History of Photography Timeline— the Zone System, Carbro printing, and László Moholy-Nagy and his Photoplastics


March 23, 2013 by derrickjcullen

Landscape with text added indicating various zones.

The Zone System

So… The Zone System… After skimming over my sources, it became obvious that this is a confusing process. It was co-developed between Ansel Adams and a photographic portraiture professor, Fred Archer, at the Art Center School in Los Angeles— 1940. The system was adopted to allow photographers to have more control over their prints, even before pressing the shutter button. A full range of tones in a photograph lends a very appealing and elegant quality, so that was the goal.

It was a bit of work to wrap my head around this (lots of numbers and scientific jargon), but I believe that I’ve mostly worked it out. Basically, light meters really aren’t quite as intelligent as one would think such a machine would be. They have a bad habit of turning every reading taken from a scene into a middle gray print— not always desirable. To override this flaw, one can employ the Zone System.

The technique separates a black to white gradation into eleven segments or zones: 0, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X. First, the photographer singles out the darkest element in his shot and places it onto zone III (allowing for detail in the shadows); next, he takes a light reading of that specific element— the light meter will produce an exposure equal to middle gray, or zone V; finally, once the photographer knows the meter’s exposure, he can then calculate the correct one to render the object in zone III— two f-stops lower than his meter suggested. This will produce detailed shadows in the final print. What follows is a list of common examples representing each zone within a photographic scene;

0— Complete lack of density in the negative image, other than film base density plus fog. Total black in the print.
I— Effective threshold. First step above complete black in the print. Slight tonality, but no texture.
II— First suggestion of texture. Deep tonalities, representing the darkest part of the image in which some detail is required.
III— Average dark materials. Low values showing adequate texture.
IV— Average dark foliage. Dark stone. Landscape shadow. Recommended shadow value for portraits in sunlight.
V— Clear north sky (panchromatic rendering). Dark skin. Gray stone. Average weathered wood. Middle gray (18% reflectance).
VI— Average Caucasian skin value. Light stone. Shadows in snow in sunlit snowscapes.
VII— Very light skin. Light gray objects. Average snow with acute side lighting.
VIII— Whites with textures and delicate values (not blank whites). Snow in full shade. Highlights on Caucasian skin.
IX— Glaring white surfaces. Snow in flat sunlight. White without texture.
X— Pure white: light sources and specular reflections

Frida with Idol, 1939, color carbro print, 22 x 18 inches, Nickolas Murray.

The Carbro print

What I found interesting… the term Carbro is actually an example of a portmanteau (first used by writer Lewis Carroll in his 1871 novel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There; a joining of two different words to create a new word with its own individual meaning) created from the combination of carbon and bromide— two elements necessary to obtain an image with the process. Whereas carbon printing relied on a strong light source for exposure, carbro printing had chemistry to applaud. Essentially, a silver bromide print is left wet after development, and is brought into contact with carbon tissue. The chemical reaction is between the silver in the bromide print and the gelatin within the sensitized carbon tissue. The gelatin hardens and becomes insoluble wherever contact is made with the silver. The soluble gelatin can then be rinsed away from the print, leaving the chemically-created relief image.

The method evolved from the earlier discovered carbon printing process of Alphonse Louis Poitevin and Thomas Manly’s work with the Ozotype and the Ozobrome process at the turn of the century. One of the carbro print’s main advantages was that more common light sources could be used for making exposures instead of more intense ultraviolet light needed for carbon printing. The results were unbelievably-saturated colors— very apparent in the above image of painter Frida Kahlo de Rivera.

Two dolls, 1926, gelatin silver print, 48.6 x 38.4 cm., Lázló Moholy-Nagy.

László Moholy-Nagy & Photoplastics

The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.
— László Moholy-Nagy

For starters… Whew. That quote doesn’t sit well with me… Transcending and spirituality seem pretty important these days. That aside, Moholy-Nagy’s above statement really reflects his embrace of progress—which was, in that era, technology.

László Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian artist born in the nineteenth-century. His main disciplines were painting and photography. He taught foundation classes at Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus school in Weimar.

He was a very versatile artist; delving into layout, exhibition, and set design. Of his photographs, the most influential were the experiments conducted with his wife, Lucia. These included: photograms, photomontages or photoplastics, and reframing the world around him in his own unique perspective, producing almost complete abstraction. Oftentimes, his perspective would be that of a bird. Writing about photography in his first Bauhaus book, Moholy-Nagy elevates the practice to that of a fine art, such as painting. Technology and objectivity were among his main tenets, meaning that he was figuratively moving, “full steam ahead,” with Modernism, broadening its reaches.


Brucker, Julia. “László Moholy-Nagy.” The Art Story. The Art Story Foundation. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://www.theartstory.org/artist-moholy-nagy-laszlo.htm&gt;.

“The Collection— László Moholy-Nagy.” MoMA.org. The Museum of Modern Art. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=4048&gt;.


Koren, Norman. “A Simplified Zone System for Making Good Exposures.” Norman Koren. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://www.normankoren.com/zonesystem.html&gt;.

Rockwell, Ken. “The Zone System.” Ken Rockwell. 2006. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/zone.htm&gt;.

Schoppman, J.R. “Carbon Printing— Theory.” Angelic Images. 5 Aug. 2003. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <http://www.angelicimages.com/CarbDesc.html&gt;.


2 thoughts on “History of Photography Timeline— the Zone System, Carbro printing, and László Moholy-Nagy and his Photoplastics

  1. […] Blog II— the Zone System, Carbro prints, and László Moholy-Nagy & Photoplastics […]

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