I have been reading The Negative by Ansel Adams, and to be honest, it’s been quite a revelation. As some of you may know, I have recently started dabbling in large format photography. The thing about large format is that there are many levels of flexibility at every stage of the image making process, and as a result, there are many ways to optimize (or mess up) the image. Also, large format sheet film or even polaroids are so expensive that it is usually a good idea to be very careful with your exposure. The traditional way to do this is to expose using an instant film like a Polaroid sheet film, and for this purpose I’ve used Fujifilm’s packfilm for a while now, and the results have always been mixed.
Even before working with the 4×5 cameras, I used the packfilm with the old Polaroid bellows cameras. The Automatic Land cameras that I own often calculate the exposure inaccurately and the images are often underexposed. This may have something to do with their age (40-50 years old), but it’s not been easy using them at all. Since the shots often take 1-2 minutes to develop, I am often unable to check the exposure when I am out shooting in the streets before moving on. Even when I use it in an indoors environment, the accuracy leaves much to be desired. I then tried to use the film with my Omega View 45E 4×5 camera, but using an incident light meter, I have never been able to get very good results.
All these led me to think that the Fujifilm packfilms are just no good. Of course, that’s until I read The Negative. The Zone System, as outlined in the book, is one of Adams’ most important legacies for photographers. Used primarily by large format photographers who demand the highest image fidelity, the system is in fact also applicable to other types of photography (though much less control can be exerted). Having recently watched a video on large format photography, I learned that a spot meter can be very useful in determining the range of exposures in a scene (the alternative being to run around in the actual scene with an incident meter, which is hardly an option if the subject is the Grand Canyon, say). That video was my first clue that the Zone System is not just some relic from a bygone era. As a response, I bought two spotmeters, a Pentax Spotmeter V and a Sekonic L-558 (I got an L-608 for a bargain too but it was not working so I had to return it).
I will not go into the details of incident and spot metering here, but suffice it to say that of the three meters, the two analog ones (on the right) are my preferred meters. While the Sekonic L-558 is a very competent meter, small, lightweight, and combines 1-degree spotmetering with incident metering, it has just too many bells and whistles for my taste. In addition, as the next photo shows, the Pentax Spotmeter V has another trick up its sleeve: the DIY white dial sticker contains Zone System markings as well as color correction factors. The dial image can be found here and here, and just print it on a adhesive-backed photo paper and you can stick it onto your meter too. In my opinion, this is a much more intuitive way of getting into the Zone System than an electronic meter.
Since the details of the system are plentiful and you can also get many more opinions on the various forums, I will not go into the details here. The Zone System was applied to the following image, by placing the shadow details of the trees to the left on Zone III. There aren’t too many developmental controls using the FP-3000B film (it is, after all, an instant film) so there are not contractions or expansions of the latitude. In a section of The Negative, Adams suggests that since materials like the Polaroid (and Fujifilm Packfilm) tend to behave like slide film, it is advisable to slightly underexpose the image, which I did by half a stop. The result? The best range of tones I have ever achieved using the packfilm with any camera.
The Zone System works!