Is “Zoning” the answer?


I have a friend who is studying photography via home tutoring.  I applaud her ideals in doing this.  However, one of my partners in a professional photography studio we ran was an acknowledged Thai photographer Tom Chuawiwat.  Tom always said he enjoyed professional photography because the client paid you to learn the craft!  No matter how you learned it.

Like all photographers who have studied the craft, the phrase “The Zone System” comes up.  This is usually said with a hush in the voice, as this system was devised by one of the world’s greatest landscape photographers, Ansel Adams.

Zones 2 to 8?Zones 2 to 8?

Now, to enrage some of the keen Zone System fans out there, I believe that the great Ansel was really stating the obvious.  By splitting up the scene to be photographed into 10 possible “zones” of tones (light and dark) you have to look at what it is in the scene that you want, as the camera’s range cannot record everything in one picture.  An obvious example is a shot with the sun (Zone 10) and dark shadows (Zone 1) in it.  With the limitations of the photography equipment/film you cannot get both perfectly recorded in one frame.  Whilst your human eye can do this, through the dynamics of the eyeball, the camera is fixed in its aperture and shutter speed and cannot do this.

When Ansel Adams came up with his Zone system in the 1930’s he was using Black and White sheet film, and then exposing his negatives in the darkroom.  This gave him much more leeway than today’s digital photographer, so digital isn’t the pinnacle of image recording (yet)!

One of the other misconceptions is that the Zone System emphasizes technique at the expense of creativity.  Some photographers have treated the Zone System as if it were an end in itself, but even Ansel Adams made it clear that the Zone System was an enabling technique rather than the ultimate objective.

So what are you going to do when forced with taking a scene with extremes of tones in it?  Easy, set your exposure on a ‘middle’ tone and then bracket one step each side.  With the luxury of instant digital playback, you will soon see which exposure is closest to the ideal you want, and with that as your guide you can try bracketing one third of a step each side of the “ideal”.  In this way you will have the shot you want.

However, taking this to the extreme, with today’s Photoshop for example, you can actually overlay your images, taking the darker one to cover the bright sun and the lighter one to get some detail in the darker regions of the scene.

Combining images is easier if the image-editing software includes features, such as the automatic layer alignment in Adobe Photoshop CS3, that assist precise registration of multiple images.  Even greater scene contrast can be handled by using more than two exposures and combining with a feature such as Merge to HDR in Photoshop CS2 and later, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

You should also remember and take into account that the tonal range of the final image depends on the characteristics of the display medium.  Monitor contrast can vary significantly, depending on the type (CRT, LCD, etc.), model, and calibration (or lack thereof).  A computer printer’s tonal output depends on the number of inks used and the paper on which it is printed.  Similarly, the density range of a traditional photographic print depends on the processes used as well as the paper characteristics.

So that is the Zone System, a way of making you look at what you are photographing, and adjusting your camera to suit.  That’s it!

Noted photographer Andreas Feininger wrote in 1976, “I deliberately omitted discussing the so-called Zone System of film exposure determination in this book because in my opinion it makes mountains out of molehills, complicates matters out of all proportions, does not produce any results that cannot be accomplished more easily with methods discussed in this text, and is a ritual if not a form of cult rather than a practical technical procedure.”

I’m with Andreas on that one!