Using the zone system for digital photography

I've just finished writing down my thoughts on adapting Ansel Adams' Zone System for digital photography and putting them up on my website.

After a lot of trial and (mostly) error, I found that the Zone System is just as useful with digital as it is with film. However, shooting digital is different from shooting film. This meant that some old rules of thumb (e.g. "expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights") had to be reformulated, and that some new rules of thumb (e.g. Micahel Reichmann's "expose (to the) right") is no substitute for using a spot meter.

9 responses:

Levels control

first, hello and thank you for article on the zone sytem. I have been hunting all over the internet for help on using the zone system within a digital environment and your article is excellent (thank you).

I understand in principle all that you have said in relation to the zone system. However, I have one question in reference to you article.(See below)

Extract from your article:

"After you've finished adjusting the image in ACR, use the levels control in Photoshop to place shadow detail in the zone we want them to be"

My Question:
Have I read this wrong? Is this simply a case of moving the black levels control slider (on the left) to the right? If so, how do you judge how far to the right?. (I assume you keep an eye on the input range) And that in principle you only need to do this when the dynamic range exceeds 9-10 zones?

I am sure you are very busy but if you can find a moment to reply I would be greatful as I am passionate about trying to use the zone system succesfully!

For info: I use a Nikon D200, the latest sekonic L758DR light meter (check out sekonic.com as it can be calibrated to your digital camera.) and Nikon Capture NX with Adobe Elements 5.

Best wishes

Spot meters

Excellent article!

Thank you very much for this very good, informative and comprehensive article on the zone system for digital photography.

I only have one question:
being a novice on the zone system I read and started experimenting with it after reading your article.

The first thing I noticed (and was very disapointed) was how large is my in camera (canon 5D) spot meter (3.5% of view finder). Isn't that too big in many occasions where you have medium-small details you want to control exposure on?

Is there a good reason why high-end cameras don't come with a small (even 1° equivalent) spot meter in it?

Thank you.


thanks for this great article …

as a longtime 'zoner' … spot meter, b/w film [normally 25/50 asa] hand processed and finally, a 24 x 36 inch bromide print, with perfect shadow and highlight detail … your article seems like second nature.

however, for me as a newbie to raw and lightroom, your article was an immensely fresh bowl of digital info.

i have, until now, been successfully 'developing' my raw files, and making great b/w prints [100 x 700cm and 70 x 50 cm] [in inches, that's 39x27 and 27x19].

my results are starting to match those of my old b/w prints.

your article, with it's links, has opened a digital perspective on the zone system … thanks for sharing.


Great Article

I just gave in intro talk on how one might use the zone system, and your paper is the advanced version of the ideas I had developed after reading The Negative and other material. I was sure there was a good analogy between the film and digital process, especially altering the results by developing or software. Your description is excellent. Nice work.

Exposure-response curves

Hello, and thank you for this very useful article.
I have made some measurements and exposure-response curves which illustrate how to determine the actual range of a digital system; see them at http://www.russellcottrell.com/photo/BTDZS/. Like you, I used the Exposure and Shadows controls of Adobe Camera Raw to reveal the whole range. By blending several processed images, the textural range of a single RAW file can be extended to 12+ stops.

Zones and EV

great article. I have a question about two statements you make and was wondering if you could clarify:

"Zones are not f-stops or EVs."

In many places you infer that you can adjust one stop to put the exposure into a particular zone. Example:

"For instance, to place an object metered in Zone V in Zone VI, we use a +1 EV exposure adjustment."

Could you clarify on this? Is it possible to place in a particular zone by using a relative increase/decrease in EV, or is it dependent on which stop in question or the dynamic range of the camera?

18 % gray

this is a fantastic article. Thank you for taking the time to share with us.

On the Zone V, you refer to it as 18% gray. That is a bit confusing to me as I believed that in terms of brightness black was 100% gray, white was 0 percent gray. In other words if we move on a histogram from left to right at the midpoint we will have 50%, at the right end 0 percent gray and so the 18% gray must be closer to the right end and probably somewhere in Zone VIII or IX.

What am I not seeing?

Thanks again.

Excellent Article ... is there a

I, like a couple of your commenters, have been a long time "zoner". First, thank you for takng the time to put these thoughts and concepts into words, and for publishing it for all of us to read and learn. The title indicates that this is a Beta version - is there a Final version anywhere?

Second ... after a couple of read-throughs, except for a some grammatical errors, the article is pretty much spot-on and I have not found anything to be incorrect or misleading from a technical or procedural point of view. I'd say you are good to go if you are lookng to publish this in a more formal way.

Finally, I have done quite a bit of HDR work, and while I have been very happy with the results so far, I feel that I somewhat lose control over those results vis-a-vis actually placing specific tones into zones (visualisation, if you will). It seems that as soon as I surrender the series of captures over to the software, I am at the mercy of whatever results it sends back to me.

I can live with that so far, but I am wondering about your experience and the experience of others on how to better control the process.

Thanks again


Just discovered article on the zone system

WOW! I just discovered your article on the zone system. Loved it! I've been a professional for more than 30 years. My career really started when i discovered the zone system. I've read everything i can find from Adams. I conducted the film tests and even made his developers from scratch.

You are exactly right, the system is as relevant to digital imaging as it was to film.

One very minor correction however. Adams didn't write 3 book, he wrote 5 books which were later rewritten and condensed into 3 books.

The five books were, The Camera, The Negative, The Print, Natural Light Photography and Artificial Light Photography.

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