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  2014 April       Film   Miscellaneous

In This Article


So What's With This Zone System?

Slide Film

The North Sky

Negative Film

Spot Metering

Matrix Metering


Exposure latitude and dynamic range are not technically the same thing, but they are closely related.   Latitude is how much you can overexpose a shot and still get a good picture.   Dynamic range is the difference in stops or EV between the darkest and brightest areas that still carry detail. 

Digital cameras and film have different amounts of dynamic range.  Even different types of film have different range. 

Can this knowledge be used for taking better pictures?   If so, how?

So, What's With This "Zone System"?

Just about everyone in photography knows that Ansel Adams used something called the "Zone System". 

I'm not going to re-hash the entire zone system in this article.   Ansel Adams' The Negative (available here) is the starting reference.  It's a recognized classic if you're interested in the subject.   The Zone System actually takes quite a bit to implement correctly.  Traditionally, it meant having to tailor your developing times and everything.  And today, the selection of good, new, affordable handheld spot meters is pretty thin.

What I will do here is talk about a couple of key points from the Zone System.

There are eleven zones, 0 through 10.   Zone 0 is pure black with no detail.  Zone 10 is pure white with no detail.  Zone 0 and Zone 10 are not part of the actual dynamic range of a scene.  They're more like bookends. 

If you knock off those two outer zones, you have nine zones left.  

Now, if you have nine zones, the exact middle one is Zone 5.  That's your "medium gray" zone.

We're photographing in color, though.  Who needs medium gray? 

Medium gray is special, because it's where light meters are set.  They are designed to give the correct exposure reading for an 18% "gray card".


OK, nevermind that.   Well, don't forget it entirely, but let's talk about an example.

Let's say you have a camera with a TTL (through-the-lens) spot meter, and you point it at a brick wall.  Let's say that brick wall is lit uniformly.  And the camera's light meter says "f/5.6" and "1/60th".  That's a pretty reasonable situation, right? 

Now, if you take that shot at f/5.6 and 1/60th of a second, that wall will be exposed as if it were a medium gray card.  That means your negative-- or slide, or digital image-- will render the brick wall as a medium tone.  That becomes your Zone 5.

If that brick wall were part of a more complex scene, anything lighter than the brick wall would be in a higher zone, and anything darker than the brick wall would be in a lower zone.  But only if you metered on the wall!   If you meter somewhere else, that brick wall won't be the medium zone in your photograph anymore.  The "somewhere else" will.

Have you ever used the AE lock feature on your camera?  Have you ever been out in the sun and pointed the camera lens at a dark, shaded area and engaged the AE lock?  If you take the picture that way, the whole picture comes out too bright.  That's because you are telling the camera "Make this dark area the neutral gray in my picture".  You are re-calibrating the scene with that dark area as your Zone 5.  The shaded area will be nice and detailed, but anything that was in the lighter areas will either be washed out (if using film) or nastily clipped (if using digital). 

The point is that you can put different scene features into different "zones" by where they are relative to the exposure settings. 

A common beginner mistake is to overestimate what the Zone System can do.  A lot of beginners seem to think Ansel Adams was able to get all that range into a print simply by using the Zone System when he metered the scene.  That's not quite true.  Some of those scenes would never have produced prints like Adams did, except he did something extra.   Adams used dodging and burning techniques in the darkroom.  

Dodging lightens areas that are too dark, and burning darkens areas that are too bright.

As-viewed, there are some scenes that have too much dynamic range to be captured adequately in a photograph... unless you start using HDR.

Some scenes are right on the limits.  You can encounter those pretty easily.

Here's a scene that would have been better if the sun hadn't gone down behind a mountain.   The good news is that it makes a useful example, because there's a lot of exposure range between the light and dark areas.  It also has some well-defined zones.

I didn't write down the readings for that dark canyon, but let's put it this way.  It was at least three or four stops darker than medium gray (Zone V).  In fact, let's make...

A Quick Side Note

Look again at the picture above.  The dark mountain is rather muddy and indistinct.  It's not that way when you view the original slide on a light table.

This slide has so much dynamic range that the DSLR could not handle it.  As digitized, there was originally no detail in the shaded mountains, and almost no detail in the foreground vegetation.  I had to do two different captures and make a composite, just to show what was in the original transparency. 

As it stands, the DSLR sensor messed up the tone and brightness distribution in the shaded areas.  I'll talk about that in another article, one of these days. 

There's a common notion that a DSLR has more dynamic range than slide film.  Well, I've learned that notion is wrong.  It's easy enough to test:  If it were true, one snap from a DSLR would easily be able to encompass all the dynamic range in a color slide.

Since then, I've started paying closer attention to my macro "scans".   Here's what I've found.  If you want to get anywhere near capturing the dynamic range of a slide, you have to use special techniques to extend the apparent dynamic range of your DSLR.

Now, Back to the Scene

I was talking about the type of scene, and how to capture it on film.

This landscape scene is a good example of wide dynamic range.  It has two areas that are far apart in luminance.  That makes it a challenge to preserve detail in both of them. 

To capture detail in the shaded mountains, I almost had to wash out the sky, but not quite.   I'd say it's about 2 stops above the middle tone.  Those shaded mountains are probably about 3, maybe 4 stops darker than the distant mountain ridge (the middle tone in this picture).  I'd have more precise values, but I didn't write them down.  More about that later.  At the time, I metered this scene carefully to try to preserve detail in the two extremes.  That part worked pretty well, even if this wasn't the best lighting to begin with.

The dark valley has actually quite a bit of detail in the Velvia transparency, even more than you can see in this digital capture.  Slide film actually has more dynamic range than you might expect.  Digital scanning methods lose some of that.

Now, let's talk a little bit more about slide film and how to meter scenes.  (If you shoot Kodak Ektar, this will apply to you also, because Ektar behaves a bit like a slide film as far as dynamic range).

Slide Film

The old saying "expose for the highlights" is more of a truism than a literal truth for slide film.   Here's why.  If you meter on the brightest areas of tone and shoot that way, you'll be telling the camera to make that Zone 5. 

If you make the brightest areas your Zone 5, then much of your picture will be very dark tones.  The picture will be way underexposed.

Go back to that example picture above.  The sky is starting to wash, but it still has tone detail.  You can still see some hazy blue and some clouds.  I could have made that sky my Zone 5, which would have brought out the color and tone.  Problem is, the entire foreground would have been a block of shadow with no detail. 

It would be kind of dumb to "meter and expose for the highlights" in every scene you encounter.  That's because not all scenes are alike.  What if you had bright lamps in the corner of a dimly-lit room, and you wanted a usable picture of people sitting in the dimly-lit areas of the room?  You wouldn't meter on the lamps, because the people would not even show up in the picture.   They'd be sitting in blocked shadows on your transparency.

Every scene is different.

A good "rule of thumb" for slide film is that it has five to six stops of useful dynamic range.  (Then again, remember what we learned in "a quick side note".)  Keep that in mind as we go through an exercise. 

This should be done on a sunny day outdoors, sometime around mid-day.  Before you even start, just remember not to look at the bright sun through your camera viewfinder.  (You knew that, but I had to say it anyway.)  Keep the disc of the sun out of your picture.  When I talk about the "brightest feature" in your scene, I don't include the sun.  The disc of the sun at midday is way brighter than anything else in your scene.  If you're going to try to put it into a "zone", it must be Zone 10 (pure, featureless white).

Now, the first thing to do with your spot meter is determine the total EV range of your scene.  What are the brightest and darkest areas?  Are there any areas so dark you don't care to bring up the detail?  Are there any areas so bright you don't care if they wash out?  (As said, the midday sun is already one of those areas, so don't even meter on it.)   Think about this for a moment:  which features do you want to save, and which could look OK without detail?

Meter on the brightest and darkest areas where you want to have any detail.  Now, how many stops are they apart?   Write that down if you need to, or make a mental note while you're composing the shot.  If your brightest and darkest areas are more than five stops apart, you'll have to make some decisions.

Now, here's a question that someone recently asked me.  If slide film has 5 or 6 stops of range, can you just meter on the highlights and shoot 2.5 or 3 stops wider?

The short answer is "It depends on what you're trying to accomplish".   With slide film, 2.5 or 3 stops brighter than correctly-metered is too much, if you want to keep that sky in the picture. 

Looking at that 6x6 Velvia shot again, the sky is starting to go already.  (The scan / capture makes it look worse than it is.) 

That puts it at probably 2 stops above the sunlit mountain ridges.   In other words, if the mountain ridges were f/11 at 1/125th, the sky would have metered at f/11 @ 1/500th.   Since we're no longer looking at sky that's 180 degrees away from the sun, that's possible.  Also the mountains were probably a little darker than f/11 @ 1/125th because the sun was no longer direct.

Here's a crop from that image again: 

Look at that distant mountain ridge.  The brightness is about right, so it looks natural.  That mountain ridge is the Zone 5 in this picture.  I metered and shot this scene in such a way as to preserve what I saw in real life.

I could have used a wider aperture to bring out detail in the shaded mountain if I wanted.  It would have washed out the distant mountain ridge. 

That brings us to another rule of thumb that I use... meter and shoot in such a way that you'll produce a natural-looking photo.   If you start losing key details like sky or prominent mountains, then you're picking scenes with too much dynamic range.  (You can do film HDR, you know... just keep that tripod steady and bracket -1, 0, and +1 stop... or -2, 0, and +2.  When it's developed, scan and use software to make composites.  I never bother, though... film is good the way it is.)

Much depends on where the sun is in the sky.  There are situations where the sky will always wash out if you try to get correctly-exposed scenery.   If that's happening, you might try picking different times of day, or maybe different angles relative to the sun. 

The North Sky

The best scenes with sky are also the ones where a circular polarizer would work best:  north of the sun's path, about all the way across the sky from wherever the sun is at that moment.   This deepest-blue sky will have the closest EV to your landscape.  Sometimes it will be identical, believe it or not.   I love days like these.  It goes beyond having a picture, or even making a picture.  Any digital picture-taker can do that.  It goes beyond that.  A day like this is like refueling.

During the 2012 fall season the whole landscape was turning drab green-brown.  I searched and searched for just one area that had foliage like this.  It was that important, like recharging batteries.  I wonder if other 4x5 shooters think like this.  All I know for sure is it had to be slide film, nothing else would do.

Fujichrome Velvia 100F
photo originally shot in October 2012

I think I shot this one at the equivalent of f/11 @ 1/125th of a second,
but it might have been between f/11 and f/16 at a 125th.

The upper sky and bright-orange leaves were my Zone 5 here.
That's because this image is about the colorful trees and sky. 
Everything else is secondary.

Choose your scenes right, and slide film is the best thing on the planet for landscapes.

So anyway, you found a scene where the sky and the major land features are metering about the same... f/11 at a 125th, say.  Do another shot at -1/3 or -1/2 stop, depending on which one your camera offers.  Some cameras allow you to select which one.


Here are some spot readings from an actual daylight scene which I checked the other day.  Readings were taken for ISO 100.

Nearby evergreen tree............f/11 @ 1/60th
Distant hills....................f/11 @ 1/125th
Blue northern sky................f/11 @ 1/125th
Brighter areas of north sky......f/11 @ 1/250th
White cloud highlights...........f/11 @ 1/500th

The brightest highlights metered f/11 @ 1/500th.  The darkest land features metered at f/11 @ 1/60th.  This was a pretty easy scene, because the lighting was even and there wasn't too much contrast.  There were no areas of deep shadow. 

How many stops do we have here?  Not many.  Let's see here:  f/11 at a 60th to f/11 at a 500th is a total range of only four stops.  That's a piece of cake for either type of film, negative or slide.   Even digital can probably handle that without messing it up.

The middle value in this scene is between f/11 @ 1/125th and f/11 @ 1/250th. 

Let's put that another way.  It's halfway between f/11 @ 1/125th and f/16 @ 1/125th.  (Because f/11 @ 1/250th captures as much light as f/16 @ 1/125th.)  If you have an aperture with no hard stops, you could do this:  set your shutter speed for 1/125th.  Then, move the aperture dial to the halfway point between f/11 and f/16.  Your four-stop, sunlit scene will be perfectly exposed for slide film, rendering a nice blue sky.  

Notice that you didn't just meter on the white cloud highlights and shoot the scene that way.  f/11 at a 500th would produce a photo that's too dark.  However, metering on that bright spot and opening the aperture two stops-- or reducing the shutter speed two stops-- would produce a good result.   So there we go:   f/11 @ 1/125th is about right for that scene.

There again, 2.5 or 3 stops would be too much, especially with slide film.

f/11 at a 125th is a good number to know.  It's why toy camera makers usually include f/11 on their cameras.  With a typical spring-loaded shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, you can even use slide film in these. As long as the sun is out.

Just remember that using your brightest highlights as a guide post can be misleading, because some scenes have highlights so much brighter than the rest of the scene. That's why sometimes, you have to decide which highlights you don't really need. 

Here's an example.  Instead of 180 degrees from the sun, imagine you try shooting a scene almost directly into the sun.  (Again:  Don't look at the sun through your viewfinder.  Lenses gather light, and it can damage your eyes.)  The cloud highlights near the sun would be way brighter than f/11 @ 1/500th. 

They could easily be f/11 at a 4000th. 

If you go only two stops slower than that, the landscape features will still be way too dark.  

Here again, spot meter on the brightest areas and the darkest areas, discarding any values that are too extreme.  Assume that some things in "Zone 10" might be multiple stops brighter than Zone 9 etc.

Expose the shot for a middle value, or the feature you want to be the middle value.

Negative film has a different approach.  Or, I should say it "can" have a different approach.  You can certainly do with negative film exactly what I just talked about with slide film. 


Negative Film

As you may have seen in Camera vs. Log, color negative film has a lot of dynamic range.  Seven stops, and that's just the highlights!  That means in theory it should have 14 stops of overall dynamic range. 

Kodak Portra may have as many as 17 or 18 stops of range.  I haven't tested it (yet) but I wouldn't be surprised.  (Other people have said 17 stops, I think.)

What that really means is that if you're using negative film, it's hard to ruin a scene by overexposure.  Actually you should overexpose a bit with neg film, because underexposure makes an ugly kind of grain in the shadows when you scan digitally.  It's not your normal film grain.  And it's really hard to get rid of.

With negative film, many photographers meter on the dark areas of the picture and shoot at that setting.  Before you go around doing that with your expensive 4x5 sheets, I would again try to define the brightest and darkest areas of the scene. 

With negative film, you can either...

1.  Just figure out which is your Zone 5 or middle tone.  Meter on that and expose the shot.   This is how I usually do it.


2.  Meter on the darkest shadows that still have obvious detail.  Expose the shot at that setting and you'll probably get a usable picture.  

Again it depends on what's important to you in the picture.  With negative film, you could even:

3.  Meter on the lightest area that's not pure white.  This is your Zone 9.   Expose the shot at 5 or 6 stops slower than that.  So, if the lightest area metered f/11 at 1/2000th, expose the shot at f/11 at 1/60th. 

Spot Metering

Here's what I would do, just starting out.  Get a camera that has evaluative, matrix, or whole-scene metering.  It helps if that camera also has a spot-metering mode.  I like the Nikon 6006 because it happens to have a narrow spot-metering angle, only 4 degrees with a 50mm lens.  There are 1-degree spot meters, but for a camera, 4 degrees is pretty good.  It's definitely good enough for serious landscape metering and the Zone System. 

If your DSLR can be set to the same ISO as your film, that's another alternative.  A lot of DSLR's have spot metering modes.  (The cheap ones usually don't.)   Check your operator manual to see the spot-metering angle.

First use whole-scene metering to see what the computer thinks is the best setting.  Then go into spot-metering mode and check the various landscape features.  There are situations where evaluative or whole-scene metering can get it wrong, but for landscapes they're usually right. 

I haven't read it yet, but according to its reputation, this book should help you a lot.  In the meantime, the tips I've got on this page are what I've used all these years, and they work for me.

If you get seriously bitten by the landscape bug, then perhaps only one of these will scratch the itch.

Matrix Metering

Unskilled use of a matrix meter can give you bad pictures easily.

Learn to use your matrix metering.  Learn its quirks.  Shoot a lot of pictures.  With experience, you may find you never need spot metering at all.  Even when shooting large format, I know my film SLR's matrix metering well enough that I can usually rely on it (except for night photography.)  When there's uncertainty, just switch to Center or Spot mode and double-check.

Spot or matrix metering, here's an idea: get a notebook and write down the settings for each scene.  What does the spot meter say on some distant mountains?  The sky?  A shaded spot?  What does the matrix meter say?

You'll forget these readings a month from now.  Write down the readings for the major features in the scene.  

After a while you won't need to.  You will get so good at it that you yourself can be a walking "evaluative light meter".  Quick, what's that scene?  f/11 at a 125th... sun goes down a little... now it's f/5.6 at a 60th... and so on.

Keep practicing, and keep shooting film!

I hope you've found this article helpful.  As always, thanks for visiting this website.

P.S.  You can really help me out by purchasing your stuff through any of the links on this site.   It doesn't add anything to your cost, and it allows me to keep adding helpful articles to this site.

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