How To Use The Zone System In Challenging Conditions

High-contrast scenes like late-winter snow and ice can be difficult to render in a photograph. Use the Zone System to get your best results.
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The natural world offers an unlimited cornucopia of subject matter for the discerning black-and-white photographer, ranging from delicate details to classic grand vistas. The display of potential compositions can oftentimes be dizzying, making the selection and cropping of any given scene very difficult. These compositional choices are perhaps the most difficult aspect of the photographic process. Technical control, while occasionally daunting, is gained through repetitious practice, and once mastered, will never abandon the photographer. The elusive and intuitive ability to see—to select powerful compositions and produce fine prints—is never guaranteed. They're always shaded with a certain amount of doubt.

The abstractions that occur in nature are wondrous and demanding, requiring an open mind and intuitive eye. As an example of a type of scene that's particularly challenging, but also rewarding, I've selected ice formations. This is an excellent time of year to photograph ice, and the late winter has a lot of variety. Ice, such a quirky subject matter, has become over many years my favorite obsession. It takes many shapes and forms, ranging from small, delicate details to large, grand views of still lakes and rivers. As with any subject, ice presents certain technical pitfalls, photographic problems that must be solved. These solutions, after being worked out, often will hold true whenever the same subject is photographed.

Solving The Tonal Range Challenge
The first technical conundrum will be the tonal range. There are often no true shadows in ice compositions, especially in details. The tonal range tends to start around Zone VI (a light gray) and run up to a bright white. While there's no rule that a black-and-white print must have darker tones, high-key prints—photos with only highlights—tend to be harsh, offering the viewer no compositional base.

Wintery conditions with snow and ice can be tricky to expose properly. Using the Zone System will help you get a handle on these sorts of high-contrast exposures. Maintaining detail in the highlights and the dark areas usually can be accomplished if you take your time and plot out the Zones properly.

This problem can be offset with the extreme flexibility offered through the Zone System. The system was developed for film, but its principles apply to digital shooting as well. With a film-based workflow, you manipulate tones within the negative through a combination of exposure and development. As an example, if there's a two ƒ-stop range between the tones in an ice scene, and if you expose and develop it normally, the final print will only contain highlights, rendering it fairly harsh and boring. By taking a meter reading of the lowest tone, which may be taken either with a spot meter or by placing an averaging meter close to the desired tone and then closing the indicated reading down two ƒ-stops, you'll effectively drop that area down two zones. If need be, the tonalities may be lowered more than two stops, and this is done by closing down more ƒ-stops.

Each drop in aperture translates into one lower zone. As a rule, you won't want to lower any given tonality more than three stops, as the shadow detail will begin to disappear. In cases where the lower tone detail isn't important, the drop in aperture may be as extreme as the scene requires.

Dropping the lower tones is the first step in spreading out the range. Raising the upper tones will finish this process, and this is achieved through development. The cornerstone of the Zone System is that exposure controls shadow densities, and development sets highlights. Cutting development depresses the highlight densities, and extended development time expands them. When a range requires spreading, a push in development is called for. Taking the recommended normal time, gradually begin to push past it, using small, incremental increases. If a normal time is 5 minutes, push the film up to 61⁄2 minutes. This will approximately equate to a one-zone push. Pushing the time up to 8 minutes will translate as a two-zone push, extending the highlights even further up the scale.

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In digital photography, the principles are the same, but the tools are different. Think of the RAW file as your digital negative. Instead of a latent image, you have an actual visible image that can be manipulated with your raw converter and Photoshop. Think back to the moment of capture. The usual rule of thumb for digital shooting is to expose to the right. In other words, make the shot as bright as possible without losing detail in the highlights. You confirm this with the histogram. If the histogram is cut off at the right, you're too bright and you need to lower the exposure. By exposing to the right, you give yourself latitude in the shadows. Digital sensors, in particular, are unforgiving in the dark areas of the frame. If there's no detail in those areas, no amount of digital manipulation will help. Your initial exposure will look too bright and a little washed out, but don't worry. You've preserved the detail in Zone VII and VIII, and you can adjust the dark areas to look right in Photoshop. Open the image in your raw converter and use the curves to adjust the dark areas and bring them down to good Zone II and Zone III tones. In film, you expose for the shadows and process for the highlights. In digital, you expose for the highlights and process for the shadows.

When a particular composition does contain a full range, from shadows to highlights, the more classic system will come into play. By picking the shadow that should have strong detail (Zone III), metering only that area and then closing down two ƒ-stops, the tone will hold detail. In most instances, the development will need to be cut in order to hold detail in the highlight, which would be a Zone VII. By lessening development times with film, you're squeezing the upper tonalities down into a range that will be printable. This type of negative will then print in a standard manner, making use of all information contained within the negative. For digital capture, simply meter the scene and evaluate the exposure on the histogram. Again, the most important thing is to prevent the highlights from being cut off on the right. If by maintaining the highlights you're losing shadow detail, you're going to have to employ a different technique by compositing two images, one exposed for highlights and one for shadows.

Zone System Basics
Every Zone in the Zone System is one stop apart from the adjacent Zone. Zone V represents "middle gray," or 18% gray. Zone IV is one stop darker and so on. Traditionally, we think of Zone II through Zone VIII as having at least some detail while Zones 0, I, IX and X have no detail. Some photographers don't use Zone 0, reducing the scale by Zone. In the digital era, we usually can coax a little more detail out of the Zones at the ends of the spectrum compared to film.

There's a third possibility that occasionally will appear: that scene where lower-end tones are missing, and if introduced, would detract from the image. While rare, the possibility exists, and the photographer should be open to recognizing it. When dealing with this situation, choose the strongest highlight, the one that should have just perceptible detail (Zone VII), and meter it. Then, open the reading up two ƒ-stops, using that as your exposure. This is turning the Zone System on its head, as you are exposing for the highlights and ignoring any other meter readings. As odd as it seems, this will give a workable, high-key image. If there are any shadows in the scene, this technique won't work, as all lower-end detail will likely disappear.

Thinking Abstractly
Composition is always frustrating and is the most difficult aspect of the photographic process. This holds true for the sorts of ice photographs shown in this article more than with most images. Cropping out extraneous elements is always good policy, but becomes of equal importance when working with abstract subjects. By eliminating anything that gives scale to an image, by cutting out anything that offers the viewer a clue to the reality of the subject, you're enhancing the sense of abstract while veiling any intrusive elements.

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In most instances, there won't be a horizon line in an ice photograph, a fact that allows the photographer to tip the camera to any degree required. This camera play will assist in cropping and will tend to emphasize the abstract nature of the composition. This holds true especially for details, but is a technique that can be applied to most images. There are no rules, allowing free play for your imagination. If it improves the photograph, you may want to tip it upside down or sideways. Initially, these details are hard to figure, defying all compositional attempts. On a recent wintry hike, I spent 45 minutes working with a small frozen pool. After making an exposure, my cropping was still too loose, so I moved in closer, eventually making a second exposure that eliminated any scale.

For more classic compositions, ice may be used as an accent within the photograph. Ice-tipped tree branches, for example, add an interesting element to what otherwise might be a mundane scene. Small patches of frozen water within a greater landscape may also add an important element, particularly when placed in the foreground. These will be more classic scenes, and you'll be using the ice as a secondary element, but it's a technique that can work well.

When It's Time To Print
When you begin printing, more decisions will come into play. During exposure, composition and development, a series of choices are made culminating in a negative of certain densities and compositional delineations. The image will contain a certain amount of information, but how this translates into the final print is very much up to the photographer. The overall contrast range must be selected, as will smaller tonal areas within the image. Whether to enhance the range or, conversely, when to compress it down, as well as dropping upper or lower tones are also important choices. The myriad technical selections will be determined completely through intuition, which is informed by a visceral reaction to the photograph. With a digital image file, you can explore manipulating the midtones easily through the use of curves. You can completely change the mood of the shot by making the mid-tones shift slightly darker or lighter. Try it, and you'll be amazed how much of a difference a small shift can make.

A viewer's eye is always initially drawn to any highlights within a photograph, a fact that emphasizes the importance of these value placements. By carefully composing a photograph of ice, balancing out the various tonalities, this type of image can be wildly successful.

Through the winters, I've always actively sought out ice formations. This is a subject that has become one of my favorites. Whether tiny little patterns in a small alcove pool or larger sections of the frozen landscape, the ice within the natural world has always intrigued me, and the photographic rewards have been generous. To paraphrase the rabbit, the water is stiff and the possibilities are endless.

Essential Gear...
To keep your gear protected in the snow, ice and rain of winter, a protective sleeve is indispensable. LensCoat makes a number of options for just about every camera and lens combination. If you want to maintain a low profile for photographing wildlife, its products are available in RealTree camouflage patterns, or you can opt for simple black, green or navy. Shown here is the TravelCoat on a Canon lens. To see the full collection of LensCoat products, go to

To see more of Steve Mulligan's work, go to


    Apparently the author of the article is unaware of a current Program, that has had the zone system for years!
    They call it EQ, for equalizer. It can divide any shot into up to 14 zones , and is very easy to use. The name is ACDSee Pro. versions 2.5, 3.0, and 5.0. It’s more user friendly than Any version of Photoshop! Check it out, it doesn’t need layers..

    Believe it or not there was a time when there was no such thing as Photoshop.

    In these ancient times a photographer had to have knowledge of not just composition but how to set the shutter speed and aperture, use of a light meter, film speed and the tonal range of that particular film, developing the film at the right and temperature to produce the intended effect, exposure and processing of the paper print with knowledge of it’s tonal range.

    Yes is it easier now to blast off a couple dozen shots on auto bracket and run the raw image through Photoshop to get a pretty picture but to those of us that took the time to learn the zone system nothing else compares when you get that perfect print.

    I am smiling at Brian K’s retort.

    I guess he is in my age bracket; around the time of “The Joy of Photography”. However, there is still enjoyment to be had with the NEW stuff. Another learning curve!!

    I’m probably older than either Brian K or Lloyd, my first “real” camera was a Thornton Pickard 1/4 plate reflex. I have studied the zone system with one of its knowledgeable practitioners. But I love digital and would not go back to film. I think that knowledge of the zone system helps when I am using Curves in Photoshop. To keep total control and to get to that perfect print I not only studied Color Management but bought a wide format printer. My prints have been thought of as either from film or to be paintings so they obviously don’t look “digital”.

    I think it was Ansel Adams that really invented the tone system. I have utilized it, and because I know of it, it helps me be a better photographer. but I tell ya what, I am glad digital came along. I won’t go back to film!

    I’m probably not the oldest one here (close, but no cigar) and I am very happy to have all the capabilities that digital brings, both in the field and in the digital darkroom. BUT … last I checked, ACDSee and CS5 were not installed on my camera, and when I am perched on the slopes of a mountain, composing that special capture, it is great to know that I nailed the exposure, thanks to having learned the Zone System back in my film days. Even if I have to bracket, I know why I have to and what to do to finish the image in the darkroom. Like they say – get it right in camera. The darkroom is for creativity, not for covering up mistakes.

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