Oxford School of Photography

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Tag Archives: Zone System

Better Black and White Photography

from those nice people at Lightstalking

Black and White photography can provide some stunningly beautiful images that have a classic feel if done really well.
Standing stones at Avebury, Wiltshire UK by Keith Barnes

Standing stones at Avebury, Wiltshire UK by Keith Barnes

There was a time when all photographs were done only in black and white, and people were still able to see the different tones (i.e. the tonal range) in black and white. That is immense beauty in black and white photography and it’s important to show tonal variations in black and white too.
This week we’ve got some quick tips for you on how to create beautiful black and white photographs. This applies to both photography and the conversion process.
Quick tip:
Remember an important fact to be kept in mind while using the term monochrome (varying tones of one color); all black and white photographs are monochrome, but not all monochrome images are black and white!
Did you know about the Zone system of exposure that was developed by Ansel Adams and his friend Fred Archer?
Ansel Adams known for his famous black and white landscape photographs, was very particular about capturing as much dynamic range in his images (from the deepest black (shadows) to the brightest whites (highlights)).
So he developed this system for metering and exposure that made him stand out from other photographers of his time.
His images stood out so beautifully because of the range of tones that they had between the color black and white.
Tip Number 1: Learn to use your histogram
Keep a check on your histogram to see that you have a full range of tones before you start the process of black and white conversion, or if you are shooting black and white, make sure that your histogram has enough details for you to bring out the perfect tonal range in your photograph.
Black and white photography is not about capturing just the color black and the color white, but about capturing all the other shades of gray that lie in between black and white!
Look for yourself at the difference in Histograms when you change contrast and exposure in an image.
Image
Pay close attention to the histogram

And, look at the histogram for the picture with a correct exposure; you see that there are a good range of tonal variations!

Image

Tip number 2: Understanding Tonality

You need to choose a scene that has contrasting tonal values. Yes, tonality matters. What happens if you disregard this? You’ll simply end up with flat images that will look and feel lifeless with not much to look at.
Truth is, not all images will look good in black and white and you may have to tweak them a bit in the conversion process so that they don’t look flat.

This also tells, do not use automatic black and white settings in your camera, but instead shoot RAW in color and do the conversion manually so that you can tweak up the image later to bring in the tonal range.


What is tonality?
It’s the lightness of the image and is very important while shooting black and white. Colors that look very distinct may actually look the same when converted to black and white!
If you don’t quite understand, look for yourself at the conversions below! Amazing isn’t it? (Basic automatic conversion in Lightroom)

Image

But a slight variation of the above colors can create good tonal variations as seen below!

Image

Tip number 3: Choosing a good photograph for conversion to black and white

So from the above two tips, what do you gather? You need a photograph that has plenty of shadows and highlights, good tonal ranges and some textures wouldn’t hurt at all, but create a striking black and white photograph.

So, choosing an image that will create a decent black and white photograph is important and that doesn’t mean that you cannot make a good conversion from other pictures, but it simply means that it will be more difficult to achieve it.

Look at the images below along with a default black and white conversion to see how they turn up!


Check out these examples:

The image on the right has some tonal values and beautiful textures whereas the image on the left, although a beautiful landscape, lacks tonal range and textures!

Image

If you wish to learn for yourself about the histograms, how the Zone System works for photographs along with useful and step by step illustrations to convert photographs into beautiful black and white pieces of art, you really should check out Kent’s “Better Black and White” premium photography guide.

The problem with landscape photography is metering

This is a thing I have to say on just about every camera course I teach. It seems everyone likes to take landscapes, not me so much I have to add, (why, oh because they involve so much walking and carrying gear to places that are difficult to get to). As dear old Ansel Adams taught us (he is probably the greatest landscape photographer of all time) metering is the essence of getting a landscape picture right, see this picture of his

Adams_The_Tetons_and_the_Snake_River

So it was with relief that I found this post by  on Lightstalking that address all the issues surrounding metering and landscapes. Just give it time to get past all the jokiness, it is worth the effort.

He proposes that the Zone System, originally developed by Ansel Adams and that involved metering, film development and printing can still be used in digital photography, I agree with this and taught it on our Black and White Digital Photography course. It takes a bit of understanding and careful metering as well as command of Photoshop but is worth the work. The basis of the Zone System was that light meters as you have in your camera provide aperture and shutter combinations that would create a mid grey or 18% tone, understanding this allows you to meter into the darkest shadows/brightest highlights and then adjust your exposure through managing aperture or shutter as you prefer (usually shutter). This may sound complicated but it is the foundation of all photography that relies upon a light meter and should be understood by anyone serious about their photography and especially landscape photography. Here is the summary from Kent but I would recommend that you read the whole article

To properly meter for a landscape photograph consider the following-

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Illustration by Kent DuFault

  1. Once, you have decided on a scene; evaluate the contrast range with your eyes. Take notes (I do). Note your brightest highlight area that you wish to maintain detail. Note your darkest shadow area that you wish to maintain detail. Note an area that you believe to be a mid-tone (127) area.
  2. Use your longest focal length lens (or a handheld spot meter). Set your metering pattern to “spot”. Take a meter reading of the three areas that you noted in step one. Write down the exposure settings. (For the sake of example- I’ll make some up: Shadow area 1/2 sec at F/1.4: Mid-tone area 1/2 sec at F/8: Highlight area 1/2 sec at f/45) This represents a 10 stop dynamic range. Most DSLR cameras can record a dynamic range of about 5 to 6 stops. The super high-end professional DSLR cameras may go as high as a 10 to 12 stop range. For most of us, we are looking at a 5 to 7 stop range.
  3. Make a determination of where you are willing to lose detail: highlights or shadows? Set your exposure with a bias to the end of the scale that you want to have detail. Using my example meter readings above- if I wanted to bias my exposure maintain detail in the highlights, I would set my camera to 1/2 sec at f/16. If I wanted to bias my exposure for detail in the shadows, I would set my exposure to 1/2 sec at f/4. If I wanted to record as much mid-tone levels as possible, and sacrifice a little detail at both ends of the scale, I would set my exposure to 1/2 sec at f/8. I’m not going to go deeply into this- BUT- you may have heard of “Shooting to the Right”. This refers to biasing exposure to the shadows thus over-exposing the highlights. The theory behind this is that digital cameras, shooting raw files, can recover more detail in the highlight end of the scale- than they can in the shadow end of the scale (in post-production). And while this is true, you should strive for the best exposure setting possible (based on your mind doing its work).
  4. Finally, shoot a picture and look at the histogram on the LCD screen in preview. Are you getting the correct bias that you wanted? For example, if you wanted to maintain detail in the shadows, but the shadows are being clipped off on the “0” end of the scale- you need to increase your exposure. The opposite would be true if you were looking at the highlight end. If they’re being clipped off, you need to reduce exposure.

Illustration by Kent DuFault

SUMMARY

  • Evaluate the tone range of the scene.
  • Make a determination which tone values are most important.
  • Set your equipment to take a meter reading of the smallest area possible (spot setting)- take a meter reading of the shadow, mid-tone, and highlight areas you identified in the previous steps.
  • Determine the dynamic range.
  • Set your exposure using ISO, Aperture, and Shutter speed to place the “window” of dynamic range in the right location on The Zone System Scale.
  • Shoot a test shot.
  • Evaluate the histogram.
  • Adjust exposure as necessary.
  • Enjoy your wonderful results!

Sadly I no longer run the Black and White Digital Photography course due to lack of interest but would be happy to do so again if there were enough interest. If you are interested send me an email

Here are some more Ansel Adams for you

Ansel Adams Wilderness, California. Afternoon Thunderstorm, Garnet Lake.

Ansel Adams Wilderness, California. Afternoon Thunderstorm, Garnet Lake.

ansel-adams-wilderness-1_1600

ansel-adams

Exposing for Black and White – Free pdf download

In the distant past, when life was simple for a photographer there was black and white film. If one studied the way light worked with film and combined this with an understanding of the effects of film development and finally how the resulting negative could be printed to achieve optimum results then there was a satisfaction in that we were working as the greats like Ansel Adams. AA wrote three books that were seminal to an understanding of black and white photography; The Camera, The Negative and The Print. He was introducing to the world the Zone System.

The evolution into digital left many skilled and experienced photographers bereft, decades of learning and practical application were almost valueless in the new world, or so we thought. Eventually methods were realised that allowed us to apply much of the Zone System to digital photography. Of course it is not quite the same as working in a darkroom; it is cleaner, you smell less of hypo, your clothes are less stained and you do not spend hours on your own in a darkened room. I often think this last point was much of the attraction for some photographers although not for all, hence the success of The Photographers Workshop where from 1982 until 3 years ago you could rent professionally equipped communal darkrooms and were able to share the dark with others, it became….well communal. We still operate as The Photographers Workshop as well as The Oxford School of Photography but no longer have darkrooms.

We run a Black and White digital course that embraces the concepts of the Zone System as applied to digital photography, it is involved and technical but even in the chemical days it was always thus. This course is proving to be a great success and many of the images produced by students for the class have well….class. some are below from the most recent course.

Anyway the point is that the nice people at Lightstalking have prepared a pdf, which is free to download here that goes some of the way to explaining how to achieve the best results shooting black and white digitally. The information is not as precise or as inclusive as we provide on our course but you may not be lucky enough to live in Oxford and be able to attend one of our courses so this will have to do.

Graham Rollerson

Richard Parker

Eniko Varga