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Thread: Zone system - Ansel Adams

  1. #1

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    Zone system - Ansel Adams

    Hello,

    One of many books that I have seen recommended to read is 'Negative' by Ansel Adams. Within it there is a method called the 'Zone System' for working out exposures for a subject. I got a copy out of my local library and have started to read it which I admit is not easy. As it is quite technical but it has led me to ask some questions that I hope the forum might be able to respond to?

    Firstly, does anyone use or used this system in the form addressed in the book? i.e. using hand light meters etc.

    Secondly, If not then do you use a modified form that is relevant to the cameras available now? i.e. onboard camera metering systems.

    Or alternatively, is this something that is useful background reading but is not relevant to current practices?

    Very interested to hear responses to this and to also help clarify as it is beginning to scramble my mind a bit!

    Oh and a happy New year to you all!

    Cheers for now

    Gary

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    John C's Avatar
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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    If you are shooting B&W film and developing your own prints, the Zone System can still be very relevant. It was a means of correlating exposure of the film in the camera with development and printing procedures. Generally, there were three steps. One was to form a mental picture of how you wanted the final print to look in terms of brightness and contrast. The second step was placement - figuring out which tone in the scene would be placed in which zone. The third step would be to adjust how the tones would fall into zones by adjusting exposure in the camera, the development of the film, and the final printing. Obviously, similar steps can be taken with digital cameras and digital processing; however, there are significant differences especially when you consider that digital sensors have linear response to light intensity and film does not. This is particularly noticeable at the tails of the exposure (brightest and darkest) where film tends to be more forgiving. The Zone System was a way to solve the problem of fitting high contrast subjects onto limited contrast prints. For digital, the first two steps of visualizing the final print and placement of tones into zones can still be relevant. For the third step, digital processing techniques take over or using techniques such as HDR. Also, printing has become far less common, so the visualization may be just for how the photo will look on a monitor.

    I've looked into the Zone System a bit but I didn't find a way to fit it into my style of photography - which generally consists of color landscapes and macros. I understand that there is still quite a following for the zone system. Maybe someone else here has worked it into their work process.

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    Steaphany's Avatar
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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    Quote Originally Posted by oldgreygary View Post
    Firstly, does anyone use or used this system in the form addressed in the book? i.e. using hand light meters etc.
    First off, you can't just use any hand held light meter when employing the Zone System. Most incident and reflected light meters average measurements over too great an angle of view. The instrument that you really need is a Spot Meter such as:

    Gossen Starlite 2 Universal Exposure Meter - Incident, Spot, Flash and Photometric Light Meter which can spot meter 1-5°

    or the

    Sekonic L-758DR DigitalMaster Flash Meter which spot meters 1°

    Spot meters have a view finder that you look through. You then place the targeting reticle over a scene element, bright snow on a distant mountain top, the dark green of the foreground forest, that you want to meter and press a button to take a reading. The exposure reading that you get is the reflected light intensity for the small angle of view that the spot meter measures. The Zone system allows you to select an over all scene exposure value that places the brightness of various scene elements at specific positions across the film's latitude or imager's dynamic range.

    It may not provide a narrow 1° measurement angle, but many SLRs have a Center Area Metering mode that allows you to get an exposure reading from the center area of the cameras view finder. This can serve as a Spot Meter, but keep in mind that the metering angle will vary with the focal length of the lens and to get an accurate spot meter measurement, you need make sure that the scene element being measured, bright snow on a distant mountain top, is not cluttered by sufficient dark rocks to throw off the exposure.

    Quote Originally Posted by John C View Post
    If you are shooting B&W film and developing your own prints, the Zone System can still be very relevant.
    Actually, the Zone System is very applicable to color photography and can be employed whether your are shooting with film or digital technologies. Remember, Ansel Adams lived to 1984 and though his most renowned images are B&W, he did apply the Zone System when shooting color.

    Quote Originally Posted by oldgreygary View Post
    Secondly, If not then do you use a modified form that is relevant to the cameras available now? i.e. onboard camera metering systems.
    There is nothing so conceptually different between contemporary cameras and cameras of the past that requires a re-engineering of the Zone System. You can find cameras from the 1950's and 60's with built in meters. Often, they simply provided less to carry as auto exposure came later. ( I'm not an expert on the dates, so please clarify if anyone knows the details ) If anything, the major weakness of any in-camera meter, irregardless of the camera providing auto exposure, is the angle of view of the meter is too great. As I wrote earlier, you need a Spot Meter.

    Quote Originally Posted by oldgreygary View Post
    Very interested to hear responses to this and to also help clarify as it is beginning to scramble my mind a bit!
    Then lets unscramble your mind and turn you sunny side up !

    This chart came from the Zone System page on Wikipedia:

    Zone system - Ansel Adams

    and there is a key feature you should note about the chart: All the detail of an image falls within Zones II and VIII. Anything outside this range is acceptable in an image If and only if those scene elements don't need any detail. See, now the Zone System becomes simplified to a single question, What is important enough to carry detail ?

    To answer this question, I came up with this scale:

    Zone system - Ansel Adams

    Since histograms are calculated with an 8 bit dynamic range, I started out calling middle grey as 128. When a reflected light meter determines exposure, this is the target that it is trying to achieve, irregardless of the actual tonality of the scene elements. ( Meter on a predominantly white area, and you'll get an exposure to render it middle grey, Meter on a predominantly black area, and you'll get an exposure to render it middle grey. This is why Incident light metering performs better, you measure the light illuminating the scene, whites stay white, blacks stay black, and you stay happy, but this is a bit off topic ) To determine the smallest step towards the limits of the scale where detail can be seen, I divide by 2 and subtract / add the new value on either side of the scale. This is how the Increments and Brightness values were calculated. Since each step has a factor of 2 difference, I label each step as being 1 EV from it's neighbor.

    When working with exposures, whether in camera or in post processing, I keep the scene elements where I want to preserve detail between 16 and 239. For area metering and Spot Metering, I look at a scene and try to find a camera exposure setting that keeps all the detail areas no more than 3 stops lighter or darker. This may sound like I'm limiting my dynamic range, but my goal is to ensure the important aspects of a scene retain their textures and detail.

    Here is an example of a difficult exposure that I have presented in earlier posts:

    Zone system - Ansel Adams

    In this image, ranging from a black and dark grey painted Steam Locomotive in bright, Sunny 16, Light, with portions in deep shadow with white painted high lights, and a background of a sky with bright clouds, I sacrificed the clouds to ensure the locomotive retained all of it's detail.
    Last edited by Steaphany; 1st January 2012 at 06:20 PM. Reason: Added example & fixed typos

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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    Thanks for your replies which help to clarify the zone system. Perhaps, I can summarise how I now understand it and happy to be corrected on any misunderstandings.

    In the Zone System metering is specific to an area of the subject. Ideally a hand held spot meter should be used. Although the spot metering on cameras would work? I think I have read somewhere about using telephoto/zoom lens to do this?

    The system is about getting the detail of a subject that is important to your image so is adaptable depending on your own personal taste. You use the metering to identify the areas of a subject that you want the detail from. I haven't ever used a hand held meter but I presume that gives you the iso/aperture/shutter speed reading? Or otherwise you use the cameras reading.

    Whichever area you identify as the most important then that is then placed on a zone e.g. zone III. So, that means you have assigned an ISO/aperture/Shutter speed to that, therefore all the other zones exposures are one stop above of below this reading? So, you can then take images in the other zones by using those exposure readings?

    In effect on the digital camera the histogram is the 'zone'. The extreme left-hand side is zone 0 (black,0) and the extreme right-hand side is zone x (white,255). The important areas to preserve detail are between 16 and 239 which translates roughly to zone II to zone VIII of the system.

    In the example image of the locomotive the important detail was the locomotive so the metering would have been done from this. Then used to work out exposure details.

    Thats how I understand it now?!! Please do correct if there are misunderstandings on my behalf.

    Cheers for now

    Gary

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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    I use my “adapted for digital” version of the zone system – which comprises about seven “zones”.

    I tend to use the Spot Meter in my DSLR, although I have also have Sekonic meter which is capable of Spot Metering.

    This Adapted Zone Method, I use mainly indoors; as I shoot a considerable amount of available light scenes which have a wide EV Range.

    I take two, three or at the most four Spot Meter Readings of essential elements within the scene and calculate the final exposure manually. The calculation is an experience element, which must take into account the colour (and texture) of the elements being metered, as not everything is Photographic Grey; and also the method requires a knowledge of how much the exposure can be pushed (overexposed) and then effectively pulled back in post production, which will vary from camera to camera.

    Here is an example:
    Zone system - Ansel Adams
    “End of Day”

    The four meter readings were, the water in the pool; the banner camera left; the digital screen (with that image); the wall in shadow camera right.

    The top image is he JPEG, SOOC – the bottom the final from the raw file.

    I shoot raw + JPEG(L) and the object of mostly every shot for me is to get the best JPEG SOOC (which also means the best exposure and WB) as I often use the original JPEG SOOC, quickly.

    ***

    Here is another example where three Spot Readings were taken: the score, the pipes, middle; and the shadow detail camera right, bottom (wood).

    This image has even less variance from the JPEG SOOC as, when I made the meter readings, I concluded that it would be impossible to maintain the detail of the ink on the score and still make a nice picture: the Dynamic Range of the Scene was beyond the camera for one exposure.

    Zone system - Ansel Adams
    Practice for Christmas

    ***

    I concur with all stated in Steaphany Waelder’s comments - and primarily I posted my comments as an addition to that post.

    Steaphany Waelder’s comments, above, are one of the best I have read explaining in a logical and simple fashion the application of Ansel’s Zone System to Digital (and other media) and to dispel the notions that the Zone System does not have both a definitive and also a practical application, today.

    WW

  6. #6

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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    I find exposure to be vastly misunderstood these days, so you'll get a lot of different viewpoints on exposure and the Zone System.

    My personal view is that the Zone System doesn't really apply in the digital world. What you may not realize is that the Zone System was not just an exposure process...it was a tone management process. Development of your film is a big part of the Zone system. Adams could look at the tones of a scene and visualize how he wanted those tones to be changed in order to realize his vision of the scene. For example, an area metered as zone 5 may be exposed as a zone 4 and then further darkened into a zone 3 tone during development and manipulated even further in the printing process. Why? Because accurate exposure was NOT the goal...the goal was to create a scene that expressed Adams' vision.

    Today, we don't need to go through all the post-capture processes that Adams had to. Also, during exposure, users of digital have different concerns. Most photographers who are serious about their exposure will expose to protect highlights and maximize dynamic range. The primary process is to first determine the brightest area of the scene where you want retain detail. Then you set exposure such that the area is nearly saturated on the sensor. This process is usually accomplished in one of two ways. The first way is to take multiple exposures, checking each one until the highlights are as bright as you'll allow (checked using the histogram or the highlight blink function.) The second way, if you are really in tune with your camera's exposure, is to spot meter the highlights of a scene and then adjust your exposure by an amount determine by your knowledge and experience. For example, with my Nikon D90 I can spot meter snow and increase my exposure by +2.7EV to maximize the exposure of the snow but still retain detail.

    There are a couple of other exposure paradigms. One is to shoot in manual and at ISO 100 and always set the shutter and aperture you desire...and forget about the brightness. In post processing, you adjust the brightness to your liking. This method is based on the fact that modern DSLRs have fairly equal read noise across the ISO range, so increasing ISO in the camera doesn't give you any better images than increasing exposure in post-processing. And in post, you have more control over issues with highlights via tools such as highlight compression, highlight recovery, and highlight reconstruction. The only problem with this method is that you have to watch yourself on the bright days so that you don't overexpose.

    And another exposure method is to simply expose the subject properly and not worry about blown highlights or lost shadows...placing the exposure of the subject above all else.

    However you do it...once captured, the image is manipulated on the computer to create your vision of the scene. Photoshop gives you far more freedom to manipulate than film does, so again, the Zone System doesn't really have a place. The Zone System is a very interesting piece of photographic history, but I think you'll have a hard time finding it's application to be of any benefit to digital. In situations where you're shooting at base ISO and you have the time, maximizing the exposure of your chosen highlight is pretty much all you need to accomplish.

    If you're not shooting at base ISO, then something other than exposure is obviously more important...such as a miniumum shutter speed. Then exposure doesn't matter, as you're underexposing anyways. As mentioned above, you can increase ISO to control brightness during capture, or just do it later on the computer.

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    arith's Avatar
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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    Steaphany should win the explanation of the year award. I don't normally use a zone system unless the ev range of the scene is higher than the camera can manage and I can't do HDR.

    I sort of worked out a zone system ranging from zones II through VIII above and II is where my needle in the viewfinder is minus one and two thirds underexposed on the darkest bit I can find using spot metering with the longest focal length available and VIII is where the needle in the viewfinder is plus one and two thirds overexposed on the brightest bit I can find.

    By the way I leave the aperture fixed and adjust speed and I point out this isn't really Ansell Adams standard ;I use a method where if the darkest is greater than 250X the time for the brightest, I consider doing HDR, but if I can't do HDR then if the darkest is less than 1000X the time for the brightest; I just take the photo set at the brightest settings, and hope for the best.

    If the darkest is greater than 1000X the time for the brightest and I can't do HDR then I PANIC; because now I have to imagine what the picture will look like with pure blacks or pure whites; is it important to have definition in windows say, and that is where the zone system comes in.

    That's the way I muddle through it.

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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    I used the zone system extensively in school when learning photography in the early sixties.

    Now in the digital era, I have adapted it to my digital workflow, in such a way that whenever I know there is a highlight area that I should not blow out, but where there is also shadow detail that I would like to preserve as much as possible, I take a highlight reading and place it in the zone where I know that it will not be blown out. It is very simple, and it can be done in A mode with compensation. I just lock exposure for the highlight, which is the same as "exposing to the right", a mantra that is often heard. I seldom take a reading from any other area, but when I see that contrast is high, I double-check the dark parts to see if they can be contained within the shot. Most often my decision if the camera cannot cope with them, to accept that the dark areas go into black. To me it is mostly more important not to blow out highlights.

    When the subject contrast is not too high, I use in-camera jpeg, but to gain some dynamic range, I sometimes save RAW. The difference is not very large, but sometimes it can be significant, particularly where there is only one very saturated colour that goes into clipping.

    So I am always aware of the zones, and I visualise just as I did before, but I have changed my approach according to the new medium.

    But many times I am a lot more sloppy about it, just shooting in A mode, chimping the image with histograms and highlight warning and taking another shot at it with compensation as needed.

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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    Quote Originally Posted by Inkanyezi View Post
    I used the zone system extensively in school when learning photography in the early sixties.

    Now in the digital era, I have adapted it to my digital workflow, in such a way that whenever I know there is a highlight area that I should not blow out, but where there is also shadow detail that I would like to preserve as much as possible, I take a highlight reading and place it in the zone where I know that it will not be blown out. It is very simple, and it can be done in A mode with compensation. I just lock exposure for the highlight, which is the same as "exposing to the right", a mantra that is often heard. I seldom take a reading from any other area, but when I see that contrast is high, I double-check the dark parts to see if they can be contained within the shot. Most often my decision if the camera cannot cope with them, to accept that the dark areas go into black. To me it is mostly more important not to blow out highlights.

    When the subject contrast is not too high, I use in-camera jpeg, but to gain some dynamic range, I sometimes save RAW. The difference is not very large, but sometimes it can be significant, particularly where there is only one very saturated colour that goes into clipping.

    So I am always aware of the zones, and I visualise just as I did before, but I have changed my approach according to the new medium.

    But many times I am a lot more sloppy about it, just shooting in A mode, chimping the image with histograms and highlight warning and taking another shot at it with compensation as needed.
    Ink:

    So are you essentially just using ETTR?


    Glenn

  10. #10
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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    If you would like to read another book on the Zone System,then might I suggest"Mastering Exposure and the Zone System"by Lee Varis.this books deals with the zone system using digital cameras.

  11. #11

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    Re: Zone system - Ansel Adams

    Quote Originally Posted by Glenn NK View Post
    Ink:

    So are you essentially just using ETTR?


    Glenn
    Yes, indeed.

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