Photography I always think is actually one of the most difficult arts. It's incredibly easy to take a dull photograph-we've all done it. A recently acquired understanding of the zone system however has opened up my eyes to the real possibilities of 'painting with light'.
I’ve always thought it’s actually incredibly hard to remain creative in photography. We’ve all been guilty I guess of taking what are, in the cold light of day, quite dull photos-parked cars, plates of food, trees, ferris wheels, the walls of buildings, beaches. Even if these photos mean something to us, they don’t necessarily convey anything to others. The first thing a photographer usually tries to learn therefore is the art of composition-shadows and lines and framing certain things, using your focus setting rather than leaving it set at infinity to generate bokeh etc. The next step is to really think hard about good locations-derelict houses, industrial architecture, mountains and fields, the city late at night. More recently though, I’ve been trying to think of ways to take it further. My problem has always been that I don’t actually like many of the ‘lomographic’ ways of being creative. I don’t particularly like double exposures, cross-processed slide film, or extreme vignetting in my own work, though I can admire it in the work of others. Expired film holds little allure for me. As I’ve said before, I generally like a sharp image, usually via a Zeiss lens, and I find the greatest creative challenge in using a ‘normal’ high spec camera rather than something which washes everything with fuzz or blur regardless of conditions. I do find the actual processing techniques of someone like Toelmoum (http://www.lomography.com/homes/toelmoum) absolutely amazing and inspiring, but for that I’d also need a darkroom and chemistry. So I was probably starting to stagnate a little until I read an old cheap copy of Fred Picker’s book on the zone system. Picker popularized a system first developed by Ansel Adams for black and white photography, and reading about it the way Picker describes it, the penny finally dropped.
It works like this. Assume a typical black and white photograph. It’s probably best to think about using this method on a decent medium-format sized photo taken with an all-mechanical camera rather than an over automated point-and-shoot.
Let’s assume you meter the photograph beforehand-the meter is always right, right? Well, yes, no, and maybe. The meter aims for a ‘medium’ setting that will tend to make what we see as white on the day into, in the final photo, not white but ‘middle gray’-what Picker calls ‘Zone V’. Fine for an average day and an average photo, but not one that necessarily reflects what you see with your eye on a day with extreme light contrasts. Imagine therefore that there are ten zones, ranging from completely black (think undeveloped negative) to completely white (blank page), with Zone VI being skin tone. These zones can be thought of in general as separated by an f-stop. To ‘lift’ the photo (overexpose) towards, say, zone VI, you move one fstop up, opening up the aperture (this means moving towards a SMALLER number from a larger, remembering that the fstops are fractions, so say for example from f16 to f8). To make blacks in the photo blacker, towards say zone IV or III, you close down the aperture fstop. Obvious? Yes, but it was literally like a lightbulb going off in my head to realize that these are options about which one can make a creative choice-that one can literally ‘paint with light’ rather than always go for the meter’s ‘average’ result. This, together with a slow-dawning appreciation of filters, has literally transformed the way I think about photography, so that for B&W I now regularly use a yellow filter and typically shoot one fstop more open than the meter implies. Taken too far of course, and you generate photographs that are black or white mush- but a little knowledge and a little judgement is a powerful thing. With this system in my head, I’ll never look at my light meter in quite the same way again. I now see the meter as the START, rather than the FINAL ANSWER, to making a perfectly exposed and dramatic photograph-the rest is up to me!