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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Zone System Revisited

Ansel Adams’ system for previsualizing and controlling the tones in a photograph are every bit as relevant today as they were when he first came up with them in the middle of the 20th century

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Ansel Adams is credited with developing the Zone System in the 1940s. In the ensuing time, photography has undergone a series of monumental changes, but even today when digital dominates the photography landscape, the Zone System remains relevant, particularly if you’re going to be making black-and-white photographs. If you tend to set the camera on automatic and it has been a while since you thought about zones within a print, now is a good time to revisit the Zone System.

Zones Are Levels Of Light And Dark
The Zone System is a system by which you understand and control every level of light and dark to your best advantage. It works in digital just as it does for sheet film. Having a system allows you to understand and be in control, instead of taking whatever you get. Ansel Adams was asked in the 1950s if he thought the Zone System was still relevant in that then-modern world. He replied, “If you don’t use the Zone System, then what system will you use to know what you’ve got as you photograph?”

Adams chose to divide the range between white and black into about 10 zones. Each is an ƒ-stop apart. Color film and digital tend to have fewer workable zones than black-and-white film. The most important thing to understand is how these zones relate to one another and how they change through each step of the photographic process from capture to print.

When shooting with a digital camera, the biggest advantage of employing the Zone System is understanding what’s going on as you’re setting up the shot. You’ll start to see the scene in terms of the tonal relationships, and you’ll be able to concentrate on making evocative images instead of worrying about things like camera settings. The camera settings will come naturally.

While a spot meter is still the best tool for evaluating the scene before you make the exposure, today we have histograms and LCDs that give us a new way to use the Zone System. The histogram gives you a graphic representation of the overall tonal values in the shot. But just like with film, if you’re thinking about the Zone System, you get both the right exposure every time without guessing and you can see the tonal, or “zonal,” relationships of the elements in the frame.

How To Use Your Meter

If you’re shooting with a modern D-SLR, use your built-in meter in the evaluative mode. That mode evaluates the values in the scene as a whole and then adjusts the exposure to give you the most tones possible. You’ll need to know when to compensate for your meter a bit, but otherwise all evaluative systems incorporate the Zone System automatically.

There will be plenty of occasions when nature isn’t putting the light where you want it. The Zone System is useful here because you can fully previsualize the scene before you waste a lot of time trying to make it work. This is where your histogram can fail you, so be aware. The light might not be right, but the camera will generate an exposure that yields a histogram that would show a good range of tones. Again, the histogram fails because it can’t show you the relationship of the tones, only the range of tones that exist in the image.


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