Zone System: A Little History Lesson
First, we will start with a little history lesson. The Zone System was developed by the well known photographers Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. Ansel Adams was known for his black and white landscape photographs and Fred Archer was a portrait photographer of Hollywood. The purpose of the Zone System is to determine a framework or more systematic approach for determining exposure and development (in film) that can be replicated and also that represents the scene as the photographer visualized. In a nutshell, they wanted less trial and error when it came to their art.
Although the Zone System was developed for black and white photography, and for film, it can also be used for color and digital photography.
What is the Zone System?
The Zone System divides the tones from white (with no detail) to black (with no detail) and all of the grays in between into 11 Zones (counting 0). And of course it can also be applied to the color equivalent of the gray tone. Neutral Gray is the middle zone, which is Zone V (5). I hope everyone knows their Roman Numerals!
Why Use the Zone System?
Many people use the Zone System exclusively. Whether you know it or not, if you are using spot meter, you are using the Zone System. Caucasian skin is metered around Zone VI (Zone 6 or +1 on your in camera meter). So, if you take pictures of people, and you meter off of the skin, you are using the Zone System. Of course we meter and adjust accordingly to get the perfect exposure. For skin on my kiddos, I meter around Zone VI. The best exposure for this little guy is about Zone VI -1/3 of a stop.
***For this post, SOOC image is unadjusted in ACR default settings (Blacks 5, Brightness 50, Contrast 25)
I meter for the skin when I am taking portraits, because the skin the most important area to me to get perfect in camera. There are always exceptions when you might under or overexpose by a little to retain detail in another part of the image. Using the Zone System helps me out the most when I’m shooting an image that does not have a person in it. While some people use the Zone System exclusively (meaning, in all images including portraits), I only use it when I am stumped at where to begin with my metering. The point is, if you have the zone you are metering for properly exposed (and white balance is good), exposure for everything else will fall into place.
The Zones Defined
There are 11 “zones” of print. When metering, you’ll basically only use the 5 middle zones. I’ll start by explaining all 11 zones, then go into the 5 useful zones in more detail.
Zone 0 (0)– Black, no detail or texture
Zone I (1)– A slight step above pure black, again no texture or tonality.
Zone II (2)– Black but with first hint of texture.
Zone III (3)– Very dark tones that shows visible texture. Includes black, dark brown, navy, and includes detail. Foliage in the shade, dark wet wood, dark rocks in rivers/streams, dark fur in animals. Will read -2 on in-camera meter.
Zone IV (4)– Royal blue, purple, burgundy, dark red, and dark green. Evergreen trees, deep blue sky, fairly dark skin, dark stone, landscape shadow. Will read -1 on in-camera meter.
Zone V (5)-This is middle gray. 18% Gray card, average blue sky How to Meter Using the Sky, medium red, green, blue (think primary colors), dark orange, most grass, medium skin tones. Reads “0” on in camera meter.
Zone VI (6)– Average Caucasian skin tone, most pastel colors, fog, light blue sky. Will read +1 on in-camera meter.
Zone VII (7)– White with detail, white fur, white clouds, white sand, snow, whites in running water. Will read +2 on in-camera meter.
Zone VIII (8)– Whites with little detail, bright white snow in bright sun, highlights on Caucasian skin.
Zone IX (9)– White without texture, approaching pure white.
Zone X (10)– Pure white. No detail or texture.
How do I use the Zones in practice?
1. Set your camera to Spot Meter.
2. Determine what Zone you will be metering off of and go ahead and spot meter off of that area.
3. Dial in the exposure according to the charts below.
4. Double check your exposure by checking the histogram, checking blinkies, or by chimping (whatever method you normally use) and adjust accordingly by 1/3 stops.
This will be different for Nikon and Canon users because the in-camera meter is set up differently.
For Nikons, the meter goes from +……..0………-
For Canon and Other users, the meter goes from -…….0…….+
Regardless whether your meter goes from positive to negative or negative to positive, the Zones are the same.
Zone III 3 = -2
Zone IV 4= -1
Zone V 5= 0
Zone VI 6= +1
Zone VII 7= +2
Below are visuals for both Nikon and Canon/Other:
So, in metering, we usually meter for the blackest blacks or the blown whites, so the most important zones to look for are Zones III-VII (3-7). Although if you want to double check you aren’t blowing whites, or clipping blacks in an important part of your image, you may want to check your meter in those areas. As far as a jumping off point, it is best to go with Zones III-VII.
Disclaimer: This isn’t a “perfect” chart, but it is a visual to give the jest of it. And every camera may not shoot the same. If you choose to starting using the Zone System exclusively, you may want to play around with resetting your meter so that it lines up better with the Zones.
I have found using the Zone System most useful when photographing animals, landscapes, and macro.
Here are a few examples of images where I used the Zone System:
This is my dog Sanford. He is very dark brown almost black. Because he is furry, the dark brown has texture. So I metered off of his forehead and placed my meter at Zone III and -2 on the meter. I then took a picture and chimped (looked at my LCD and histogram) and moved my meter +1/3 a stop. These are my SOOC and edited versions.
Here is an example using the blue sky (Zone V):
For my kids’ skin, I normally use their skin. I usually over expose by +2/3 of a stop. Just as an example for this tutorial, I exposed for his pajamas at Zone V 5 or “0”.
As with everything else in photography, this will take a little practice to understand it. I recommend walking around the house, spot metering different objects in different light and determining what Zone it will fit into.
I hope this is helpful to those just starting out in using Adams’ and Archer’s Zone System. It is a great tool to have when double checking settings or in tricky situations. Thanks for reading!
Here area a couple of books I recommend reading if you would like a more in depth look at the Zone System.
The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography – Book 1
This one is on my “To Buy” list:
The Digital Zone System: Taking Control from Capture to Print