November 11, 2023

The Zone System is the language of light and shadow and for digital shooters it’s invaluable.

What makes the Zone System such a big deal for better photos?

I teach Zones deeper in my free classes like Shadow Hackers and in Master Classes like Exposed. I’ve done a lot of Zone videos over the years but this updated video will make Zones easier than ever for whatever skill level you are at today.

You can check out my Lumist 2 actions here for live Zone control. In the video, I also mentioned Elegance speed masks and Natural HDR.

Choose carefully how to apply the Zones.

Exposure in photography is often left to meters to decide. You can use aperture priority or something like that on the go. But the key is that you are still taking control.

But when you combine Zones and the concepts of Shadow hacking you have the understanding of what makes a photo dramatic and also the ability to know whats happening in every moment of light and shadow.

When I use auto mode for streets or on the go I watch the feedback on the screen and most importantly the histogram. I’m seeing the Zones as I move and I use exposure compensation to quickly adjust them while staying in that auto mode.

I’ll show in the video how extreme this initial exposure was.

Edit with your Zone System visualization.

Zones give you control over light and shadow in a way nothing else gives you. So you can be in a flat-lit portrait scene or in a super contrasty sunset landscape and the Zone System will work equally to let you manage the tone value.

The secret is to expose your zones in the camera and then edit for those zones in the post.

For example in this portrait, the background was not a lot darker than the subject even with our strobe. But I exposed the subject where I wanted knowing that I would edit with a little more contrast in post and darken the background.

It’s not so different from how in the past we pushed and pulled film or burned and dodged. But the key here is you are seeing finished results before you press the shutter because you can easily use zones to plan and visualize.

I’ll show you this lower-contrast scene also in the video.

Using a spot meter for the Zone System

On the other side of this is a full manual. if you have time to set up, You’re shooting a landscape or a building. Use that tripod. use a spot meter in the camera or externally and place Zones exactly where you want.

Don’t just use the histogram as a rough guide in program mode. When possible use the full details of Zones and doing so will help you to understand them better in those moments when you are on the go and can’t stop to spot the meter.

Place your primary subject tones where you want, then make sure the rest falls into place.
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June 15, 2022

There’s a story here. But the real gold nugget is how to use GOLD tones with color photos. Here’s what I’ve learned…

My grandpa was always buying and selling antiques and taught me when I was young how to separate the value from the junk. At least he tried to teach me.

I remember him talking about the Curtis gold-tone prints long before digital was a thing. Little did I know that 3o years later I would still be obsessed with gold tones in the back of my mind as I developed my recipes. Maybe because they are so hard to get just right.

But today we’re in color, not re-creating early-era gold tones.
Enter the Gold-Chrome.

As far as I know, there was never a Gold-Chrome film. But maybe there should have been. Now even if you’re wanting to create other tones and mixes, the tips I’m going to share today will work.

Once we know the settings we create, but sometimes we use the slider in a very basic way. Decades later I still find myself discovering formulas. The sliders are a lot like chemicals. While it may be less messy and costly, those curves and up and downs are not any less subtle.

Mount Rainier by Asahel Curtis – Gold Orotype

Since the early days of photography, it seems people noticed the magic in a gold image. From the Platinum pallidum to the Curtis gold tones that were actually processed with real gold. The Orotone!

Maybe it’s the romance that early black and white created with its impure and often tinted results. Maybe it’s just because we love warm tones. It’s a color emotion thing. It’s why in cinema styles there are a lot of looks with orange and blue hues. Being opposite each other on a color wheel, they pair well.

So I recreated the early era darkroom and platinum looks in my Emulsions actions. They take that toning and make it easy to manage in layers. The platinum has a warm tone, not always Gold, but sometimes it actually feels gold.. In the future, I might add an authentic Orotone recipe into Emulsion actions as they can do more complex things than we create with presets and styles.

Here’s our goal…

  • Create dynamic gold tones that are not monochrome.
  • Try to maintain a gold that feels natural with other colors.
  • Make the gold tones versatile across many image types.

The perfect COLOR-Gold formula is NOT Selective color.

Rather than tinted black and white, these are created by how color is mixed and by the natural light in a scene. So if you have a backlit sunset, gold warmth comes more naturally and feels more at home. Don’t confuse this with ugly 90’s selective color.

You may have used the popular Classic Negative if you use Fuji X cameras. This is based on Superia 200 film, but it’s actually a very low saturation looks, while still retaining colors. I have a preset of Classic Negative that also you can download for free here. that I made to use on any field, like this Fuji XE3 street photo, since this model did not include that profile in the camera.

Street workers in a Mexico square, Fuji classic negative preset from Filmist
Not gold – Street workers, Filmist Classic Negative look on a Fuji XE3 RAW file.

You’ve seen this approach used in golden warm sunset photos but may not have even known it. These are not selective colors or black and white. They are shot and developed to focus on the golden warmth, but the color still remains.

I have tinkered with getting this look for over a decade in Lightroom, going all the way back to the first version of Power Workflow. More recently I had a great portrait-focused gold effect in the Muse preset pack called Gold Dust!

UPDATE – Get my Gold recipes as presets for Lightroom and Capture One with my finished Gold-Chrome pack.

Level 1 Gold toning
Warm like a sunset but maintains rich color.

Gold Dust – tone from the Muse presets pack. Sony FIle.

We want that look you see in iconic street photos or magazines. It always starts with light in the camera, but if you develop well, that gold can even be added to less warm images and still feel perfect.

Level 1 is gentle. It could almost be mistaken for White Balance but it’s much richer. Complicating matters more, each camera is different. Fuji tones lean redder, Sony more green etc.

We live in a world of internet marketers selling tools that leave people unhappy. I deal with the fallout of that, which is why I always guarantee my products. I am passionate and often obsessed with this kind of recipe. It cannot just work on one photo, it has to work on most of them.

In the Filmist pack I might spend an entire week focused on a single recipe to get it just right. Today I’ll show you progressively more intense gold recipes I’ve developed.

Don’t do this with White Balance!

Yes, it’s fine to warm or cool a photo a little with WB. It’s one of the secrets of making any6 color formula work for YOUR camera. But you can’t get a proper golden tone with a WB cast adjustment. White balance is often used for this, but incorrectly. Toning needs to come from the more subtle color channel and wheels.

Why? First, no WB setting will work in a Lightroom preset or styles for Capture One. They vary on a per-image basis. Second, you want more depth. When you use the color wheel and even more curves, you have dynamic toning that moves with the shadows and highlights.

Take all the colors away, then start from zero.

TIP: If you’re trying to make a color tone, go to the HSL colors and desaturate every channel.

This working in reverse will really well to help you find the goal. Pull them all down… Now start moving color back in a little at a time.

Next, you mix those with color wheels in mids, shadows, and highlights, then tones. As you progress you will see your effect come to life.

I kept thinking about how to explain more simply how to use advanced color features in Lightroom and Capture One. I’ll be making a channel a video and I’ll post it here in the future when I have

Elote Girl – Cine Soft Brown mi.

On the lighter gold side, we’re talking about a warm overtone that has hints of gold. Another level 1 like we see right here with the elotes girl happy over her corn. Yes, they love their Elotes in Mexico and they are always buying them on the street covered in mayonnaise and chili.

This gets more complex as we go to curves. You can do amazing things with the individual color channels in curves. But you can make a mess very fast. The adjustment in the color cruces, whether in Lightroom, Capture One, or Photoshop, is very finite but very powerful.

Level 2 Gold Toning
Softer color and more expansive warm tones.

But let’s go to level 2 gold. This is not about a vintage look. It’s about feeling good. I did these with what I call my El Dorado process. This pushes other colors down a bit more and focuses on the gold tones and color wheels. But it’s still a full-color photo.

El dorado process

A Gold-Chrome has colors from every channel.

We’re trying to empathize with a tone and feel of a scene that complements the real-world light. Even at level 2, we have a full-color spectrum, but golden warmth is all over the frame here. Level 2 done right, is actually very versatile.

This works great in atmospheric street scenes. But also fashion portraits and beyond. What we’re doing is using color to extend the existing emotions but in a way that doe snot feel like a fake color. If all color is equal, the image looks rather boring.

The parking garage, San Juan Del Rio Mexico -El Dorado tone

Now it’s starting to go GOLD!

By separating color and focusing on a specific range, we control the hues of a scene. In the case of Gold, it tends to give a warm sunset romantic vibe

IN going further we’re going to take a queue from the Curtis Gold tone. Because gold was part of the chemical process, it results in highlights being ultra gold. We’re still working in color, but let’s curve down those highlights and go further.

El Doroado gold chrome process. Level 2 still retains color well.

Going to level 3 – Ultra gold chrome color

What we’ve done is push curves and colors and how they respond more and more without selectively reducing any one color. The sensation of color is soft, leaving you with gold and warm rays. But the influence of the color is still there.

The boy on the dock. Ultra Gold tone. The color is there but the gold is more intense. In some photos, it feels perfectly natural.

In this photo on the lakeshore where it;’s clear sunset, it feels almost natural, but looking at the original file, you see just how much gold we added. I think with any process this should be the goal. Adding your recipe, while maintaining a feel that does not distract and feels right.

Original RAW file from a Fuji X100V

And yet we’ve all seen an image like this. Radiant golden rays that are intense, but feel natural. Like they convey an emotion that we might have felt in the real place. That’s the goal of photography. We have to convey that shadow, the sensation and to me, that’s what a great color formula is about.

A good Gold process is such that you don’t think about it being processed, yOU think about the feel and the story of this boy standing at the end of a dock waiting for his ship to come in. Or maybe something else.

Yes, Use RAW files and presets!

With any of the deep edits, you want RAw whenever possible. It’s especially popular amount street shooters to shoot JPEGs. The Fuji camera for example has great in-camera profiles. But you throw so much away in JPEG and if you want to deep deep recipes like this, you will be glad you have a RAW file to start from. Take a look at my video… Raw vs JPEG 2022.

It’s also important to have these as presets. We talking about adjustments that take hours. Especially when you refine them. So whether you buy presets like mine or make your own. Save at each step so you can use and compare easily later.

Ultra Gold color in a night street scene. Highlights are deeply affected giving this scene a vintage vibe.

Don’t be afraid to level up and do more.

By being progressively bolder, we’ve created a look that can be intense and still feel right. This post was about creating color gold tones. But it’s also about pushing developing settings.

I admit usually start with a presets or action to help kick me in the right direction.

If I see ten variants of a photo, it’s like adding visualizations to my brain and those adapt to create new ideas that I otherwise would have not discovered.

The level 3 process tends to look natural in photos where there is already a natural gold glow on the boy on the dock. Note the extremes in the highlights where level 3 pulls the upper curve down and fills it with warmth. This can work in other scenes like the night shot above, but it tends to bring a vintage vibe that is clearly a color effect. That’s not good to bad, just be aware.

My Gold Chrome Conclusion.

I like this look, which is why I have chased it for so long. How to edit and tone an image is a very personal choice and often there are many approaches that will look good. But if we become less timid, will draw out shadows and tones in new ways.

This has perhaps been an overly intensive look at gold chrome toning. But I’ve been chasing these tones for over a decade, and really ever since my grandpa talked with reverence about early ere Curtis Gold-Tone prints.

As these formulas are refined enough to work in most scenes, you may see them come out in my presets packs. The first level 1 Gold Dust tone is also part of my Muse Collection so if you have them play around and make your own variants.

20 years later I feel like I am starting to understand what needs to be done to make gold work. I have failed many times to get it right. A really good process is one you will come back to. If I am not there yet, I am on the way and I wanted to share with you and I hope you will share what you have found in the comments below.

Gavin Seim

L3 Gold Chrome church in the square. This takes extreme measures on highlights to give a very darkroom-like gold flavor.
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March 16, 2013

The 40x40 master of Sliver Moon Blues on display at an exhibit last year.
The 40×40 master of Sliver Moon Blues on display at an exhibit last year.

by Gavin Seim: It’s now year 5 of a 10 year plan to build my American Pictorialist brand one day at a time. I thought I was setting out to take photos. Turns out there was much more I was after. I discovered what I really wanted was not pictures, but furniture. Grand prints that convey the majesty of creation. That’s easier said that done, but I feel Chroma and Silver galleries look better each year.

I got my first camera about 20 years ago now. It’s been a long road. But I may see a speck of light in the tunnel. It took mew a decade or so just realize that what I’m making is not pictures but fine furniture. To begin to really find my style. Something I hope to have mostly nailed down in the next three years both in my pictorials and my American Portraits which are something I don’t intend to give up. They are separate brands, but both have similar goals. Both are furniture for the wall.

The goals are starting to become more clear thanks to teachers like Ken Whitmire, painters of the past, history itself and many others who have shared their experience along the way. I’m learning that I have to focus. I have to remember what I’m trying to produce.

There’s lots of images being made and I don’t need to compete with that. I just need to make work I release as breathtaking as is possible. I’m getting to the stage where I know if the image is Signature worthy or just a nice snapshot before I press the shutter. Understanding that line has tuned out to be critical to my process.

Teaching has pushed me as well. Producing workshops like EXposed helped me see much better. What’s next is further refinement. Being more picky in the image making process as well as in the presentation. I’ve been focusing on slowing down for a few years now. I got into film and large format. I stopped making so many images and learned to focus on one whether it was a pictorial or a portrait.

But I think it’s time to take that further. By focusing on only releasing only 6-12 new pieces each year, the time spent on each will become flexible. Refinement and stunning presentation will be my focus and it takes a great deal of time to do that to my satisfaction – If I intend to stay sane I have to release less to make them more.

In recording the new Photographics Film I have been reminded that the elements that make a great photograph are not bound by one most import, but by a series of many including space, position, line, tone and presentation. If any one of these fails the image will often fail to be a stunning work of art and simply be a photo. I won’t forget that.

I am blessed and thankful that I can take my time. I just keep trying to move forward. In doing so I believe it will be better than I ever imagined when I picked up my first camera nearly 20 years ago. I had no idea where this would lead. Perhaps I still don’t. I still have 5 years to nail down the the American Pictorial. And if I don’t make that deadline, I’ll keep working.

Gavin Seim

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November 29, 2012

Those of you that follow my work know that I love working with 4×5 large format film. I still use digital, but 4×5 scans blow it away in terms of detail for my wall prints. More about why I love film in this article.

Today, I made a “quick video” looking at how I prepare images for wet scanning using my Epson V700. The V700 is not sold as a wet scanner. Epson wants you to buy the V750 for that. But the truth is the scanners are the same in nearly every area other than the wet attachments. To top it off, the wet scan upgrade from BetterScanning is said to be better than the stock one that comes with the V750.

Why Wet? Think about your car when you’ve just washed it – When it’s wet the scratches are less visible and everything looks pretty and shiny. Wet scanning has a similar effect. The film is suspended in liquid, which helps reduces small dust and scratches. Furthermore it gives me optical clarity that is not impeded by the surface of the dry film. That produces a better contrast and more detail – There’s an interesting discussion on this topic here.

My process works well and the resulting images go into Lightroom and Photoshop for final details. I have had drum scans done and plan to use them, in time, for VERY large prints in the 100 inch plus range. In my experience a good drum scan (which can easily cost over $100) is better than my Epson wet scans but probably by only 10-15%, so unless I am making a giant print it’s not an issue, even for a quality fanatic like me.

Other Tools: I use Silver Fast scanning software instead of the default Epson software most of the time. In general I find it’s very powerful. Silver Fast support is a bit lacking, but it’s a bit like a Photoshop for scanning and gives lots of control. That said you can get great wet scans with the default software. I use Kami fluid to mount with. It works well and goes a long way. Here’s the rubber roller and I like Purosol and Kimwipes for keeping all my glass clean. I use Duralar sheets to sandwich the negative between fluid and glass. A DataVac is good for serious air and these awesome craft tweezers make picking up the film a snap.

Film is not easy. But it’s coming back because it’s very rewarding and results in stunning, unique images loaded with detail, especially from the larger formats. Here’s a couple recent images I did on 4×5. Of course if you come to my gallery sometime, you’ll be able see the detail in all it’s glory – Enjoy, Gav

Ghostlands – Eastern OR – 4×5 HP400 Film. Full details here.
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September 10, 2012


Gavin Seim takes a peek at the legendary Olympus 35RC. An amazing compact rangefinder that comes at a great price tag. It’s our first PC video podcasts. Excuse the audio quality. — Photo Couch Podcast #31, Direct Link.


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Photo Couch is the companion podcast of Gavin’s f164 project. An audio/video journal. Nothing fancy. Just short musings, tips, and thoughts on photography. You can listen here on the blog, or subscribe for free and get all the latest episodes. If you want more, you can also check out Gavin’s full podcast, Pro Photo Show.

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