By L.T. Gray*
Here’s a great learning exercise. First of all get yourself an unmetered camera, and choose a lens. Next, hide or disable your exposure meters. Third, pick a film. And finally, pick a developer and a development time that’s a bit shy of Ilford’s or Kodak’s recommendation.
You've heard of the Zone System, right? You might even have heard of BTZS, American educator Phil Davis's even-more-sophisticated Beyond The Zone System. Well, they're the tip of the iceberg. There's also the Tone System, the Matchprint System, the This System, the That System—dozens of systems, if not hundreds of 'em, the purpose of all of which are to help you control exposure and development of black-and-white film.
If you're a younger photographer, you may also have heard tales you found hard to believe, of grizzled old pros and hard-bitten photojournalists working in the days before light meters were common, guessing their exposures by looking at the light. If you've grown up with automatically-coupled, multi-segmented in-camera metering, letting the camera set itself and barely paying attention to what was going on, such feats may seem as unreal and unlikely as the exploits of Hercules.
Well, I wonder if I could share with you GSOTPANWASTOTZSS (Gray's Seat-O'-The-Pants And Nowhere Within A Stone's Throw Of The Zone System System). Apologies to Dick Behan, Phil Davis, Ansel Adams, Hurter, Driffield, C.E.K.Mees, Mr. Charlie Kerr (my long-suffering high school math teacher, who considered me only slightly more teachable than vegetable matter), and...well, you get the idea.
What is it? Essentially, it's a way to train yourself to guess exposures, just like those semi-mythical pros from days of yore. Don't guffaw—read on. If you're willing to do the work to train your brain, guessing can actually be an appropriate substitute for more technically precise methodologies.
The basics of...'GSOTPANWASTOTZSS'
The initial task is to take some of the many variables and make them into constants.
1. First of all, get yourself an unmetered camera, and choose a lens. You can use anything with a fully manual shutter—an unmetered Rolleiflex TLR, a Leica M3, even a Leica M6 with the battery removed. You can use a few different lenses if you must, but don't go crazy.
2. Next, hide or disable your exposure meters. You must deny them to yourself even in moments of panic. Do not carry any exposure meter of any kind in your camera bag.
3. Third, pick a film. You can use any black-and-white negative film; the important thing is to standardize on only one kind. As much as anything, what you're going to be doing here is learning your film. Switching between different films will destroy the consistency that's essential to this learning process. (If you insist on changing films and/or developers often, skip to the next article—this one ain't for you).
4. Pick a standard developer, and a development time that's a bit shy of Ilford's or Kodak's recommendation. Let's say you were to choose Kodak Tri-X 400 as your film (forgive me, I'm American). In that case, you might pick 9 min. in D-76 1+1 at 68 degrees F, which represents slight underdevelopment compared to the recommendation.
Here's the task: in any lighting situation, you must pick the aperture and shutter-speed combination that fits the prevailing light.
Sounds formidable, doesn't it? It might even sound impossible, if you're accustomed to trusting an in-camera meter all the time and have only a vague notion of how it goes about its business. Well, it's not impossible—not if your approach is systematic, and not if you're willing to do one hard thing: pay attention.
What you're going to do first is to "calibrate" your film exposure and your film development (and your brain) for bright, sunny mid-day daylight.
Here's how. First, take your camera out in that kind of light and find a scene to photograph. Bracket like hell. Develop it according to your now-standard procedure, and dry the filmstrip. Now, look at the negatives, and pick the one that looks the way you want your negatives to look. Note the exposure you used for that frame. Voilá: that's the combination of exposure settings (EV value) you'll apply to that same lighting in any future situation where you encounter it.
Okay, so maybe on the Sceptered Isle, throne of Kings, etc., you'll need to calibrate for a cloudy day. Same difference.
Outdoor daylight, sunny day. Having committed to use Tri-X 400 (or whatever) until death do you part and having loaded same into your camera, you turn your unmetered Rolleiflex (or whatever) in a direction generally away from the blazing sun and point it at a representative scene with, say, a road, a building, trees, some cars, grass, and some blue sky. Important: write down which exposure is which. Starting at 1/125th at ƒ/5.6, bracket 6 stops (more if you want):
1/125th at ƒ/5.6
1/250th at ƒ/5.6
1/250th at ƒ/8
1/250th at ƒ/11
1/250th at ƒ/16
1/500th at ƒ/16
Important: write down which exposure is which. Did I say that already? I did? Okay, but it's very important.
Note that you're not going to bracket every shot from now into perpetuity. The bracket is done only once, so you can learn what exposure to use. From then on, you remember the exposure and use it whenever you encounter that same light. Bracketing isn’t the method; it’s only the way you get your initial information.
Back in the darkroom, develop the film according to your standard procedure, and you'll get a filmstrip that goes from very heavily exposed to very underexposed.
Then, pick one. Whichever one seems "about right." I don't care how you pick it: do it visually; proof 'em, making the clear film edge "almost but not quite black"; make the best print you can of each one and see what works best; ask your teachers or friends; whatever. Or any of the above, until you're sure. Hint: You'll know; it ain't rocket science.
Let's say you pick 1/250th at ƒ/11. The final thing you have to do is remember it. From then on, whenever you encounter daylit scenes outdoors, here's what you do: expose at 1/250th at ƒ/11, or the equivalent.
Congratulations! You've just mastered basic GSOTPANWASTOTZSS.
Ordinary sunny-day daylight—your regular exposure for this is your "null" exposure
If you don't want to do any more work, of course, GSOTPANWASTOTZSS allows you to stop right there. You'll be a bit limited, however. You can take pictures only in outdoor daylight. Realistically, you'll probably want to take it a little further, in order to expand your capability to include, ahem, other kinds of daylight.
So, taking your daylight exposure as the "home stop," what Fred Picker referred to as the "Key Stop," or what I call my "null" or standard exposure (I just made that up; actually GSOTPANWASTOTZSS has no terminology), you begin to notice how much you need to open up for situations in which you encounter less light.
For instance, bright overcast, no shadows: open up one stop. (How do you know? Either take my word for it, or see and follow calibration instructions above, only in overcast light. You'll only have to do it once.) Open shade, two stops (same deal). Et cetera.
What you'll find is that for any light you can encounter outdoors in the daytime, standing under God's open sky, there are only about five possible exposures, or EV values, that you will ever have the opportunity to use. Five. As in the number of fingers you have on one hand.
This includes beach scenes in the Greek islands and glaring sunlight on snow, where you may have to close down from your standard exposure one stop. Four stops the other way, and you'll have reached the darkest conceivable conditions nature will ever present you with outdoors at mid-day. Five stops total.
GSOTPANWASTOTZSS predicts that anyone can master five choices, given enough time, enough film, and the ability to write oneself memos.
Is it really so simple?
If this still seems complicated just from the standpoint of notation, try this. What I do is remember each shot in terms of how many stops I opened up from the "null" bright-daylight exposure for my film.
Then, I mark that number on the contact sheet. Thus, each frame might say "3" or "2" or whatever. Then I just look at the frame and evaluate how well I guessed the light. If the frame is obviously a bit underexposed and says "3," then I know to open up four stops from my null exposure the next time I encounter similar light. If it says "1" and it's overexposed, I know I shouldn't have opened up at all.
Assuming you spend sometime looking at the contacts and setting in your mind what you did and how you could do better next time, the learning process doesn't take terribly long. It's not like you'll struggle for months on end. The beauty of using no meter is that you must learn fast, because when you're out there shooting, you really need to know what exposure settings to use. If you've previously only used automatic cameras set on Program, then you've just taken exposure from the realm of Things You Hardly Ever Think About and made it into a very high-priority learning project for your brain. Take my word for it: your brain, in the resilient and resourceful manner of human intelligence, will rise to the occasion admirably. You'll have it well trained in no time. In fact, I'm reasonably sure that your dazzling proficiency at guessing your exposures after only a few weeks of practice will surprise you a great deal.
A misapprehension about exposure systems is that some are better than others. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't; but one thing that's important to remember is that there's no intrinsic advantage to using one system or another if you arrive at the same result in the end.
To illustrate: imagine that I and a full-bore, full-dress Zone System photographer stand in front of a scene we want to photograph. For the sake of argument, imagine we're using the same cameras and film, and will frame the scene the same way. I say to myself, "Ah, I know this light; I always give 1/125th at ƒ/5.6 in this kind of light. And the scene's a little flat, so I'll add a minute or two to my standard developing time, to get 11 minutes at 68 degrees."
The Zone System photographer takes a different approach. He spot-meters the important tones and "places" them on a Zone previously matched to a negative density. He then checks the shadows and the highlights to see where they'll "fall." If all is all right, he then takes the scene luminance range and calculates his negative development. Where he ends up is N+1 (or some such). Where he ends up is...1/125th at ƒ/5.6, and 11 minutes development at 68 degrees.
Now, tell me—which one of us has the better negative? The more printable negative? The more perfect and beautiful negative?
Picture me grinning. The two negatives, at the risk of being obvious, are identical. Two paths, same destination.
Big little words
If either of any two systems are equally likely to end up where the photographer wants to be, then one isn't any better than another. All we're trying to do is arrive at the exposure and development we want; there's no magic advantage available to users of one system but locked away and forever denied to users of a different system.
Of course, that bit about "if/then" provokes, ahh, a wee bit of disagreement and dispute amongst photographers from time to time. Everybody thinks their way is better for arriving at the ideal exposure and development.
And how many photographers would say that guessing is the best method? Not very many.
But, heresy though it may be to say so, I will say this: experience counts. If I'm up against an inexperienced photographer using any exposure metering system—even a zone-system photographer equipped with a spot meter—and I'm using my seat-o'-the-pants by-guess or by-gosh method, I like my chances of coming up with a better, more printable negative. Why? Because by now I've had lots of experience at this, and I've paid close attention every step of the way. The inexperienced zone system photographer, on the other hand, may be very unsure which scene value to place where; may have associated zones to film densities arbitrarily; may be having his or her judgment of luminance values skewed by the presence of strong colors; or may, indeed, be making any one of two dozen other mistakes. As I say, I like my chances.
All we're really talking about here is the systematic and deliberate acquisition ofexperience.
And what if we're both experienced? Well, far be it from me to assert that my method is any better than any other. It's not. An experienced zone system or BTZS photographer will be equally competent—perhaps more so, depending on the individual.
What's so great about training your brain to guess exposures is, rather, the way it heightens your conscious awareness of what you're doing, and your intuitive feeling for light. You've made yourself into a sort of servo-mechanism. As you go back and forth from guessing the light to inspecting your negs, guessing the light to inspecting your negs, you quickly perceive—visually, not based on numbers in a book or computer—what exposure each type of light requires. You acquire a real sense of how to handle difficult scenes. Your confidence grows and grows. I can expose scenes with perfect confidence that would give a spot-meter user fits, or cope with lighting that might throw an in-camera light meter off stride.
What's really required is awareness. Either by taking notes or just remembering, you have to be fully mindful of what you've done—and then, of what you get. It's in the act of consciously comparing the two that learning takes place. Otherwise, your skills won't improve. But if you stay alert and fully mindful, the rewards of practice can be great.
If you're willing to follow up on this exercise, even just as a temporary learning experience, what you end up with is something that's particularly nice: an exposure meter encased in your own skull, that makes use of the same sensors you utilize to read the morning paper. If you like, you can crib by adapting the little list in the Kodak Dataguide (like the list that used to come in the film boxes) and tape it to the side of your camera or somewhere else where it's handy.
So what do you do if you come across a lighting situation you're unsure of? Back to first principles: bracket like hell, making notes so you'll know which frame is which exposure. Voilá! As soon as you develop the film and pick the neg that works best, you've just mastered another situation. As this knowledge begins to accumulate, you'll find that you have something you can't buy in any 1,005-segment computerized algorithmic light meter: a strong and solid intuitive feeling for how much exposure to give in any lighting you encounter. And here's the last thing that will strike you like an epiphany: it's not that difficult. You really can do it, and the easy confidence it inspires is something every photographer should experience.
Is there a catch? Yes, there is. There's also one major difficulty. Allow me to digress.
I'm typing this article with four fingers. I was too impatient to learn touch-typing when I was eleven years old. Given the millions of words I've typed in the intervening decades, I think I'd probably have learned to touch-type reasonably quickly by now if only I'd started out on the right track. Similarly, guessing your exposures will, indeed, slow you down and make you mess up much more often—in the beginning. As you progress, however, your patience and mindfulness will be rewarded more and more. In other words, there's a lull in there when things are ponderous and slow, confusing, and frustrating—a learning 'trough' you have to weather before you begin to ascend the hill of the learning curve. Eventually, though, you'll surpass those who use light meters as crutches, in the same way that a beginning touch-typist will eventually surpass us four-finger typists no matter how fast our four fingers fly. You'll select your camera settings with a level of confidence and aplomb forever denied to those who have become overdependent on automatic metering.
But that's just the difficulty. So what's the catch? There is one, you know. GSOTPANWASTOTZSS, sorry to report, is a very hard acronym to memorize, and takes a very long time to say; better let the name be one of those things you forget.
L.T. Gray, who lives in Chicago, USA, has a bachelor's degree in fine art photography and years of experience as a professional photographer, teacher, writer, and custom black-and-white exhibition printer. He admits that (ahem!) he uses light meters, although he swears that he also often practices what he preaches here. He works as a magazine editor.
*When I was Editor-in-Chief of Photo Techniques magazine in the 1990s, the publisher (quite naturally) did not want me to write articles for other magazines. He did, however, bend as far as allowing me to write for my friend Ed Buziak's Darkroom User magazine in England, which was the start of my island-wide fame and renown in the earth of majesty, seat of Mars, etc. He did however ask that I write under a psudonym, a nom de plumage as it were. I chose "L.T. Gray," an alias devised by my father because it sounded like el Tigre. No one, I am happy to report, ever figured out who I was—except unfortunately I had to tell Ed, so he could write me checks.
Incidentally, I actually photographed every day without the aid of a light meter for more than six months, with an unmetered Exakta 66. I did indeed get very good at it, especially when faced with unusual lighting conditions.
Originally published in Darkroom User magazine issue #30. Many thanks to Ed Buziak for OCR-ing the article from his archive copy of the original magazine, thus enabling it to be reprinted once again.
Copyright 1997, 2007 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
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