The Zone System Opened My Eyes

Image by @jessechilders
Most photographers have at least passing familiarity with Ansel Adams exposure process called the Zone System

Adams developed the system for the sake of ensuring effective exposure, both during the shooting process the development and printing processes.  In particular, the Zone System aided Adams in assessing the tonal range of a given scene, and in selecting an exposure that would best serve that range at all stages of the production process.  This was particularly important with his use of large format film, with its reliance on hand-held light metering and a limited dynamic range.

I was introduced to the Zone System by Douglas Dubler, who worked with Ansel Adams and later helped to design the Zone System tool in Nik's Silver Efex Pro.

Zone Scale
This article does not explain the Zone System.  I have only a rudimentary understanding of it myself, and there are countless resources available for that.  I highly recommend this as a starting point.

Image by @mattdayphoto

For purposes of this article, all you need to know is that Ansel was faced with the choice of losing some highlight detail or losing some shadow detail in most of his photographs.  As a result, he needed to carefully analyze a scene to decide where he wanted to take that loss.  The zone system greatly assisted him in doing so by forcing him to put each element of the scene into a tonal category before he made the image.  Ansel would choose from a range of potential exposures, making the choice based on the elements of the scene that were most critical to the image and for which preservation of detail was indispensable. 

Image by @pututti
In the digital age, we have on-board meters, histograms, camera monitors that give us instant feedback on our exposure choices, and sensors with staggering dynamic range.  Obviously, I love these tools.  But I did not realize what they were taking from me until I began to shoot some film again (I’m old enough to have started shooting in the film “era”) and decided to explore the Zone System in connection with that.

With digital tools, we tend to assess a scene from a global perspective, as if there is only one “correct” exposure for the whole scene.  This tendency toward static scene analysis is not forced upon us.  The tools give us options such spot metering, etc.  But histograms and camera monitors dominate the process, and these are not geared toward an assessment of selected areas of a scene.  They encourage us to look for a neutral “correct” exposure of the entire scene.

Why should we care about this?  What difference does it make so long as we get a usable exposure from which highlights and shadows can be recovered in post?  After all, we don’t face the same dilemma that Ansel faced.  We can likely recover both highlights and shadows so long as our exposure is reasonably neutral.

Image by @nickexposed
It matters because an assessment of the tonal range of a scene is critical to deciding whether that scene will make a good photograph at all.  Correct exposure does not make a good photograph.  Tonal range and variety make a good photograph.  The human eye is attracted more by contrast than by the subject of the photo.  A high contrast image of a dull subject will elicit more of an emotional response than a flat image of a dynamic subject.

Image by @goldandimage_photo
Consider the images from the Ilford Instagram feed featured in this post.  I selected them by simply scanning through the feed and stopping on the ones that arrested my attention most immediately. 

All of the images in the feed are excellent, which is why Ilford featured them.  But the ones I included for this post all contain elements with sharply differing tonal values, which is why they stopped me in my scrolling.  My eyes are drawn much more quickly to them than the other images in the feed.  To my eyes, these images are the cream of the crop.   

Because these images have such wide tonal variation, Ansel Adams would have been forced to consider each element carefully.  He would have had to make a choice about which elements he wanted to feature, and about which elements could not lose any detail in processing. 

Image by @bojanfurst

As a result of his having to assess tonal variety so carefully, I’m willing to bet Ansel Adams rejected many subjects simply because he did not see enough tonal variety in them.  And, as a result, he produced consistently stunning images.

Image by @_georgepark_

For my own part, I have seen a dramatic shift in the way I assess scenes since learning some very basic information about the Zone System, and I plan to learn more.  The system is not just about "correct" exposure.  The system is part of a broader approach to seeing and previsualizing excellent images.

This has also carried over to my post-processing.  Here are a few tools I have discovered on that score.

YouTube videos about Photoshop Zone System plug ins, etc.

A word about images featured in this post:  Because Ilford featured these images in its Instagram feed, and because the artists featured had similarly posted the images and tagged Ilford, I have assumed that Ilford and the featured artists would permit and welcome my featuring them here so long I give proper attribution.  I invite Ilford and any of the featured artists to ask me to remove some or all of the images if this assumption was incorrect (which I will do immediately).  I can be reached here:

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