Landscapes On Film!
2014 April Film Miscellaneous
In This Article
So What's With This Zone System?
The North Sky
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
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
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
It also has some well-defined zones.
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
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
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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
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
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 @
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, with 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.
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.)
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
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
2. Meter on the darkest shadows that still have obvious
detail. Expose the shot at that setting and you'll probably get a
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.
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
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
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.
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. And where it feels uncertain, just switch to Center or Spot
mode and double-check.
Spot or matrix, here's the best strategy. Keep 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.
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