The zone system is a method of controlling tone in black and white film photography. It enables the user / photographer to have confidence that tones visualised when the shutter is pressed will be the tones seen in a final print. It involves undertaking careful film exposure and development testing (linked to an individual’s equipment and working habits) and removes the doubts of ‘hope it will come out’ photography.Read More
It's not a conscious effort, but I feel I have become something of an advocate of HP5+ film developed in Perceptol. It is a combination that Barry Thornton used to sing the praises of, and I have found myself admiring it time and again.
It's all very well doing studies of film and developer combinations in the abstract (see my Pebble Project galleries, and blog posts for lots on this), but the simple fact is, for a photographer shooting black and white, it is the tones he or she attains in practice that are key.
The properties I enjoy with this combination are sharpness (with a little grain suppression) and a long tonal range. It's the latter I've really got in mind in presenting the above image. The scene was backlit - a classic dramatic landscape type image - and it really benefits from the film's ability to capture a wide brightness range. The undulations in tone follow and amplify the structural curves of the trees.
Games to play
Welcome to the final post of my Tone: A Primer series.
Today I’m going to look at some exercises you can do in order to sharpen your command of tone in black and white. They are suggestions and starting points and can be modified to suit your own practice and equipment. I have endeavoured to ensure that there is material for both film and digital users, although the final exercise is a film one. They are given broadly in order of difficulty.
1. Play with exposure
If you are relatively new to photography, it is well worth beginning with a simple exposure exercise. Try reproducing the modest exercise I explain in post two (under the heading ‘A sliding scale of grey’). Easy to do, but insightful if you are starting out. You are in control of the tones in your images.
2. Shoot black and white things
I have Jevon Tooth to thank for this exercise. When Jevon showed me some of his great black and white prints, it was obvious that he had deliberately targeted black and white objects in order to hone his vision in the medium (e.g. some very lightly toned grasses against a painted black fence). The thought had never occurred to me! A simple but very effective to way get a sense of how black and white tonality can work in crafting images.
3. Strive for tonal variation
For this exercise, I’d like you to prepare and print an image that contains different areas of clearly distinguished tone. Whether you are working with digital or darkroom, the task is to use dodging and burning (or equivalent tools) to help separate distinct zones within the image, and to use this to draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject.
Traditionally, this involves keeping the subject (especially if a person) fairly light tonally (this catches the eye) and to darken surrounding areas, particularly edges, so as to create a frame. Darkened edges are known as a vignette.
Yet further than this, it is important to make decisions about how to create a sense of contrast between the image zones. Perhaps a very light area of window light needs to burnt-in just a tad, so as to lend a little more solidity to it. Maybe an area at the end of a road in a landscape needs lightening to distinguish it from surrounding trees and to lead the viewer’s eye through the image. Perhaps a little collection of objects near the bottom of the frame is too light and competes with the subject that is more central. Knock it back with a gentle burn-in.
4. Shoot the zones
This exercise was devised by John Blakemore. It assumes some familiarity with the zone system, or, at least with the tones that are demarcated by it. Summaries of the zones and their corresponding descriptions abound on the internet, so one of these is a good place to start.
You begin by choosing a zone and attempt to make a photograph that encapsulates its mood. So, I might choose zone four, say, looking carefully at the tone given in the charts and mulling over the description I have found of ‘average dark foliage, dark stone, landscape shadow’.
The challenge with this exercise - and a challenge it indeed is - is that you are trying to make an image that still holds a range of tones, but that somehow summarises the feeling of the zone in question. You may of course use any development or printing controls you have at your disposal to make the print that you think is appropriate. There is no right or wrong to this, it’s simply a very good exercise for understanding the tonal range available to black and white photographers.
5. Make a ring-around
For this exercise I’m going to assume that you are using a film (and developer) with some regularity, and that you have a pretty well-established development regime.
You will need to shoot three rolls of film. Firstly, shoot your typical subjects at ‘box speed’ (i.e. the ISO as stated on the film box). For example, if you are shooting HP5+, you would go with 400. It does help to have one or two test subjects (e.g. a given room with consistent lighting) that will provide a reference point across the films.
Next, you shoot more of your typical subjects (re-do that test subject too) but this time at a stop under and a stop over that box speed. You might simply want to change the ISO on your camera, so that you can simply get on with shooting. Therefore, in my 400 speed example, I would shoot some frames at 800 and some at 200. It takes some discipline, but it’s really worth making note of all your exposures as you do this exercise.
When the films are finished you then develop them in the following way. For the first you follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for the developer in question. Opening up my box of HP5+ I find a handy chart which will tell me the time with the developer I'm using. For the next film you add 20 percent to the development time, so as to ‘over-develop’ the film. You may have guessed that for the remaining film you are going to reduce the original manufacturer’s time by 20 percent. This will give you ‘under-development’.
When you are done developing you make a contact print of the results, in your usual manner. In the following image you can see just such a contact print, here showing the ‘normal’ development, and what is labelled +1 and -1, meaning our +20 and -20 percent. I have asked you to do a lot of hard work so far, but already you have a lot of really interesting information. Do you prefer the manufacturer’s development time, or the over- or under-developed version?
Next you can look for frames that you overexposed. What do you think of overexposure and underdevelopment? Or of overexposure and overdevelopment? Which tonality do you prefer? Here is my contact print showing overexposure. The development sequence is the same as the image above, so left under, middle normal and right over.
The underexposed frames then complete the picture. Again, which is the best tonality, for you and your typical subjects? What does the test scene suggest?
There is some more work to do, because this exercise can be brought to a brilliant conclusion. The last step is to print a selection of the images (logically you’d do nine, as suggested by the contact prints above) aiming for the best possible print in each case. In other words, you don’t print them all to some standardised time and grade, but make the best possible print using all the usual controls that are available to you.
You now have a huge amount of information about your shooting and developing regime and with luck some interesting new exposure and development settings to trial over a longer period. You are not stuck with whole stops or indeed 20 percent, but can make further refinements as you progress. Not a quick or easy exercise but potentially a very fruitful one.
If you've followed this series this far, I thank you for your patience and hope you'll find something of interest in today's post. I plan to do one final post after this, a collection of practical exercises to help improve your command of tone. If you are tuning-in to this series for the first time, this post will make sense on its own, but I would recommend checking out the preceding ones in order to get the most out of it.
Recipes of tone
I turn my attention now to providing some examples, in order to show what ‘recipes’ of tone are available. The images are taken from my own practice; however I should add that the history of photography is brimming with examples from numerous different schools. We might think of Bill Brandt and the English School, the endless greys of Paul Strand’s Palladium prints, or the rich and varied tones of Group f/64.
Wide tonal range
My first example is of a long tonal range, running from pure black, through a range of differentiated greys, and finally to very light grey, nearly white. This image is representative of what is often the default advice given to photographers, namely to ensure that their images contain multiple areas of distinct tone that can please the eye. The histogram looks like this:
A histogram is a graph showing the distribution of tones. The horizontal axis represents the different tones available, running from pure black on the left to pure white on the right. The vertical axis represents the quantity of pixels in the image it maps, so that the peaks indicate dominant tones. The benefit of a histogram is that it helps you to visualise tonal distribution without being fooled by the image itself. This particular histogram broadly backs up what I said about wide-ranging tone, but you will see that there is more to the story. More accurately, the peak on the left shows the image to be rich in shadow tones; on the right we see a smaller, but also significant, group of light tones. The histogram ‘crashes’ with the left hand side, showing that pure blacks are present, but is still a little way off white on the right. The lightest tones are therefore ‘nearly white’. We might therefore speak of an image that has a goodly tonal range in shadow areas and in the very light greys through the arch.
Pale tone with dark elements
The tonal approach or strategy in this image is to have a largely light image with a smattering of punctuating dark tones. The eye is therefore drawn to the darker areas, which in this case helps to support the inferred narrative.
The gentle light greys of the background provide some substance, but because they fall within a certain portion of the histogram they don’t compete with the main protagonists. They contain subtle modulations of tone (and indeed there are some crisp near white points too) rather than being an undifferentiated mass of a single grey. They don’t interfere, but they are not flat and lifeless. The histogram looks like this:
We can see that the very dark tones are not quite black (although the seem like it to our eye), likewise there are very light greys and only tiny amounts of white. The majority of the tones are over to the right, as we would expect given our description.
A high contrast image is one in which the darks and lights dominate, grey tones are largely or completely absent. This is a digital image, but were this a darkroom print, we would most probably be looking at a 3 or 4 contrast grade. The window structure is a near silhouette, and is black and very dark grey. The sky beyond has gone over to white. There are some more subtle greys from the middle of the scale in the building, but they take a minor role, as reflected in the histogram:
I am not a photographer who favours high contrast images, and I in fact struggled to find good examples from my archive. I gave this image a little extra contrast in order to provide the illustration here. Such an approach is a very graphic style which favours bold shapes and outlines. In film photography, high contrast leads to pronounced grain and is often associated with low light work with fast films, or average speed films that have been ‘pushed’ in development (exposed at a higher ISO than box speed, with compensated development to avoid negatives which are too thin).
As I searched for images I begin to wonder about my own photographic style and why I had made such little use of graphic contrast. Such thinking leads to interesting questions about habits and assumptions and whether we are not missing out on creative possibilities. Naturally, there is no rule that says one must be using all established approaches to tone in one’s work (life would be very dull if we all did). Yet I think there is a job of reflection that we can do given a knowledge of how tone works and what we haven’t tried. To paraphrase a master printer I admire, how do we know we don’t like the alternative if we haven’t tried it?
High contrast scene, exposed for the lights
This recipe entails exposing for patches of light tone in very high contrast situations. It is very fashionable at the time of writing. The photographer typically applies negative exposure compensation and allows the shadow areas to lose definition. It is like the high contrast approach above, inasmuch as it can be very graphical, but the crucial difference is that the favoured areas still potentially contain a wide tonal range. It is used mainly by street photographers and has the clear benefit of helping to establish areas of interest and narrative interaction. The photographer can make frames within the images, sometimes multiple ones, which connect and juxtapose the chance elements of the street.
Long, expansive greys
My final formula is one much exploited in the history of photography, and that is of a fulsome range of greys. The idea here is to have midtones that reach outwards such that a harmonious scale of differentiated tone is apparent. The photographer tries to maximise tonal information, downplaying, but not eschewing, the extremities, whilst maintaining tonal transition and modulation. Black and white aren't entirely absent, but they do not present themselves as much as in the 'wide tonal range' recipe with which we began.
Platinum / Palladium prints are notorious for providing a tonal recipe like this. The don't exactly lack contrast, and certainly not tonal differentiation in a good print, but the scale of grey just seems to go on and on. I don't think it's an accident that the example I've chosen from my own practice comes from a 5x4 negative. Large format has an inherent ability to capture smooth tonal transitions, in no small part due to the sheer size of the negative and the information captured. Tones still need to be managed, of course, through exposure, developer choice and development and dodging and burning, but the photographer is in a strong position to achieve the effect to begin with.
My example was shot on Ilford Delta 100 Professional film and developed in LC29. Delta 100 is extremely fine grained in large format, and LC29 gives wholesome contrast without becoming overpowering. With a negative like this, one can dodge and burn gently to tease out distinct areas of tone, emphasising the range at one's disposal and avoiding 'muddiness'.
Indeed, avoiding a mass of undifferentiated tone is the key challenge in pursuing expansive greys. With such prevalent midtones it is easy to lose a grip of contrast. An image of expansive greys still needs to be tuned with gentle modulations of tone to provide a story and a journey for the eye. Too many similar tones will quickly repel the eye and return a feeling of flatness. The photographer must find subtly and tonal richness without relying on more familiar devices of contrast and distinction. As with so many different photographic media and techniques you can't have it all ways and have to work within the set of compromises you have chosen.
Next instalment: Games to play (the exercises)
I own a print by an established photographer that is framed and displayed in my home. I enjoy this print every day, and it has many virtues. Shot with a large format camera on black and white film, it has a rich tonal range, is pin sharp, beautifully mounted, and is of an uplifting natural scene. The tones are undulating and varied without being brash or overly contrasty. The scene is peaceful and there is a quiet drama to the print that chimes with this.
As a printer however, there is one detail that really excites me. To the top left of the image is a space where foliage gives way to a glimpse of distant mountains. I have never seen the negative, so I can only speculate about what it is actually like, but I imagine that particular area to be pretty dense. I surmise that a straight print would result in a too light patch that would draw the eye undesirably to the edge of the frame (and thus from the image area and its subject matter). I further surmise that a little burning-in is necessary to bring a sense of solidity to the rocks and to shift the tones from empty white or near white to light grey. A light grey that is solid but still light. A grey delicately balanced and finely tuned.
How satisfying that light yet solid grey is! To my eye, with my printer’s speculation (admittedly a projection, but likely, I think), it is a small but hugely important detail that makes all the difference. It encapsulates for me the joy of the printer’s work; the ability to tune parts of an image such that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The work of greys, of patches and pockets of grey, decided upon by the artist. Not arrived at accidentally, but tuned with intention, decided upon, meant.
A most delectable patch of grey, and a reminder of what a great monochrome medium we have at our disposal, film or digital.
A by-product of writing a blog is that it inevitably records the author's developing tastes and predilections. I seem to be very much in a black and white mindset at the moment, to the point, even, of giving a monochrome treatment to shots I originally saw in colour - like this one here.
There is a very old tradition in picture making of a landscape in which the viewer's eye is led towards a source of light. This has a pictorial effectiveness, the eye undertaking a 'journey' and finding satisfaction in so doing, and it also has an obvious metaphorical resonance. 'Out of the darkness, and into the light.' I write 'picture making', because it abounds in historical painting, and therefore long precedes photography.
I am close to this shot, having just processed it, and so am not yet decided as to how much I like it. It is significant because of its relationship with the above tradition, but as usual with these things, it is also something of a photographer's set piece, just as are windows, doors and so on. My main reason for including it is that I know I am happy with its tones.
I trimmed the image a little, before darkening the edges and tweaking the highlight tones. I worked towards a tonally full piece, one having a range of tones from black to near white. This image presents one of those very balanced and full-looking histograms that fills the graph as a neat and symmetrical, centred hill. I haven't yet printed it, but imagine that it will print very well and has plenty to occupy the eye, in textural detail as well as fulsome tone.