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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

Sierra Foothill Flowers: The first version of this image was blended from five different exposures, each one stop apart, using Photomatix software in its HDR Tone Compressor mode. While there’s detail in the extreme values, the midtones— especially the flowers— appear flat and lifeless. The second image was merged manually in Photoshop with layers and layer masks. This method retained all the local contrast in the bottom two-thirds of the image because the blending only occurred near the top of the frame. The result is a crisper, livelier photograph.

Software Solutions
There are a number of software packages that help you manipulate your images using the Zone System. For example, the Ozone filter in Dfx Digital Filter software uses proprietary algorithms to divide the spectrum of the image into 11 zones, each of which can be precisely and independently adjusted. Download a free trial copy at the website: www.tiffen.com/dfx_v2_home.html.
High Dynamic Range, or HDR, uses complex algorithms to combine different exposures and capture detail in highlights and shadows. Exposure Blending takes sections of different images and fuses them together. This could be as simple as using the sky from one photograph and the foreground from another or could involve merging pieces of many images.

I find that Exposure Blending usually produces more natural-looking results than HDR and retains local contrast better, but there are exceptions, so I often try both techniques. For automated exposure blending, Photomatix’s Exposure Fusion option and L/R Enfuse are consistently excellent, but I usually can do a little better by merging the images manually in Photoshop.

Michael Frye’s latest book is Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, published by Focal Press. Visit www.michaelfrye.com.

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