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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

Labels: How-To
What do you do if the lightest and darkest parts of the scene are beyond the range of your D-SLR, typically +/- 2 or 3 stops? Simple: You have to change the lighting somehow. If you have a very high-contrast scene, there’s no correct exposure and you’ll never get what you want. You can use filters to help reduce contrast or enhance it if you wish. For example, a bright sky and dark foreground can be softened by using a split ND filter to bring down the sky.

This is where many photographers get lost: Exposure can’t correct for bad light. Actually, nothing can fix bad light. You have to wait for it. Photography takes patience.

Some people try to use Photoshop to tweak and compensate for crummy light. It’s like trying to burn down blown-out areas in a darkroom. It’s never going to work. It’s much better to “fix” the light.

With film, you would soften contrast during development of the negative by using special chemicals or by increasing and decreasing development time. With digital, we can use camera controls to change the contrast and to an extent we also can change contrast in Photoshop. Using Photoshop to alter contrast isn’t ideal, though, because you can end up losing image data, which ultimately can reduce image quality when you go to print.

Adams’ Zone System included 10 zones from blackest black to whitest white. Today, we only get about seven (some say even fewer). Adams got 10 by using various film-processing and film-rating techniques. We can extend our number of zones with Photoshop, but we probably won’t get back to the 10 of black-and-white film.

Using the Zone System still matters today. Although fewer and fewer photographers seem to be familiar with it, the philosophy behind the system translates very well to digital photography. Particularly when you’re shooting for black-and-white photographs, you’ll find that the Zone System enables you to fully previsualize the scene. You then can control the exposure and know up front where you might want to enhance things in Photoshop later. All in all, you become a much more efficient photographer and maybe even a better one.

To see Ken Rockwell’s photography and read more of his articles, visit his website at www.kenrockwell.com.

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