Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Another Look at the Zone

Smithfield Alley, 2011

Early on in my study of photography I read about the Zone System. No matter how I approached it, though, I never quite got the gist of it. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it took me a long time to figure out how to make good exposures in my photographs.
Ansel Adams and Fred Archer developed the Zone System in the late 1930s as a way for photographers to learn to recognize all the shades of light in any given scene and use this knowledge to make exposures that accurately reflected the way the photographer wanted to interpret the scene.
That's a very simple way to describe a much more thoughtful and complex system. It goes without saying that photographers always have to be cognizant of light and shadows. The value of the Zone System is that it conditions the photographer to be cognizant of not just the direction of light and purest blacks and the purest whites in any scene, but to recognize the eight other gradations, or zones, in between. There are ten zones in the Zone System, with each step in the process not coincidentally one f-stop more or less than the one before it (depending on whether you’re going from light to dark or dark to light.
I understood that much of the Zone System. But photographers like Adams were famous for being painstaking in setting up their shots. They’d spent hours setting up their giant box cameras. They’d wait weeks for the weather or clouds to be just right. They had all the time in the world to think about the light. Unfortunately, that wasn’t at all like the observational and street photography I was doing.
I wasn’t the only one to find the Zone System cumbersome and time consuming. Lots of photograhers felt that way about it. Instead, they "exposed for shadows and printed for highlights," which means they set their exposures for the darkest part of a scene in order to capture details in the dark areas and then adjusted the exposure of printing and alternately dodged and burned to accomodate the details in the highlights. The beauty of this system was that if you did it correctly, you not only had good exposure, but also excellent balance of light.
These days, between intelligent cameras and tools like Photoshop, it’s a lot easier for the layman to get a good exposure. The automatic exposure features of most cameras take reflected exposure readings at a number of locations in the frame. You can still play with exposure manually, but most people don’t. The technology covers a multitide of sins, and I have the sneaky feeling that photography teachers who tell their students they’re slackers if don’t do everything manually are just being pretentious, making something that should be fun and enjoyable into something that only makes you feel bad about your performance.
Still, I do believe it’s a good idea and a fundamental aspect of getting good exposure—whether you do it in the camera or in Photoshop—to be aware of the lights and darks and all the gradations inbetween. I took the picture above with the idea that there might be a story in it. But it turns out the only story is about all the shades of light and dark in it. How many zones can you identify?


  1. I guess I think of it as "values." I wasn't familiar with the zone system, so thanks for the education! Love the shadows here.

  2. I studied the Zone system and never got it, just as I can't really understand how people with perfect pitch hear a distinct difference in, say, a D note and an E, and wouldn't confuse one with the other anymore than I would confuse red with blue. Still like composing in the camera, and strumming the guitar . . . !