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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How To Use The Zone System In Challenging Conditions

High-contrast scenes like late-winter snow and ice can be difficult to render in a photograph. Use the Zone System to get your best results.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
In digital photography, the principles are the same, but the tools are different. Think of the RAW file as your digital negative. Instead of a latent image, you have an actual visible image that can be manipulated with your raw converter and Photoshop. Think back to the moment of capture. The usual rule of thumb for digital shooting is to expose to the right. In other words, make the shot as bright as possible without losing detail in the highlights. You confirm this with the histogram. If the histogram is cut off at the right, you're too bright and you need to lower the exposure. By exposing to the right, you give yourself latitude in the shadows. Digital sensors, in particular, are unforgiving in the dark areas of the frame. If there's no detail in those areas, no amount of digital manipulation will help. Your initial exposure will look too bright and a little washed out, but don't worry. You've preserved the detail in Zone VII and VIII, and you can adjust the dark areas to look right in Photoshop. Open the image in your raw converter and use the curves to adjust the dark areas and bring them down to good Zone II and Zone III tones. In film, you expose for the shadows and process for the highlights. In digital, you expose for the highlights and process for the shadows.

When a particular composition does contain a full range, from shadows to highlights, the more classic system will come into play. By picking the shadow that should have strong detail (Zone III), metering only that area and then closing down two ƒ-stops, the tone will hold detail. In most instances, the development will need to be cut in order to hold detail in the highlight, which would be a Zone VII. By lessening development times with film, you're squeezing the upper tonalities down into a range that will be printable. This type of negative will then print in a standard manner, making use of all information contained within the negative. For digital capture, simply meter the scene and evaluate the exposure on the histogram. Again, the most important thing is to prevent the highlights from being cut off on the right. If by maintaining the highlights you're losing shadow detail, you're going to have to employ a different technique by compositing two images, one exposed for highlights and one for shadows.

Zone System Basics
Every Zone in the Zone System is one stop apart from the adjacent Zone. Zone V represents "middle gray," or 18% gray. Zone IV is one stop darker and so on. Traditionally, we think of Zone II through Zone VIII as having at least some detail while Zones 0, I, IX and X have no detail. Some photographers don't use Zone 0, reducing the scale by Zone. In the digital era, we usually can coax a little more detail out of the Zones at the ends of the spectrum compared to film.

There's a third possibility that occasionally will appear: that scene where lower-end tones are missing, and if introduced, would detract from the image. While rare, the possibility exists, and the photographer should be open to recognizing it. When dealing with this situation, choose the strongest highlight, the one that should have just perceptible detail (Zone VII), and meter it. Then, open the reading up two ƒ-stops, using that as your exposure. This is turning the Zone System on its head, as you are exposing for the highlights and ignoring any other meter readings. As odd as it seems, this will give a workable, high-key image. If there are any shadows in the scene, this technique won't work, as all lower-end detail will likely disappear.

Thinking Abstractly
Composition is always frustrating and is the most difficult aspect of the photographic process. This holds true for the sorts of ice photographs shown in this article more than with most images. Cropping out extraneous elements is always good policy, but becomes of equal importance when working with abstract subjects. By eliminating anything that gives scale to an image, by cutting out anything that offers the viewer a clue to the reality of the subject, you're enhancing the sense of abstract while veiling any intrusive elements.


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