The Zone System and the Digital Photographer

The Zone System and What it Means to the Digital Photographer

Abbe Lyle

One does not hear much about the origin of the Zone System anymore. Many of us shoot with digital cameras and no longer use a spot meter or full manual exposure mode for that matter. My advice is to take a bit of time and learn why this vital technique, formulated by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer in the late 1930’s, played such a crucial role in their work. Although the technique originated for use with black and white sheet film, the fundamental lessons can be carried through to digital work, and can help you compose for best results today.

So, let me launch in to my personal take on the Zone System, the key concepts as I see them, and how I use them in my work. When examining Ansel Adam’s amazing masterpieces, one is instantly struck by the wonderful tonal range. It is indeed this range that makes each image so amazingly famous and draws the eye to key elements. We want to control contrast, exposure and tone in our images. Because of the immense power we have to manipulate our individual works of art, with the depth of information contained in each shot and the power of our processing software, we can get lazy and trust our post processing skills for the end result. However, we have so much control with our digital cameras and we should first set about using those controls in camera. The images I have shared throughout this blog tell a story. Each image has been exposed in a calculated fashion to allow me to express my creativity. I assess the various zones prior to capture. Let’s look at the basics of the Zone System so we can understand it a little better.

Ansel Adams wrote a deeply descriptive book detailing the Zone System called The Negative, which can be found on Amazon. It takes the reader on an in-depth journey into the Zone System. For our purposes, I have made up a basic diagram, followed by a synopsis of his narrative concerning the zones.

Since we are all connected so easily to the internet, there are also plenty of sites explaining the Zone System in implicit detail. I want this blog to be more about how to have the concept in the back of your mind while out taking images. You will see 11 zones, each allocated a Roman numeral, 0 being black and X (or 10) being white, with various shades of gray in-between.  Let me explain the process in photographic terms.

We always want to measure our light values. Your camera meter is looking for common ground. It likes middle gray (or 18% gray – Zone V or 5). If you are photographing an intricate white wedding dress, the meter will be wanting to make the white of the dress 18% gray. It will cause the meter to under-expose. Conversely, if you are photographing something dark, the meter will want to over-expose; want to make the dark object 18% gray (or Zone 5). Therefore, if you leave your meter at zero it is highly likely you will end up with an image that is over or under-exposed. So how much exposure compensation should you apply? Each Zone is separated by one stop of exposure, so this makes the decision-making process easier. Imagine your white dress. The dress is bright and would most likely fall into Zone VIII (8), so you would want your exposure compensation PLUS three stops (from Zone 5 to Zone 8) to compensate for the whiteness.

Many of you may not use external light meters anymore. These meters also meter for middle-gray. However, they have the advantage of reading incident light – the light falling on the subject rather than the light reflected from the subject. Think of this in terms of sitting in the sun in a black coat. Your camera reads the amount of light reflected off the subject. In this instance, the black coat reflects little light. The light meter reads the light from the light source so, therefore not the reflected light. The external light meter is not affected by the tone. Clearly, we are getting into specifics here, but it is important to understand the difference and how it can help get a more accurate tonal image.

So as a digital photographer, if you think Zone System what should spring to mind?

  • Consideration of your exposure
  • Awareness of the tones and dynamic range in your impending image, would bracketing for post processing be useful?
  • Evaluation of accessories that could help, such as filters or fill flash

Above all, don’t allow your camera to fool you. There are many instances where extreme difference in lighting in one shot will cause your camera metering to throw out completely incorrect exposure unless you take control. Once you have the ability to look at your potential shot and divide it into different zones you are ahead of the game and more likely to capture what you want. Generally speaking, for digital photographers, concentration should be on zones III (3) through VII (7). The darkest part of your proposed composition falls into zone III while the lightest would fall into zone VII. The natural tendency is to aim for the area with average reflectance, hence collecting the optimum meter reading. It is then up to you whether to over or under expose from there.

Often, we find ourselves in a situation where our proposed image has too much contrast so we have to think about what we are looking for. I am referring to high dynamic range. It may be that bracketing is in order for some serious post-processing, or we can make a decision as we acquire the image. I would vote for protecting your highlights most of the time, unless they are not the focus of the image. Photography is always a choice, and rules are made to be broken, but the key is to know when you are breaking the rules. There are many happy mistakes, but how hard is it to go back and capture that same mistake once more?

Remember, the purely technical base of the Zone System is no longer what it was in Ansel’s day, but we can take valuable lessons from the premise. It is true that the exposure latitude is different depending upon your format. I repeat that I am writing this for the digital photographer and not those of you ensconced in the world of large format sheet film or even 35 mm film. There are many bloggers out there who deal with tonal response with respect to different formats. For those of you using film, I would highly recommend a great blog by Johnny Patience, entitled The Zone System is Dead. His blogs are always thought provoking and, as a photographer, I thoroughly enjoy his work.

A closing thought concerning Ansel Adams. While on my journey to attempt to recreate something akin to his amazing work, I became enthralled with infrared photography. I found, of course, that much of what I have referred to above needed to be manipulated in post-production, but if any of you are interested, I am happy to chat with you about working with a converted camera. I have a few blogs posted on the Life Pixel site, and have included a couple of images below. It goes without saying that I could not capture any of these images without my tried and trusted tripods from Really Right Stuff!

Abbe is Creative Director for a forensic animation company in Northern California. She has been a professional photographer for over 15 years and has taught corporate groups and individuals in the art of still photography. She also teaches drone photography classes at Maine Media Workshops + College, as well as Madeline Island School of the Arts. She is a private pilot and an advocate for the safe use of drones in her current work environment and also as a new and unique form of creative expression. 

11 Comments

  1. Great simplified explanation, keep them coming.

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  3. Keith Maurice Stamp says:

    Enjoyed your explanation of the zone system and as you say photographers today do not see or disregard the full use of using this system as in the days of Ansel Adams, a little forethought as you say in constructing your exposure and knowing where the appropriate zones are in the frame constitutes to a well composed image and the fact knowing that your image relays to the media that you have used forethought in your image exposure. As you say that this system which i also studied when i used monochrome is still beneficial to the digital photographer of today and more so with the progress of the modern digital cameras.

  4. Eric Burrows says:

    I too studied the zone system many years ago and agree that a knowledge of the system is useful in digital. I believe that using and understanding the histogram is the digital equivalent. I review the histogram after almost every shot.
    A very interesting article and lovely pictures.

  5. Quinn Kirkland says:

    First time I heard about the zone system was at a Rocky Mountain School of Photography 2 day workshop in Missoula. To be honest I was lost. Not that they didn’t do a good job but because I was brand new in photography. Your explanation now makes perfect sense. Can’t wait to try this out. Thank you!

  6. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Brilliant article. Liberally laced with doses of common sense and practical suggestions/solutions.

    Abba, I’ve rather tired of people flaunting the virtues & advantages of one particular auto exposure system over another. If I really want the shot, as a “photograph” rather than a snapshot, I get out my exposure meter and take multiple readings, from all over the scene. From that I can plan how to capture it. As you suggest – it’s a waste of time thinking you can sort it afterwards, if you don’t capture it while the image is still there in front of the camera.

    Call me a dunce, but I recently discovered in my cam a control which allegedly enables me to extend [??] the tonal range, in camera, while taking the shot. I have one in mind that I want to take in the next few days – I’m going to use it as an opportunity to test this menu item. It’s called “D-lighting” and it can apparently bring up detail in the shadows, while I still get to control the highlights & mid=tones in the normal way. Obviously has its limitations, and I suspect some of my shots WILL from time to time demand HDR & bracketing. But life is a constant process of learning (I have some claim to experience of that – I’m 75 – LOL), so I’ll give this one a try too.

  7. Andrew Westreich says:

    Nice introduction to the Zone system. I’d like to add a few points. The reason the Zone system is still relevant is because it lets you actively take control of the tonal range – you begin to tell the camera what to do rather than having the meter tell you how you should expose the image.

    In artsy terms, better control means you begin to make photographs, and not just take photographs. Photography becomes a process that more intimate connects you to the world in front of your lens. It sounds ‘fluffy’ but try it for an afternoon and see.

    Here is a simple way to begin to explore the Zone system and understand how it works. Set your camera to ‘Spot’ metering and check in the menu that you are using the smallest spot. Set your camera to use back-button focus. Set your shutter button to lock exposure on half press. (Or alternatively set your AEL button to lock exposure, leaving focus on your shutter half press, but in this case take the exposure off the shutter).

    Now here’s the fun part. Remember as Ms. Lyle explains above, your meter thinks you are exposing for Zone 5. Set your exposure compensation to +3 which means you are metering for Zone 8 – this lightest part of the image that still contains some detail. Try going outside, put the spot on some clouds (or white cloth or white flower petals) or whatever you want the lightest element in your image to be and lock the exposure. Recompose (if you want) and lock the focus and take the image. Whatever you metered your spot on will be Zone 8 and retain some detail. One of the immediate benefits is that you won’t ever blow highlights.

    Next set your exposure compensation to -3 (Zone 2). Set your spot on the darkest part of the image where you want to retain some detail and lock the exposure. Take an image and you’ll see that you still have detail there. Note that if the highlights are blown, the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the dynamic (tonal) range of your camera.

    Note also that these are just starting points. But the point is that you’ve begun to control the tonal range of your image – a significant skill in photography.

    If I’ve gotten any of this wrong, please jump in and correct me!

  8. Richard Kainzow says:

    I am sorry, but with respect, this article is both misguided and misleading for digital photographers.
    The Zone System is highly relevant only in film photography where placing tones in the appropriate place on the tonal scale determines how the image will look when output as a print.
    However, a film’s response to light is non-linear (as is the human eye’s) and corresponds to what is known as an S-shaped gamma/tone curve where the highest and lowest tones require progressively more exposure to produce an incremental increase in image brightness.
    A digital sensor behaves in a fundamentally different way. Digital exposure is linear with each stop of exposure producing a doubling of perceived brightness across the entire recordable tonal range – meaning that unlike film, no tone curve is applied which in turn, means that each F-stop records half of the light of the previous one which in turn, means that the brightest stop (the one closest to the right side of the histogram) contains 50% of all the digital data in the file. The next stop down contains 25%..and so on…which in turn, means that if you do not use the right hand fifth of the histogram you are in fact throwing away fully half of the available encoding values of your camera before you start. The exposure meter is an accurate, but very dumb instrument, essentially calibrated (from the days of film) to mid grey and takes no account of the fact that digital exposure is linear and, by extrapolation, that capturing as much data as is possible short of saturating the sensor is the only way to optimise digital exposure. It also gives the lie to those who persist in clinging to the old nonsense that the in-camera appearance of an image is, in some way, a personal, artistic or creative choice. It isn’t. It’s just throwing away valuable image data with all the penalties that accompany that choice. Optimal digital exposure is about maximising data capture. That means applying the greatest possible exposure to the sensor short of saturation/clipping. The histogram rules – and even that is misleading in that it reflects the JPEG exposure rather than the true RAW. The best RAW capture is ironically likely the one which looks utterly horrible in the camera LCD – both too bright and too flat.
    There is no Zone System in RAW digital capture. The Zone System in digital photography belongs in the realm of post-processing. Once you have as much data as the sensor can capture, you can rearrange it (and thus the Zones of the tonal range) in the editing process to your heart’s content – to correspond to whatever visualisation you want. If you fail to capture all the data, you are effectively dealing with a file depleted of information with the accompanying penalties of a truncated tonal scale, reduced detail and an increase in noise. I find it especially amusing when I read heated arguments about image quality between photographers who have, by exposing in the way you describe, unwittingly binned half their image data before they even get to look at their images.
    Control of the tonal range is as you say a significant skill, but in digital photography it’s an entirely different skill to the one required in the world of film and incident exposure meters.

    Incident meters were great for film photography but are inadequate for assessing adequate digital exposure as they cannot assess sensor saturation. They are also impractical in many situations as they require the meter to be close to the subject and facing the camera, they cannot meter for subjects which are themselves luminous, they are pretty hopeless in backlit situations and cannot be used with flash/fill flash.

    • Stig A says:

      If I understand you correctly you are speaking of “exposing to the right” in some digital sense? If so, I do concur!

  9. Silva says:

    Unfortunately I find Richard Kainzow’s article on what is commonly known as ‘exposing to the right’ to be correct. I have done a variety of courses over the years on zone system and although now obsolete has been a good grounding for understanding the camera and looking at things tonally. To understand the theory of the tonal system never goes to waste, so I would like to thank Abby Lyle for her valuable breakdown of zone for digital. However the workings of the sensor and the most data being in the high key area is an important consideration which will affect the outcome of your shot, the difference between ordinary and excellent, and what Richard says is correct.

  10. foster says:

    good post.thank you

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