System - a read of that page 'in plain english' should have answered your query, or at least started you on learning about it ...

So whats this all about Mr Koon ?
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#8 Chris Keth

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 10:40 PM

Here's my basic explanation like I taught to freshmen at RIT when I was a TA. It assumes knowledge of stops, spotmetering, and push/pull processing:

1. Most negative films, when normally processed, can be said to record a scene fully if it ranges in brightness over ten stops. If you were to number these stops 0 would be black with no detail, X would be white with no detail, and V would be 18% grey, or middle grey. Your spotmeter measures exposure needed to achieve middle grey. Caucasian skin, in the light, will generally fall in zone VI. If you meter something you want to record on film in zone VI, you would ahve to increase exposure by one stop, because zone VI is one zone high (brighter) than zone V. This same relationship extends to all zones.

2. One stop of exposure difference can be roughly related to one visual step in brightness.

3. If you want to record a scene with more than 10 stops of brightness, you must pull the film in development. This will lower contrast and record more than 10 stops of brightness in a scene. The opposite is true of a scene of less then 10 stops of brightness difference. In this case you would push develop the film. This would increase contrast and create a full-range negative from a less-than-full-range scene. These non-standard developments are arrived at by testing.

There is a ton more to actually using the zone system for black and white photography but this gives a good basic knowledge of the ideas. If anyone's interested, there's a good book called "Beyond the Zone System" that incorporates formal sensitometry in with the zone system to create a very precise exposure+development method.

Edited by Chris Keth, 02 August 2007 - 10:41 PM.

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#9 Nick Mulder

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 11:03 PM

1. Most negative films, when normally processed, can be said to record a scene fully if it ranges in brightness over ten stops. If you were to number these stops 0 would be black with no detail, X would be white with no detail


I've read about B&W films recording up to 15 stops but thats the apparent limit ... ummm, 0 to X = 11 stops right ? not ten

2. One stop of exposure difference can be roughly related to one visual step in brightness.

What is a 'visual step in brightness' ? a JND ? (just noticeable difference)
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#10 Chris Keth

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 11:17 PM

I've read about B&W films recording up to 15 stops but thats the apparent limit ... ummm, 0 to X = 11 stops right ? not ten
What is a 'visual step in brightness' ? a JND ? (just noticeable difference)


Well, negative film has changed a lot since the zone system was developed. Different films and different developers (remember that B&W isn't a set chemistry system, there are dozens of developers. Coffee will develop film) can have different effects. It's certainly not a perfect system and requires so much testing that it's almost a moot point to make rules.

The visual step in brightness is what I take to mean "a significantly different tone from the last one." A JND (in your terms) is more like a quarter to a third of a stop. Those are often cited to be the smallest tonal difference people can easily see. Perhaps a stop is really defined as the sum of three JNDs :-D.

Again, really vague and depends entirely on development, printing, so on. It's a guideline, not a rule. ;) The zone system is a tough thing to teach effectively since the actual method is very dependant on individual photographers testing within their own system and determining their own film ASA, their own "normal" development, etc.

Edited by Chris Keth, 02 August 2007 - 11:21 PM.

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#11 Nick Mulder

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 11:50 PM

yeh, the 15 stops was with 7374 developed in phenidone - both rare items in todays photo stores but I have an interest as I have a bulk load of the 7374

With all things being equal we could make up rules, at least to use in marketing a product, but yep I totally agree 'results may vary' from user to user

In case you're interested >> http://en.wikipedia....able_difference - I find this stuff fascinating ... learned about the term in an undergrad architectural lighting paper i was doing a few years back

Edited by Nick Mulder, 02 August 2007 - 11:51 PM.

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#12 Chris Keth

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Posted 03 August 2007 - 12:17 AM

yeh, the 15 stops was with 7374 developed in phenidone - both rare items in todays photo stores but I have an interest as I have a bulk load of the 7374

With all things being equal we could make up rules, at least to use in marketing a product, but yep I totally agree 'results may vary' from user to user

In case you're interested >> http://en.wikipedia....able_difference - I find this stuff fascinating ... learned about the term in an undergrad architectural lighting paper i was doing a few years back


That's interesting. I didn't kow it was a formal term.

A few developers, films, paired with the right printing processes can squeeze a ton of contrast range into a print. It takes lots of testing to get it right, too. I'm a pretty avid large format B&W photographer and I still feel like I only have a superficial knowledge of it, compared to some of the real masters.
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#13 william koon

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 05:19 AM

I thought I remembered reading about zone system here before -

a quick search reveals the original poster here has already asked the same question:

http://www.cinematog...mp;#entry174941

You've twice been linked the wikipedia page on the Zone System - a read of that page 'in plain english' should have answered your query, or at least started you on learning about it ...

So whats this all about Mr Koon ?


Sorry Nick. I have posted earlier but unfortunately I still can't understand the real concept. Forgive me for wasting your time I would like to think that more people will respond to my question and I will understand fully. Right now I am still thinking of what is the purpose of this system? How do I use it in my cinematography? Patient teachers, please kindly explain with examples. Thank you.
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#14 Nick Mulder

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 05:48 AM

Sorry Nick. I have posted earlier but unfortunately I still can't understand the real concept. Forgive me for wasting your time I would like to think that more people will respond to my question and I will understand fully. Right now I am still thinking of what is the purpose of this system? How do I use it in my cinematography? Patient teachers, please kindly explain with examples. Thank you.


It certainly isn't film 101, so I dont blame you for not getting it... Personally, I only really have an partial academic understanding of it myself having not actually used it and only read about it - but I will say in my defense that I have shot large format and have done plenty on home developing of negs and printing with both push and pull processing (16mm up to 4x5) and seen the results these processes on gamma, density etc...

So anyway, with that little disclaimer out of the way >> what part of the concept do you not understand ?

Try hitting us with some direct questions - otherwise we will be just writing out shorthand versions of the many full descriptions of the Zone system already on the net ...

What is your background ? What are you shooting >film, video ? What got you interested in finding out more about the Zone system ?
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#15 Nick Mulder

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 06:02 AM

oh, ok you did already ask a direct question ! right...

"what is the purpose of this system?" - well, its basically a way to try to capture as much information on a negative that is possible, if you have more dynamic range in a scene than your film can handle then you can effectively dial-in via shooting and processing techniques what dynamic (light intensity = neg density) information you want ... This gives you ultimate control when it comes to printing.

"How do I use it in my cinematography?" - well it, depends - for film for instance you could try to keep your neg quite low contrast and have a neutral color cast so that in transfer a colorist has many options of which way to go in terms of grading and the end look ... Some people work this way, others might like to go for the end look as much as possible 'in camera' ... I personally dont think about the Zone system when shooting cine - still though, learning about it gives you an good understanding of how the storage (film neg, film positive, video, HD etc...) of light and color information is vital if you want to retain control downstream post-shoot post-processing etc...

Again... I'm no expert and I hope I'm not running a bit wild with my explanations .
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#16 Charles MacDonald

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 09:07 PM

"what is the purpose of this system?" - well, its basically a way to try to capture as much information on a negative that is possible, if you have more dynamic range in a scene than your film can handle then you can effectively dial-in via shooting and processing techniques what dynamic (light intensity = neg density) information you want ... This gives you ultimate control when it comes to printing.


The Zone system is another way of looking at the relationship between exposure and development. It is only partly applicable ot cinematograpghy as one seldom gets (or wants to get ) custom development for each shot. The still photographer using the zone system typicaly shoots sheet film and makes notes and develops each sheet (or simalar groupings ) for a time based on getting that shot to print with Minimal manipulation. Of cousre in Moves we don't normaly get to "dodge and burn" our shotes either. (unless as part of a CGI or DI process)
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#17 Hal Smith

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 10:11 PM

Trying to stuff modern films into ten zones is somewhat fruitless. A much better way of expressing the idea for motion picture films is to rate a given film with a number of zones equal to the film's latitude in stops. Then use the zone system idea to evaluate a given shot's exposure values. A bit technical but if you did it that way and kept good notes you'd be gaining the benefit of Ansel Adam's Zone System, a firm knowledge of how you captured a given image and how to adjust it without a bunch of guessing.
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#18 Nick Mulder

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 02:53 AM

Last night I purchased a Sinar 8x10 and a Schneider built lens (branded Caltar 360mm 6.8 with some pretty large coverage) - I'm going to read up a heap load more now ... ;)

yeehaw & go Team Sinar !
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