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

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.

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


    An absolutely terrible article. A complete waste of reading time. The author provides absolutely nothing of substance about the Zone System, the way to use it, how to evaluate scenes and what to do with a given set of zone decisions. This article smacks of the author’s ego: “Gee, I can say ‘Zone System’ and since no one will know about it, they’ll all think I’m smart.”

    Excellent article and very valuable information.
    The Dude Smith seems to have a personal issue with the autor and simply chose to show his own ignorance of photography.

    Bill Smith. From the magazine authors are allotted a finite amount of space for their article. His article wasn’t an in depth dissertation of the Zone System, for that you should purchase the book, The Negative. Obviously the magazine liked his article, they printed it.

    For those not familiar with Ansel’s Zone System the article was on the mark providing a very good quickie, general introduction. There is enough in it to whet ones interest in the subject.

    Within the constrains from the magazine if you can write a better article then write it. Sadly your comments were quite childish, unnecessary, cowardly, and very rude, add absolutely nothing of value.

    Now please go take your medication add to them a Nice Pill. Also, please don’t post here again, we don’t need your attitude.

    As editors do you not have the right to sift
    through the garbage you receive and not only
    print the range of comments received but edit
    the content to eliminate the self proclaimed
    experts who love to feed their own ego by being
    critical of others? This smith jerk would like
    us to believe he creates great photographs but
    I must wonder if he owns even a point and shoot!

    James C. Hicks

    P. S. I love any articles about Ansel Adams work!

    I agree with Bill Smith – the article is over simplified and really doesn’t tell you how to use the Zone System. And the fact is, to use it properly, you need to shoot with a large format camera, so that each negative can be developed separately depending on the light sources that day, the contrast needed, etc., etc.

    waste of space. taken from his web site, almost verbatim in places. spends no time explaining how it works or even what pre-visualization is and how to do it. given the finite space in a print magazine, something better could have been found.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve used Adams’ Zone System because since I’ve been using digital, I do much less full manual set-ups; and I don’t remember when I last pulled out my light meter. I disagree with Bill Smith that this was too simplistic, rather it is what its title says, “The Zone System REVISITED.” It certainly did whet my appetite to read The Negative again.

    From an amateur photographer standpoint, I see both sides. I have used the Zone System with film for many years. However, having recently switched to digital and still very very inexperienced, I was hoping the article would be more sustentative on how to use the Zone System in today?۪s digital age. What is the adjustment necessary on a digital camera to correspond to an increase in development time so the highlights fall where you want them to? How can you tell on a digital camera what zones the various shades of your composition will fall? My guess is that it is far to involved to explain in such short magazine space. For one with no previous knowledge of the Zone System, the article did a good job of “whetting ones appetite” which I am sure was its intention. However, once “whetted” the secrets of Zone Systen transition from film to digital remain a secret.

    I actually bought the magazine for this article. What a disappointment! At the end, I was left wondering if the author even knows what the zone system is.

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