Musings of a would be Zoner

First a little intro. I’m 55 and I’ve been a photographer (I did not say good photographer) since I was about 8 and shooting a Brownie Hawkeye (that I still own). In my 20’s I owned a Yashica FR2. I think that was my favorite film camera ever. I “upgraded” to a Canon AE-1 Program. That was not an upgrade IMHO. That was the beginning of the end of my learning experience because the new camera had the nifty “auto” feature and I got lazy and used it way too much. Later I progressed to the F1 (loved that camera) and then the EOS1N. By then the responsibilities of family and work had taken their toll on my free time and my photography skills declined even further. I was still shooting but not with intent. Fast forward to 2005. I was not doing any photography but I was riding my motorcycle (Honda VTX 1800R… awesome bike). I took long road trips (TX to CO many times and TX to CA once) and I loved riding. Then, not far from home, on a rough country road, I had a little crash. Nothing spectacular. I exited the bike before it hit a tree. I was going 20 mph maybe. It’s a long story but lets just say you can crash at under 20 mph and still do significant harm to your body. I’m all healed up but I had about of year of physical therapy to get full use of my left arm back. The insurance check for the bike came and I had to make a decision, get another bike (the old one was paid for) or ? I don’t recall why I even checked into the state of digital photography at that time (by then it was 2006) but I did and I found the EOS1DsMKII. It cost a ton of money but well under the insurance check amount so I dove in. I still had my other EOS film bodies (still have the 1N) and lenses including my favorite, the 70-200 f2.8L. Side note: Both of these items went to other photographers. The 70-200 f2.8L to a young man who was serving in the military and had some awesome skills. The lens had a slight amount of fungus on it. He was going to give me payments. I just gave the lens to him and he later passed it on to someone else. The camera just recently went to another aspiring photographer on a budget (I’m a member of a small photo club and he attends there as well). I hadn’t touched it in years (due to upgrades) and street value is in the hundreds for it so he got it for nothing too. He’s already found a converter to be able to use FD lenses and have focus confirmation and has a pretty nice stock of FD lenses now. It’s fun to see him with the camera in his hands and the look on his face.

Back on topic, I think that, to date, I have shot close to 100,000 digital images. Again, not necessarily all great images. I shoot primarily in manual with an occasional switch to Av (sports and some wildlife). The two most recent lens purchases were NOT Canon lenses and NOT auto focus. Both are Zeiss lenses for the Canon EOS body. Manual focus. And unbelievable awesome lenses.

About 5 years ago I got on a retro kick and bought a CM500 and a couple of lenses (for not much I’m sad to say) and I found a Linhoff Master Technika and a bunch of lenses on eBay for a nice price. The seller was “upgrading” to digital. I bought film and developing supplies… and there it sat. The EOS1N has a roll of B&W in it. The CM500 has a roll of color film in it. Until last week the new 4×5 holders had never even been taken out of the box. It’s all been sitting there. Waiting. Fast forward to today and now I can get to the point

I don’t recall when I heard the term “Zone System” but it was a while back. I have Ansel Adams 3 book set. I’ve read about the Zone System more times than I can remember. But I just didn’t get it. Recently I came across a video clip by a young man (to me) named Gavin Seim . His explanation of the Zone System resonated with me. His video (Exposed) is the reason that I dragged my Linhoff out of hiding and made myself, with the help of some people o the Large Format forum, load film holders and go expose some film for the first time in 25 years. Using film, even if it’s only 6 sheets, has caused a shift in the way that I see and photograph.

Yesterday afternoon I decided that I needed to practice the Zone System and get live feedback so I went out with my digital camera and took some images of my barn a little before sunset. I set the in camera meter to spot metering mode. I set my Sekonic L758DR to EV and used the Sekonic spot meter to figure out what to set my camera on. Admittedly the barn made middle gray easy for me but the white and dark gray storm clouds on the horizon and dark areas under and in the barn gave me some challenges. I came away from the experience a bit humbled and a lot energized. I could’ve run out there and snapped off a few shots in manual and gotten an image in about 1/3 of the time if I had just shot as usual. Whatever I missed I could’ve fixed in post (not really but that is the illusion of digital photography isn’t it). I didn’t even realize what had happened until this morning. I spent a bit of time walking around the barn, paying attention to how the light fell on it, how the sunlight was playing on the clouds, the temperature of the light, and all the little things that were in the image that I would’ve normally missed and cloned out in post. I came away with a pretty decent image that I didn’t spend much time on in post. Actually… the black and white conversion is what took the most time. I also came away with some questions (directed to no one in particular):

(1) I can get away with about 4 to 6 stops of exposure latitude in my digital camera if I protect the highlights and work hard on the dark areas in post. HDR techniques, if done “correctly”, will yield even greater dynamic range. What is the exposure range of film (in stops)? If I remember right Black and White has greater range than color but I’m a Black and White nerd that will only occasionally shoot color (and probably convert it to Black and White 😀 ). At least that’s what I say now.

(2) My experiment yesterday evening taught me, at least I think that it did, that the Zone System is a great predictor of whether you can capture a scene properly. Is that a fair statement? I had to wait for a while before the scene came down enough to allow me to photograph it and have everything exposed “properly”. I had to give a little on the blacks but that was fine. There was nothing there to see anyway and the Zone 0 areas were very, very small. Most of the darks were in Zone 3. The conversion to 72ppi jpg for posting pushed the whites and blacks into the under /over range but the print will be made from a large TIF and it will be fine. I could’ve bracketed and blended and shot earlier since I was shooting a digital camera but the point of the exercise was to come away with something that I didn’t need to fix.

(3) I’ll say this again, the process, even if it was simulated film work, made me pay much closer attention to what I was doing. Has anyone here tried shooting their digital camera as if it were a film camera?

Just a heads up, I am not the most well-connected social media person but I am on FB and G+ nearly every day. Especially G+. I can’t really stand FB. My G+ account is nearly all photographers. There is an undercurrent of dissatisfied photographers out there in the “collective consciousness”. Some are moving away from high-end DSLR bodies to small mirrorless cameras. Some, more than I think that I realize, are picking up their film bodies and starting to shoot film again. Digital is here to stay but film is making a quiet come back. You absolutely cannot beat the look of a wet print and people know that. The process of using film makes you think and even more importantly, it causes the photographer to immerse him or herself into the experience of the scene.

My Barn

Barn B&W IMG_3144_July 12, 2013

About Michael Lloyd

I was born in Odessa, Texas and raised everywhere else. I have four grown children and four grandsons and a granddaughter that I love dearly. I love photography. I've been making images since I was 8. I enjoy restoring vintage electronics. I love being around other photographers. I enjoy sharing what little I know about the craft of photography with anyone that is interested. Life is good.
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