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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.

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White Subject, Vernal Fall, Yosemite: A spot meter reading off the most important highlight, the white water, indicated 1⁄125 sec. at ƒ/11. A white subject like this is a perfect candidate for Zone 7, so I opened the aperture two stops to ƒ/5.6, placing the water on Zone 7—light, but not washed out. (An in-camera spot meter should indicate +2.0, or two stops of overexposure, for Zone 7, as shown here.)
Zone System Exposure For Digital Cameras
The Zone System requires a spot meter and full manual exposure mode. While a handheld spot meter is preferable, you can make do with your camera’s built-in spot meter mode. If you’re using the camera’s spot mode, try metering with a telephoto lens to narrow the metering coverage appropriately. The simplest approach concentrates on highlights and ignores shadows.

Start by picking the most important highlight—the brightest significant part of the scene that needs to have detail and texture. Then decide what zone that highlight should be. There are really only two choices. Zone 5 isn’t a highlight, it’s a midtone, while Zone 8 is washed out. So that leaves Zone 6 or Zone 7. Use Zone 7 for objects that are white or nearly white, like white water, snow, light sand or very light rock. Use Zone 6 for any other highlight, including tans, yellows or other pastel colors.

Next, spot-meter the highlight you’ve chosen. Make sure the whole spot is filled with a consistent tone; you don’t want a mixture of light and dark areas. To make the highlight Zone 6, increase the exposure by one stop from your meter reading. To make it Zone 7, increase the exposure by two stops. In other words, if the meter indicates 1⁄125 sec. at ƒ/16, lower the shutter speed to 1⁄60 sec. to make that highlight Zone 6 or 1⁄30 sec. to make it Zone 7. (You could change the aperture instead, of course.) Or, while pointing an in-camera spot meter at the highlight, just turn either the shutter speed or aperture dial until the exposure scale indicates one stop of overexposure (+1.0) for Zone 6 or two stops of overexposure (+2.0) for Zone 7.

Autumn Aspens: Applying An S-Curve For Contrast. The original RAW file of these autumn aspens looked flat, but a sharp S-curve increased the contrast and brought it to life.


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