Re: Feininger's Zone System remarks

Lee Varis

Dan writes:

We have a lot more use for the Zone System's fundamentals today than a photographer of the 1970s would. As advice on how to expose a picture, as Feininger said, it was way too complex and probably caused more problems than it cured.
Adam's approach to photography was valuable in that it introduced a systematic way of thinking about the end results when you were planning the picture. The amount of control you could exert after the exposure was very limited by the technology of the day so it helped to have some idea of where one should start before you could pre-visualize the end result.

To say that many of his images were bracketed does not necessarily invalidate his conceptual approach to technical quality, identifying zones and determining how these would print, etc... Certainly exposure today is made easier with automatic through-the-lens matrix metering BUT I still feel we can benefit from the original concepts of identifying the real limits of the dynamic range of the camera through a testing procedure and applying this knowledge to exposure judgements to maximize quality.

Yes... one can simply defer all judgement to post processing by using an HDR approach (blending multiple exposures into a high dynamic range file and "tone mapping" to suit one's taste) but not all circumstances lend themselves to that approach and the statistical averages approach of matrix metering cannot replace a decision guided by informed human intelligence.

My own testing, using Ansel Adam's principals with modern digital technology, has shown me that most cameras (and exposure meters) do not respond the same under different color temperatures and that this is not something that is compensated for by any automatic metering system. There IS something like an ideal exposure for digital captures that minimizes noise and maximizes detail and tonal variation AND allows for maximum creative manipulation without negative side effects – very often this requires some level of human judgement to determine!

I think a lot of photographers have gotten lazy with the power of Photoshop to rescue less than ideal exposures and certainly the notion that files only need to be "good enough" is prevalent in the commercial world. Still, I would argue that the quest for excellence is relevant today even with all the technical advances in digital imaging.


Lee Varis

President of the LADIG

Photographer & Author of
Skin: The Complete Guide to Digitally, Lighting, Photographing
and Retouching Faces and Bodies - 2nd edition
ISBN-10: 0470592125
ISBN-13: 978-0470592120
Paperback, 368 pages, Aug 2010
Mastering Exposure and the Zone System for Digital Photographers
ISBN-13: 978-1-59863-987-2
ISBN-10: 1-59863-987-0
Paperback, 257 pages, 2010


the DVD series: "Beyond Skin"

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