The white are white…the black are black…and in between we do have plenty of grays! In my previous post, I talked about instinct and said that according to the Zen principles, when taking a picture, we had to forget our brain, at least the left hemisphere, and let the eye intuitively composes the frame and defines the camera settings.
Ansel Adams’s Zone System appears to be the opposite of such intuitive approach. For him, a picture had to be properly composed and nearly scientifically exposed. The exception will prove the rules! So, let’s talk about the exception.
I have to admit that I spent quite some time on studying the Zone System. I read books, I read articles, I scratched my head, I watched videos, I used a spotmeter and a notebook to record the settings, I scratched my head again…and at the end, I realized two things. First, the Zone System is definitely an incredibly powerful tool, useful even for modern digital photographers, but also, that there were very few easily understandable articles about the Zone System! So let’s follow the famous Keep It Simple Stupid, KISS principle, and dive into the famous Zone System theory. My goal in this post is to separate the wheat from the chaff and to write the easily understandable method I would have loved to read instead of scratching my head… Do not hesitate to comment and tell me if improvements can be made to improve the clarity of the post…
At first, let’s talk a little about the history of the Zone System. In the ancient times, photographers used films, some kind of gelatin stuff mixed with light-sensitive silver particles, and lightmeters. No AUTO mode during the glorious times of large format photography!.
More seriously, in the 40s Ansel Adams and his colleague Fred Archer were concerned by the difficulty to faithfully reproduce the reality they looked at and were willing to capture with their huge cameras. They were looking for a way to scientifically pre visualize a scene. As an example, let’s look at Ansel Adams’s snake river picture. He might have said: OK, I want the light behind the mountain to be really white, the trees in the front to be really black but I also want to preserve texture. How do I manage to record such different tonalities when I know that my meter will averaged everything in some kind of middle gray stuff. Yes! We know that a lightmeter is only recording middle grey. If under the same lightning we shot 3 pieces of paper: one pure black, one grey, one pure white- and use a lightmeter to define the settings of each individual paper, we will end up with 3 middle gray shots. Lightmeters record middle gray and middle gray only! This is key to understand. Unfortunately or hopefully, the world is far from being in middle gray only. The take home message is that we cannot trust our lightmeter and that we have to adapt the readings to what our eyes really see and to what our brain really wants to capture. Here comes the Zone System! Initially developed for films, it is easily transferable to digital sensors.
Basically, apart from the issue with the “gray” metering systems, the other limit photographers have to cope with is the limited dynamic range of the film/sensor when compared to the human eye. The dynamic range represents the scale of tonality from the darkest – regarded as pure black- to the brightest -regarded as pure white- in an image. When looking at a scene, the eye can dynamically adapt, grab parts of the pictures and let the brain recompose the image. The human eye dynamic range is assumed to exceed 24 f-stops! You will say that this is not fair game to compare a dynamic system, the eye, to a single static shot apparatus, the camera. We are not talking about HDR right! OK to be fair, let’s compare static eyes to static cameras and even then the dynamic range of the eye is anywhere between 10 to 14 f-stops ! What is the average dynamic range of a camera? Well, if we want to keep the details, let’s say around 5 stops! That a huge difference and it explains why we really have to concentrate on the metering in order to best reproduce what we see with our million years of evolution eyes.
Ansel Adams et al. brillant idea was to divide a scene into 11 zones, from pure white to pure black -from zone 0 to zone X-. What is also key to understand is that with digital cameras we only have 5 zones to deal with, so 5 stops!
Let’s assume that we want to make a picture of a snowy mountain. If we meter for the snow, we will of course get a middle gray -zone 5- exposure reading. But, we do not want the snow to be grey, we want it to be white -zone 7-. Between zones 5 and 7, we do have a 2 stops difference. If we then want to obtain a perfectly white snow and also preserve some texture, the trick is then to open up 2 stops and to add 2 stops to the metered reading.
Another example! Imagine that we are shooting Mephisto, our nice coal-black cat. Mephisto is black, right! We certainly do not want him to turn middle gray. We want his black fur to stay in zone 3 and not in zone 5. When compared to the snowy mountains, this is just the opposite. Instead of shooting for zone 5, we will close down the aperture 2 stops and Mephisto will turn black again.
It is really key to precisely metter the scene. Use an external spotmeter or the spot metering setting of your camera.
So to summarize, here is the Zone System checklist.
1. Select a portion of the scene to meter. For digital cameras, better to use the highlight part.
2. Decide where you want to place the selected portion according to the zones. Most of the time, use the most important part of the scene. For our snowy mountain example, the snow was in zone 7. Remember that when using a digital camera, highlight areas with details should be placed no higher than zone 7
3. Meter the selected portion.
4. Determine the final exposure by adjusting the aperture in regards to zone 5.
Of course, the easiest method to get full dynamic range is to bracket and to use an HDR software. We all know that HDR are not looking really natural…even if the realistic mode is selected. On the top of that, Zone System is so fun to practice and it is always much more gratifying to get a correctly exposed shot right from the start instead of wasting hours in postprocessing….
After the KISS Zone System, I will talk in another post about the use of the Zone System for color pictures and for complex scenes such as a black woman wearing a white dress and walking in a dark environment….Stay tuned!
- BARNBAUM B. (2010) The Art of Photography. Rockynood Ed.
- LONDON B, STONE J, UPTON J. (2011) Photography. Pearson Ed.
- BAIDA PE, BERTHOLDY P, CEGRETIN M. (1993) Le Zone Système. Les Cahiers de la photgraphie Ed.
- FREEMAN M. (2009) Michael Freeman’s Perfect Exposure. Pearson Ed.
- FRYE M. (2009) Digital Landscape Photography: In the footstep of Ansel Adams. The Ilex Press Ltd. Ed