The Zone System : LUSENET : Black_and_White_Photography : One Thread

The Zone System... I've heard it mentioned a hundred times, but have no idea what is involved. Could somebody give me a brief synopsis of Ansel's theory and point me in the direction of a good book which will explain it in detail? (Perhaps this is why I have no contrast in my prints)

-- Anonymous, January 27, 1997


Michelle: A very (!) brief explanation of the zone system is that your camera's meter will give you the reading for average gray (Zone V). If you want white (Zone I), you will have to open the aperture or use a longer time. If you want black (Zone IX) you will have to close the aperture or use a shorter shutter time. That's very brief. Ansel's own books The Camera, The Negative, and The Print can explain the whole process. Good luck!

-- Anonymous, January 27, 1997

RE: Zone system

Have a look at:


-- Anonymous, January 29, 1997

Perhaps an easier-to-understand book that explains the Zone system very well is Fred Picker's Zone VI Workshop... if you do the tests he suggests. Good hunting! Steve

-- Anonymous, February 02, 1997

Why use it at all?

When I went to school many moons ago we were strictly taught the zone system and to be honest I found it stifling. It took my attention away from subject, composition and creativity to achieve the technically perfect print, if there is such a thing. So I don't use the formal zone system at all opting instead to using photographic common sense. Ansel Adams used it successfully for his landscapes, it's true, but for on the fly shooting it doesn't quite cut it. When I'm shooting fast and furious I can't be bothered with wondering if I'm in the "right" zone. It's the same in the darkroom. Sometimes I like to print in a fast and furious way and just can't be bothered. If I end up with an image I had in mind when shooting then for some the zone system may just be simply translated to another way of thinking and seeing. For me strict adherence to rules is not good for the creative process. I'm really interested in hearing what you all think of this since I know it's not a popular way of thinking amoung technical photographers.

-- Anonymous, February 13, 1997

Re: Why use it all?

I agree chuck, I like to make the mechanical aspects as automatic as I can. This way I can concentrate on the image. My way involves metering the lightest area in the photo and placing that area on zone 8 (opening up 3 stops). This can be done quickly in any one of several ways such as alteration of film speed, a sticker on the meter dial, etc. It all involves a little testing to get the numbers close (film speed, dev times, etc) and then tweaking them to get to the negative densities you like to print with. No magical formulas, just some planning a little work, and paying attention to your results

-- Anonymous, February 21, 1997

Zone system-reasons to learn it

Using the zone system does indeed take some thought, so it can feel like it gets in the way especially at the beginning. However, learning what it is and how to use it helped me understand how meters work (both spot and wider-area lenses like my thru-the-lens), how to take control of my photographs rather than being hostage to my camera's meter, and why. Clearly one can do those things w/o the zone system, but it gave me a systematic way in which to understand exposure, lighting, contrast, etc., and how to control the lighting in my photos. It's most useful if you use sheet film and can vary development of every negative to control contrast during development.

Actually using the zone system is easiest when time is no object so that you can meter several areas, decide on zone placement of shadows, etc. But even if you do street photography or other "fast shooting" the ideas will help you understand how and why to alter exposure from your meter's reading to get the photo you want, not the one the camera wants to give you. I would recommend anyone doing B&W (and color!) to learn the ideas even if you don't implement the zone system in your own work.

-- Anonymous, February 13, 1997

Well Said Cindy

I think what you put in words is what I was trying to say. I also think that the zone system has taught me to think in a photographic common sense way. In other words, maybe I use the zone system without thinking of it as such. I rarely shoot in automatic mode using instead the meter for ballpark and adjusting "accordingly". When shooting, though, I don't literally think "what zone am I in". Over the years it has seemed to come naturally.

-- Anonymous, February 14, 1997

Zone System - Break the Rules

I fully agree with the reasons for knowing the Zone Systems and its application. Knowledge of the basic rules of exposure is a must if you are to be successful. I would like to add, though, that knowing the rules and how to use them also allows you the break the rules with positive effects. Many great photos have been created that don't even look like the Zone System existed, but I'm sure the photographer knew the System very well.


-- Anonymous, February 16, 1997


That's a great point (about breaking the rules). It's part of the "gaining control" I mentioned above, rather than accepting the photo the camera's meter wants to give you.

Before I understood the zone system I felt like I had to do what the meter told me. When I learned it I felt I had to do what the zone system told me. Now I'm trying to get past that obedience as well in order to experiment in certain situations by breaking those rules. But, rather than blind experimentation I have an idea of what I want and how to get it. I'm glad you explicitly pointed out that breaking the rules can be a good thing.

-- Anonymous, February 17, 1997

Zone System

I just read the discussion on the zone system. I have arrived at the similar conclusions as Cindy did. Experimenting with the zone system helped me to understand the photographical process as a whole from film exposure to print. I don't regret having spent a lot of time and material, but now I really know what I am doing. I don't "break" any rules since I have developed my own ones. And they differ depending on whether I use 35 mm or large format. I would encourage every one who is serious about photography to use the theory of the zone system as a starting point to eventually arrive at a controlled process. Those who are not prepared to go the hard way should keep their hands off the zone system.

-- Anonymous, March 15, 1997

More about the Zone System

Michelle, I was in your exact situation three months ago, and then I bought a copy of the book Steve mentioned, "The Zone VI Workshop" by Fred Picker. I would also recommend this book. If you can't wait, here's a synopsis of the theory.

Camera meters don't know how dark/light your subject really is. To solve this problem, camera manufacturers calibrate their meters to an average grey (what Ansel called Zone V). Actually, this doesn't solve the problem, but it does get the exposure into the ballpark for scenes of average brightness.

Fred demonstrates the shortcomings of this system by photographing a white horse at the meter's suggested exposure. The result is a GREY horse because the camera meter always exposes for medium grey. Next he photographs a black horse and the meter gives him another grey horse for the same reason! The meter isn't lying, it just doesn't know any better.

The photographer is the one that knows better and can use the Zone System (or similar common sense) to adjust exposure based on the meter reading AND how bright or dark you want your subject to look. You gain more control over your image, reduce blocked highlights, improve shadow detail, and gain a feeling of freedon from your meter!

-- Anonymous, March 07, 1997

Zone system

Zone system is a method of correlating the exposure range of your subject with the gray scale of a black & white print. For argument's sake, let's say that a normal neg/normal print combo has range of 5 zones (or 5 f-stops) The would be from Zone III (the darkest gray showing some little detail) to zone VIII (the whitest gray showing some little detail). You meter the scene to see if you have that 5-stop (5 zone) range that will give you a "normal" neg.

When you use a reflectance meter (such as a spot meter or the meter inside a camera), whatever you point the meter at in the subject is put at mid gray (Zone V) by the meter. That's the way the meter is designed to work.

If you point the meter at something very bright, the meter thinks its looking at mid gray and if you were to shoot at the indicated exposure, that white object would print at mid gray. So, you must adjust your exposure so that white comes out white.

Each zone of the Zone system has a gray value. White with detail is said to be at Zone VIII. Each Zone also equals one f-stop of change from the next or previous zone.

So, to get that white object at Zone VIII, knowing that the meter has placed it at Zone V, you need to open your lens 3 zones (zone V up to Zone VIII) or to pur it another way, open your lens 3 stops.

Let me know if this is clear or not.


-- Anonymous, April 17, 1997

Zone System

Well, yes that is clear. But isn't it much more than this too?

It is said the Ansel could previsualize to such a degree that he knew before shutter release EXACTLY what the image would look like and on what paper he would need to print it for it to look that way. So the Zone System is a complete system that requires precise knowledge of the film/developer/paper/developer relationship. Ansel could (it is said) change the way the trees looked against the sky if he did not like what he saw. Ansel was a true technician. Very few photographers are going to go the lengths he would go to "get the shot". m-p

-- Anonymous, June 25, 1997

The Zone System is a great tool...if it's for you. And if you can take interesting pictures with it. I've seen oodles of technically perfect large format photos that were so *dull*... (Paging Fred Picker?) You seem like you're at the point where you need to get the basics straight. If your prints don't have enough contrast, forget about the Zone System. Either increase your film development time, decrese your ISO speed, or print on a higher grade paper...depending on where the fault lies.

-- Anonymous, May 24, 1997

Zone System

Peter, lighten up, the system is only a tool. Like a wide angle lense. Education is hardly ever a bad thing. The Zone System doesn't kill photographys people kill photographs.

-- Anonymous, June 25, 1997

I have found a way to extend the zone system, neccessity being the mother of invention, due to the limitations of my equipment, You see, I own a Nikon EM, a rather ancient piece of equipment which automatically sets the shutter speed to the aperture. Changing the aperture to try to create blacker blacks and whiter whites doesn't work on this particular camera, since the resulting exposure remains--surprise surprise--18% gray. I found a workaround which works well--I adjust the ISO ring on the camera to higher and lower settings, "fooling' the meter into adjusting the exposure. I had to experiment a bit with the effective settings, but now I can essentially get a multitude of zones to work with. With this method, I really had to think about what approximate zone the elements of the scene fall into, but now it's second nature to me.

-- Anonymous, June 22, 1997

Zone System

Gerry, good job, I do the same for a different reason I like to overexpose and use auto exposure so I lie to the camera about film speed.

-- Anonymous, June 25, 1997

Very few responses mention the developement side of the zone system....wonder why since it is 50% of the process? In a nutshell place your exposure to get proper shadow exposure, and (here's the part no one mentioned) develope accordingly so your highlights are correct. Just as you vary your meter to get a proper exposure, a zone system user varies development time to properly develope the high tones.

By the way, it's a straightfoward process that you can learn in a single afternoon. It really doesn't deserve the contoversy it gets.

-- Anonymous, July 09, 1997

"response to Zone System, per Peter

Peter, I agree and disagree, I guess it is simple if you already have a complete understanding of the camera and darkroom. Don' you think "The Zone System" would generally be taught in "Advanced Lab Techniques"? But what is certainly true is that it is simple to and advanced student. And a "Readers Digest" version can be used by even the most "technically challenged" photographer. m-p

-- Anonymous, July 25, 1997

simply put : the zone system is an organized way toward pre-visualization, instead of wasting your efforts through trail and error. Every posting that spoke against this system basicallly advocated sensitometry to take its place.(isnt this what the zone system is anyway?)

Having total control of your craft does not hinder the creative aspect, but frees it. If you attempt to create without any ability to carry out a particular vision, then you are not creating art, you are having "happy accidents"---is creativity lost when the painter knows how to choose his/her brush, or how to mix his/her paints to get a desired effect?, no of course not. To say that the zone system doesn't work just because it doesn't work for you seems to me to be a bit egotistical.

-- Anonymous, February 09, 1998

Moderation questions? read the FAQ