Archive for the ‘Darkroom’ Category

Ansel Adams’ Zone System – Darling Or Dinosaur?

Thursday, May 19th, 2016


ansel adams zone system, ansel adams, zone system, alan ross


As someone who worked side-by-side with Ansel Adams for a number of years, I get asked about Ansel Adams’ Zone System…A LOT! “How do I?” “Why does it?” “Can I?”

I’ve written about the Zone System before, but a recent flurry of questions and requests for clarification have made me think it’s time for a refresher.

Before I go into detail about the nuts, bolts and how-tos of Ansel’s technique (which I’ll do in upcoming blog posts), I’d first like to answer the most basic of questions:

“Is the Zone System still relevant and does it have any valid practicality in today’s photography?”

My vote is for darling (see title above), but read on to find out why:

Ansel Adams’ Zone System: The Back Story

75 years ago Ansel Adams and Fred Archer were both teaching photography at what is now the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, California. They made the announcement they had devised a simple method for analyzing the various brightness levels of a scene and using that information to anticipate and manage the way those brightness levels would be rendered in the final printing. They called it the Zone System.

Their intention was not to create any sort of dogmatic methodology. It was instead to give a photographer the ability to effectively evaluate the qualities of a scene and follow through with confidence that the information necessary for the photographer’s visualization would end up on the film.

Myths and Misunderstandings About The Zone System

Ironically, we have Ansel himself to thank for some of the confusion that surrounds the Zone System. His early writings were rife with confounding terminology and circular references.  Critical information was often contained only in captions.

Case in point: A quote from The Negative (1968) reads, in part, “…we see that the film-base and fog density is arbitrarily assumed to be 0.1 so that the actual density represented by the heavy line is 1.10—a density of 1.10 (or opacity of 12.5) above the film-base and fog.”

It’s easy to believe from the above quote that you need to be a math whiz to be able to fully understand and use the Zone System. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. You don’t need to be a math whiz and you don’t need expensive or fancy equipment. You just need a reliable spot meter, and you must understand the principles of exposure and development.

In addition, Ansel tended to downplay the extent to which he utilized dodging and burning as a creative tool in order to make a case for the virtues of the Zone System. Some of his comments perpetuated the implication that if you exposed and developed things properly using the Zone System, burning and dodging would be optional: “…and it printed quite easily on Velour Black No. 2 with very little manipulation.”

The truth is, in the five+ years I worked with him in the darkroom, I never saw Ansel make a straight print. An ideal Zone System negative, if there is one, might actually look boring as a straight print. But the information is there to achieve what was visualized the moment the shutter was released.

And finally, there’s the misperception of approach vs. absolute methodology. Over the years, many well-meaning, but misdirected, enthusiasts have attempted to interpret and update Ansel’s technique. Unfortunately, they missed the mark in most cases and only contributed to the myth that the Zone System is to be used exactly and to the letter.

Here’s a great example of exactitude gone wrong. I had a student several years ago that had adopted a very tightly defined Zone System interpretation. He’d read it somewhere and was sure it was the last word on using the Zone System.

We were up in the mountains above Santa Fe one bright afternoon and set up to photograph a stream that was in both sunlight and shade. Since I like to walk through exposure situations in tandem with a student, I asked him what his film speed was. He replied that he didn’t know yet. Hmmm. OK.

Then he took a couple of readings with his spot meter, pulled out a Palm Pilot, punched a few keys and said, “It says I can’t take the picture.” What??!!!! I had him set his meter for EI 80 for the Tmax 100 he was using, place a certain dark rock in the shade on Zone II, and then take the picture. He did. We developed it normal and it printed just fine, with just a little bit of lower-contrast burning in the high values.

What’s the moral of this story? The science of this student’s approach was absolutely correct, but the approach itself was so exacting he missed the point entirely. And almost missed the opportunity to make a wonderful image.

So What Can the Zone System Do?

Now let’s talk about what the Zone System can do so we can decide whether or not it has relevance today. In other words, whether it’s a darling or a dinosaur.

  • Shadow Detail: The Zone System lets me get my film and meter in sync. I know precisely how much light it takes to get the film to start responding. I know exactly how much exposure I need in order to record an important shadow.
  • High Values: Once I’ve determined an appropriate exposure for a shadow, I can meter a high-value and know exactly how bright it will be if I give the film “normal” development. I can then decide to increase development time if I want the area brighter or decrease the time if I want it darker. The Zone System doesn’t mandate that you adjust development to accommodate any particular value, but it gives you the choice and the knowledge to do so.
  • Digital Application: Does the Zone System work with digital cameras? Absolutely! Digital does not easily afford the contrast control of reduced film development, but it still has a distinct range of values from black-to-burned-out. Use of the Zone System in making an exposure allows you to plan and anticipate image tonal values rather than letting the camera make the decision and winding up with an image cursed with a nasty histogram!

Bottom line? Once you are used to it and have a reliable spot-meter, the Zone System allows you to achieve more accurate, consistent and planned results. And that’s regardless of your camera format or brand—and in most cases faster! I only need one reading to determine exposure, and that only takes a moment.

Back to the Question Ansel Adams’ Zone System – Darling or Dinosaur?

Ansel Adams zone system, ansel adams, zone system, alan ross

Okay. Back to the beginning and the question of whether or not the Zone System is still relevant more than 70 years after Ansel Adams and Fred Archer first created it. Does it have a place in today’s photography?

My answer is an emphatic YES!

Automatic this and automatic that are all well and good, especially for the casual snapper, but keep in mind that your automated light meter can’t think. And it can’t see what you visualize for the finished image.

Your light meter is just a tool. It was designed to take an average reading of light and dark in whatever subject matter it was pointed at. That means if you point it at a dark rock, it will assume that the rock is actually an equal mix of light and dark and give you an exposure to make the rock medium gray.

Maybe that’s what you want. But maybe it’s not.

You are the photographer and you should determine what tones are most important and how they will appear in your finished image. Instead of taking your light meter readings at face value, you have the choice to interpret what the meter is telling you and adjust your exposure calculations accordingly.

Ansel Adams’ Zone System is the surest way I know of to choose what information ends up on film or pixels. It puts you in the driver’s seat of your own photography, and that’s why it still has relevance. That’s why it has a place in today’s photography.

That’s why it’s a darling.


Have you ever photographed in Ireland? Neither had I, until last year when when I taught two master darkroom printing workshops in Dublin. It was such a success that I was invited to teach them again this year. I invite you to enhance and expand your photographic knowledge as I share my 40+ years of expertise in the creation of an expressive image through two different workshops–a field session and a black-and-white printing session. For more information or to enroll, please link here. You’ll find the Ireland workshops on the left hand side of the page. Erin go Bragh!

Darkroom Water Conservation

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Apt Question from FaceBook reader Harry Green.


“Any suggestions on how to be water conscious these days in Southern California. Our water prices are high, and I fret to think of those days I left water on for 8 hours, while printing for 8 hours. How to survive ? I used to wash DW prints and use hypo clearing agent. What is practical now a days.”

Thanks for the question!

I went through 2 rationed droughts in Carmel while I was working for Ansel and another in San Francisco when I had my studio there. Typical ration then was 50gal/day per person/per household. Because photography was a profession, Ansel got an extra allowance, and so did I in San Francisco. But all the dedicated artists were stuck with 50gpd.

 Some tips:

• DON’T leave the water running.

• DO change the water in your print-holding tray several times during a print session.

• DO use a hypo-clear or proven wash-aid for film and prints.

• DON’T run a toning or wash load except for a “full” load. If prints have been rinsed well, they can be screen-dried after initial fix/rinse and kept aside until a full load is ready.

• Current archival standards do NOT call for elimination of all traces of fixer. We can get by with MUCH less than we thought in the late ’70s. In the words of RIT’s James Reilly at the Image Permanence Institute: “DO tone your prints. DON’T over-wash” A modest trace of fixer actually acts as an anti-oxidant. A light tea color with an HT-2 test is a good guide.

• Washing. It can be tedious, but you can save a huge amount of water by using dump-and-fill methods for film, or cycling between trays of clean water for prints rather than using an archival washer with running water. You can safely wash 2 rolls of 120 film with 2 gallons of water!

 More on fixing and washing:

Answer to a comment advocating trashing the hardener bottle that comes with Kodak Rapid Fixer:

I generally buy Ilford fixers. I usually get the Hypam, because it can be used with or without a hardener. I process my sheet film in trays, so I add a hardener for that, but I use it without the hardener for prints. The Kodak Rapid fix DOES come with a bottle of hardener, but like the Hypam, you can use it or not. I use the fixers 1:3 for film and1:4 for prints – single bath only, 45 seconds with agitation. Among its other assets, selenium toner is ALSO a test for residual silver (adequate fixation). If your prints do not stain in selenium it is proof that they were fixed adequately. I do recommend using a wash-aid, but I personally have neither the time nor energy to wash each print by hand, and the more a print is handled, the more it is subject to physical damage.

Hope these tips help!

In the Darkroom with Ansel Adams

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

When Ansel hired me in July of 1974 to be his assistant in Carmel, he actually hired me to be his #2 assistant.  Ted Orland had already been on board for about two years, working Monday through Friday.  Ansel, not personally having any concept of “time off,” wanted to work seven days a week and hired me to work Friday through Monday.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 1.55.47 PMAnsel’s routine was to print in the morning during the regular week and do the selenium toning and washing in the afternoon after lunch.  Being Ansel’s regular assistant, Ted would be in the darkroom for the morning sessions, and I would be called in to help with the toning and washing.  In those days, “archival” print washers were anything but mainstream, and things were pretty basic in the Carmel darkroom.  Prints 11×14 and smaller were washed in a big rotating “squirrel-cage” washer, and 16×20 and 20×24 prints were all washed by hand – moving batches of prints from one tray of clean water to another, dumping the first tray and filling it with clean water, moving the prints back to that tray and dumping the second tray, and so on, until maybe 10 or 12 exchanges had been made.  Tedious and exhausting, but as it happens that process uses relatively little water and gets prints extremely clean.

After I had been on the job for several months, Ted left to carve out his own career, and I was then “first” (and actually only) assistant.  I wasn’t married or busy with a lot of activities during the weekends and often popped by the house, helping out with this-or-that on a Saturday or Sunday, so my old position of Friday-to-Monday assistant was left vacant.

So now, the darkroom truly came to be my domain.  What an experience!

Dkrm layout

Setting the Stage

Ansel’s darkroom was purely functional and consisted of nothing elaborate.  In fact, nothing about Ansel was elaborate!  He drove a Ford LTD which he bought used.  His “sound system” consisted of an old mono amplifier, an old turntable and one speaker built into a wall. He rarely turned it on. Except for the Hasselblad, even his camera equipment was a mish-mash of rather tattered gear.  One lens didn’t even have a brand name on it, but it sure was sharp!

The darkroom itself was long and narrow, with three sinks taking up most of the length of one wall and enlargers along the other.  One end of the darkroom, next to the pocket entrance door, was a chemical-mixing counter with various chemicals on shelves above, and drums of Hypo crystals below.  At the opposite end of the darkroom there was a “panic door.”  This was intended as an emergency exit in case of earthquake or other calamity.  (Ansel’s nose was broken in an aftershock of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and he was somewhat fixated on that particular risk!)

The layout of the darkroom was principally engineered to accommodate the making of “mural” sized prints.  His 8×10 enlarger was built by San Francisco’s Adolph Gasser out of an old 11×14 studio camera and set up to project its image horizontally.  The machine ran on tracks on the floor and projected an image on an 8-foot tall vertical easel which also rolled on the same tracks.  The lightsource consisted of a bank of 36 50-watt reflector bulbs, each on its own on-off switch.  If Ansel wanted to give a general “dodge” to part of an image, he could turn off the lamp illuminating that region. The easel was faced on front and back with metal sheet, so paper could be attached firmly with magnets.  A roll of mural paper could be inserted over a crossbar at the top of the easel and the paper pulled down like a window blind and held flat with magnets.  On the opposite side of the easel and 8×10 enlarger was a counter which held two 4×5 Beseler MCRX enlargers.  One of the Beselers had an innovative lightsource (Codelight) for printing on variable-contrast papers, and it could be turned towards the rolling easel and tipped up for horizontal projection in case he wanted to use it for big prints.  The other Beseler had a condenser lightsource and was rarely used except for demonstration.

One staple of nearly every darkroom was absent in Ansel’s–an enlarging timer.  There wasn’t one. Being a musician from his early teens, he was accustomed to counting beats, and had an electronic metronome set at 60 beats per minute.  Every print he ever made in a darkroom of his own was made by simply counting seconds!  This augmented his creative control immensely.  Time was not something some gizmo measured and ruled, time was a deeply rooted internal feeling for Ansel.  Twenty-two seconds felt like twenty-two seconds!

On the sink side, there was a long, fairly narrow sink for processing, with a ledge at the back for chemical containers and a wide ledge at the left and right for developer and fixer containers.  On the left there was a 15-gallon stainless tank that held the Dektol stock solution, and on the right there was a 25-gallon tank that held the F-6 formula fixer we mixed from scratch.  A shelf over the back of the sink held the metronome, various graduates and sundries.  To the right of the processing sink was an approximately 3×3-foot print holding sink.  To the right of that was another large sink, about 4×6-feet which held the squirrel-cage washer and maybe another rinse tray.  If Ansel were making mural prints, the equipment could be removed from the sink and a wet 42×60-ish mural print could be laid flat.

In use, with the door closed on the long, narrow room, with white lights off, amber safelights on, water running, exhaust fans on and the rhythmic beep of the metronome, it had all the feeling of being in a fantasy submarine!


AA Darkroom H


Coming up: A Days Work


Selective Masking for Printing Challenging Negatives

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Get Total Consistency from Print to Print

Over the years I’ve evolved a technique I have come to refer to as Selective Masking. I use the term “selective” because it is a physical, hands-on method of tonal control in analog printing, rather that the photometric “unsharp masking”. In its basic form, it’s not techno-anything; it simply is a means of solidifying your own dodging and burning preferences into a “package” which remains absolutely constant from print to print.  You can change your mind about how you want that package to perform; you can dodge and burn in greater detail than with traditional methods and with absolute consistency from print to print.  It works with either a diffusion enlarger or in contact printing.  It does NOT work with condenser enlargers.

Carried to the ’nth degree, Selective Masking can transform the job of printing a challenging negative from one of agonizing difficulty to the mere push of a button: a “straight” print from the untouched, unmodified original negative. Any size print. Local contrast changes can be made, and that oh-so-smooth gradual sky burn can be built into the mask package.

Available in my Online Store:  Want to turn a difficult negative into a straight print?  This technique has worked well for me in the over 20 years I have been refining it and has been updated to reflect more sophisticated digital techniques.  Selective Masking Articles on CD and download










June Newsletter

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

New Masking Articles, Digital Film Negatives

Film Negatives from Digital Files

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Making Film Negatives from Digital Files.

Last year I had a wonderful assignment photographing gnarly, twisted zinfandel vines for Ravenswood Winery in California’s Sonoma and Napa Valleys.  As the project took shape, it was decided that because some of the vineyards had a lot of irrigation tubing and other unsightly distractions, the final output would be high quality inkjet prints so that unwanted features could be edited out in Photoshop.  That all worked out fine, but Joel Peterson, Ravenswood’s founder, wanted some 16×20 silver prints for his office.  Two of those images, alas, had tubing and re-bar included in the scene which were impossible to just touch-out in a print.  It was either print the lovelies, “warts and all” or get a crash course in going from film to digital file and back to film.  So I chose “crash course.”  I knew one of my student friends in Southern California had been getting into this field and we conspired to use my project to work out the details.  After a few false starts, we succeeded in going from my original 6×7 BW negative to high-res RGB scan and on to a new 4×5 T-Max 100 negative!  Lovely 16×20 silver prints were the final result. Bonus: they needed virtually no spot-retouching because that was all fixed in the digital file!

Next I’m going to work on making a BW negative from a color digital image I made in China when I didn’t have access to my 4×5!

The bottom line is that I now feel it is realistic to make repairs and adjustments to images that otherwise might be set aside as unusable for silver printing.  For pricing and further information on the process contact Ludo Leideritz at Reflective Image Studios.


Left: scan from original negative; Right, scan from silver print from digital negative.
Barricia Vineyard, planted 1888.

Notes on the new Adox MCC 110 FB paper

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

When I “test” a new paper, or one I haven’t tried in a long time, the first thing I like to do is see how it “feels” compared to a paper I’m used to.

When I got my first sample of the Adox paper, I had just finished producing a batch of Ansel Adams’ Moon and Half Dome prints for The Ansel Adams Gallery. Since the negative (made on 120 Adox R17 12/28/1960) was still in my Omega D5500 enlarger, I had a perfect opportunity to see exactly how the paper would perform with a high quality image I had printed many many times.

The first result: an absolutely lovely image. It required no change in the “no filter” setting I usually use with this negative on Ilford Multigrade FB – so “normal” contrast seemed to be right on. It had a beautiful gradation of tonality from blacks to clean whites. It seemed a bit faster than the Ilford, but for the Adox test I was using a higher concentration of Dektol than I had used for the production printing.


New Darkroom Timer

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

CompnTempscreen_sWorkshop alum and Stanford scientist, Curt Palm, has created a new darkroom timer that significantly “one-ups” the popular Zone VI Compensating Developing Timer.

CompnTemp ® is software rather than hardware and is available for both Windows and Mac computers. I set up a small shelf in my darkroom for my Mac Powerbook and all I have to do to get going is plug in the accessory USB temperature probe and cover the screen with red plastic.

What sets CompnTemp apart from ANY other timer is that is completely user-programmable. if you want your target temperature to be 73 degrees instead of 68 that’s fine. If you want it to count UP instead of DOWN, that’s fine, too.

You can save profiles so you can toggle from one group of settings for prints to another set of preferences for film. It even lets you customize the compensation curves.  It also gives you a continuous read-out of the ACTUAL temperature.


Variable-Contrast Articles – Reprints now on CD-ROM

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

In 1998 and 1999 I wrote a 4-part series of articles on Variable-Contrast printing for CameraArts magazine (the “smaller-format” sister of ViewCamera magazine). CameraArts is now defunct in print form however the articles are still available directly through me.

If you have been one of my students and would like something better than the xerox copies of the articles you got in your workshop binder, contact me. I’m offering the Variable-Contrast CD for $30. I’ll even sign it! It’s a single CD with a pdf file which has daisy-chained the four articles together.

Lastly, the illustration photos in the pdf file seem to print a bit on the mushy side with some printers. I suggest printing a single, sample page such as p.23 or p.24 and adjust the contrast and brightness settings on your printer until the images print satisfactorily.