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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Digital Zone System


If you thought DSLRs and new technology made the Zone System obsolete, think again. Updating the classic Ansel Adams tool for proper exposure will make your digital photographs as good as they can be.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Michael Frye

When Ansel Adams developed the Zone System with Fred Archer in 1940, he gave photographers a tool great for controlling their images—but only with black-and-white film, and only with view cameras, where sheets of film could be processed individually. Today, any photographer with a digital camera can have even more control, whether working with black-and-white or color.

Zone System Basics
Zone 5 represents a midtone in the scene. Anything one stop darker will render as Zone 4, two stops darker, Zone 3, and so on. Anything one stop lighter will render as Zone 6, two stops lighter, Zone 7, etc. Most digital cameras can hold detail in Zones 3 and 7, but not beyond. In other words, Zone 8 and above are washed out, and Zone 2 and below are black. A light color will lose saturation above Zone 6, and a dark color can’t go below Zone 4 without becoming muddy.

Zone 0
Pure black


Zone 1
Nearly black


Zone 2
A hint of detail

Zone 3
Dark, with good detail but muddy color


Zone 4
Dark tone or color


Zone 5
Middle tone,
medium color


Zone 6
Light tone or pastel color


Zone 7
Light, with texture but faded color


Zone 8
A hint of detail, but essentially washed out

Zone 9
Nearly white


Zone 10
Paper white


Such unprecedented power creates wonderful opportunities, but also can lead to confusion. How do you apply these controls? How far should you go? Do you have to reinvent the whole photographic process? No—because while the tools may be different, the basic principles of the Zone System still apply. The Zone System gives us a vital framework for understanding and controlling contrast in our images and a path to making prints with a full, rich range of tones—the range of tones for which Adams’ photographs are so famous.

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