How it works, why it works, and how to get results



An explanation on the ZONE system used in fine art black and white photography. Invented by Ansel Adams, modified and developed by George Weston. THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS

     The “ZONE SYSTEM” was essentially invented by Ansel Adams, it is how he managed to get the most effective negatives for his phenomenal photographs. Many people never read about Adams, and when they start photography, they cannot understand why they are unable to get the same results for their photographs. I will try to explain what the issues are as we go along, there are many. First of all, automatic cameras will never give you the results you are truly looking for, they cannot read minds, thus they cannot ever truly set themselves properly to take that perfect shot, they are for people on vacation, and the bottom feeding paparazzi who are only capable of point and shoot. Here is a quick break down of camera settings (these lenses referenced are for 35mm cameras, they are aprox. the same for medium format, but don’t apply to large format cameras);

  • High F-Stop number slow shutter speed equals great depth of field, everything is in focus from just before the subject out to near infinity (you don’t always want that, but for some scenes you do)
  • Low F-stop number and fast shutter speed equals only the subject focused on will be completely in focus, with a soft blur beyond that point (great for portraits)
  • Wide angle lens (18-30mm) is good for large family portraits, landscapes, some architecture (35mm film cameras)
  • Normal lenses (50mm-80mm) average human eye response to images, good general purpose lenses (35mm film cameras)
  • Telephoto lenses (90-240mm) good for portraits, distance shooting of far of targets, etc (35mm film cameras)
  • slow speed film (Asa/iso 10-50) extremely fine grain, excellent for portraits, but slow speed means you have to have allot of light or a long shutter time so it’s not very good for action except under a few rare exceptions
  • medium speed film (Asa/iso 100-200) average for fine art work, some have better resolving powers and finer grain than others, faster shutter speeds can be used with this, in moderate lighting
  • high speed film (Asa/iso 400-800) the usually for action work, you can’t enlarge from a 35mm very well without allot of grain becoming apparent.
  • very high speed film (Asa/Iso 1000-1600) extremely high speed, low light or for fast action shots with a high f-stop setting, very grainy unless shooting in a large format (4×5,5×7,or 8×10″ cameras)

     Once you have the use of shutter speed, film speed, and f-stop figured out, you be on your way to taking some very nice photos. But you still won’t get the popping highlights, and shadow detail you really want. The next biggest hurdle to tackle is gray scale. Their are essentially 10 zones of light; 0=black, 5=middle gray, 10=pure white. Your light meter in your camera, or your hand held light meter is always going to give you camera setting for zone 5 no matter what you point it at. One way around this is to purchase a gray card (8×10 carboard zone 5 card) they are less than 10$ usually at a photography store. In a composed scene you can place the card near your subject so that the light striking them will be the same light that strikes the card. Take your meter reading off the card, this is going to be truly zone 5. You must decide on where you want to place the subject matter in the zone scale, a light skinned human subject you may want to place on zone 6 or 7, while someone with a darker complexion on 4 or possible even 3 so that the finished print will accurately reflect the subject true skin tone. This can also be used to properly catch highlight reflections off morning dew on plants and flowers, or shadow details on old builds, dark places, etc. Once you have your readings on the gray card, you can then decide to shoot 1 stop slower shutter speed or 1 stop higher f-stop to place the skin tones on zone 6, or 2 stops slower or 2 stops higher for zone 7, etc.
     The one problem you’ll notice with this is that how do you use a gray card when doing telephoto shots of mountains, wild animals, etc. You don’t, you have to look through your view finder, spot meter, or light meter sight (if your’s has one) at something in the area of the subject, or on the subject that is zone 5 gray or another identifiable zone. Take a meter reading on that area, and do your exposure calculations from there. Another options is to do it the Ansel Adams way (simplified), you meter of zone 5, adj. for there for your zone 0 and take 11 photos spanning the full zone system from 0 to 10 develop your negatives, and print, decide on which one accurately portrays your subject matter, and the emotion or feeling you were trying to get from the scene.
      The true Ansel Adams way is more complicated, and I would recommend you purchase the book, “ZONE VI WORKSHOP” and thoroughly read it, but in a nutshell here is how it goes. The 11 photos you did with the zone system on encompass what can be done optically with the zone system. Mr. Adams actually did 33 negatives and developed them differently. He used 4×5 sheet film cameras, so he would do 11 negatives of his subject with the zone system, and develop them at the normal appropriate development time for his film type, and developer formulation. He would then do another 11 negatives and develop them 50% longer development time, and another 11 negatives and development 50 % shorter. This would give 3 negatives for each zone, 1 over developed by 1 stop, 1 under developed by 1 stop, and 1 right on normal development.

Excellent books on the subject:

ZONE VI WORKSHOP by Fred Picker (Amphoto books)