Why You Need the Zone System for Photography

This may be the most important piece I've written on photographics. Because no matter what you photograph, once you see in Zones, you'll never see the same again. You're on your way to truly mastering light.

I started photographic study when I was twelve. But in recent years I've started working with 4x5 large format film and digital side by side. I've explored endless exercises in tonal control, "truly" learned to visualize, and implemented the Zone System that was developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer, both in my film and my digital work, in color and black and white. Zones are the language of light and they've changed everything about how I see.

Master Zones & Exposure Dynamics - Get Gavin's Workshop Series.

The idea of visualizing and using Zones is not promoted much today. It seems much of the industry arrived at digital and decided that the past 150 years of photographic knowledge were somewhat irrelevant. Maybe it's that many never took the time to understand Zones to begin with. Which is a shame because it's so brilliant. What I'm about to show you is not taught much, but understanding it WILL change your image making forever. I'm not kidding; once you grasp this, you'll never see light the same again. You'll probably want more after this, so check out the links at the bottom for further reading. Also you can get hands on in my annual 3 day Lights & Shadows workshop. And check out my video series, EXposed which gets deep into Zones. OK lets dig in.

Sunsets Hidden Falls. Yosemite, 2010 - A general look at where I placed the scene elements in relation to the Zones. Each arrow leads to what I see as the zone on the scale.

I'm going to stay simple because these concepts are simple. I've not come up with a new digital based zone system, a stripped down version, or an article filled with nerdy equations, white papers, or complex charts. This is not hard and you can start putting it to use TODAY. Since most of us are in the digital world, I'll focus on that. I'm going to show you how to use the core of the Zone System to make you a vastly better photographer. I've also brought along some examples for analyzing said Zones.

To those of you who already know this, kudos. But I challenge you to consider whether you're really using it, or just buzzing along in digital bliss and fixing things later. Excuse my bluntness, but this is happening to the best of us. We need to get back to basics and visualize, control tone, dynamic range, image quality and presentation

The Zone System was a complete approach that included everything from the initial exposure to the final print. Now we don't use darkrooms much these days, so I'll focus on the pivot point of the Zone System: the Zones themselves. That said, I would encourage you to study the whole process even if you don't use film. It will help you gain a better understanding of photographics. Not only that, but old books like Fred Picker's Zone VI workshop deal with it quickly and effectively and can often be had for mere pennies.

1. The Zone Scale.

The Zone Scale lies at the core of the Zone System. It consists of eleven squares that span from clipped black (Zone 0) to clipped white (Zone X). Each square represents a change of one stop. The first part of using Zones starts before you release the shutter. Truly visualizing your image is like nothing else. Once you master it, you see the image you plan to make (including your edits and refinements) in your mind before you ever take the photo. It changes how you photograph and how refined the resulting images become.

Brilliantly simple, the Zone scale allows us to visualize all our light from complete black to complete white in clear one stop increments.

To begin with look at the Zone scale. Now look at your scene. Now back to me. ;) What's outside your window right now? Visualize what Zones the things around you fall within. Then imagine you're taking a photo. Imagine where the Zones "would" fall if the image came out exactly as you wanted. It does not have to be what you "see" but what you "visualize" for the finished image. How do YOU want to make it?

Think about how Zone levels on various objects in this scene would complement your primary subject as well as your supporting cast of elements. Sometimes it helps to begin by visualizing a scene in black and white even if your final image is going to be color. Thinking in terms of tones can be helpful, especially early in the process.

All nine detail Zones photographed with digital. Metering was based on the brightest area here, but we could have metered meter any element and uses the system to place that element in any of the time values but simply moving exposure up or down (click for larger view).

2. Metering & Placing Those Zones.

OK, now you have a mental image for what your scene looks like. Let's make it happen. You could choose any element as your basis. But let's say you looked out your window, and the neighbor's sports car is across the street. Set aside your annoyance for a moment that he has that sports car because he has a great paying job instead of being a photographer.

Let's say the car is a rich blue. Though the color is dark, you imagined the car standing out and you placed its paint in Zone VI (6). Remember that just because something is dark, does not mean it must fall in a low Zone. It's all a question of the light and more importantly, where you want to place its tone values. And remember that while the Zones are shown as shades of grey, they represent tonal value. Color or black and white, Zone values work the same.

So for now let's meter that car using a spot meter—either spot mode on your camera or a dedicated unit (I really like the Pentax Digital Spotmeter, as it reads in Exposure Values--very educational--and allows you to set Zones easily). Now you're spot metering for the specific area you're visualizing. There are more things to know about meters, and we'll talk more about them later on. For now, let's keep it simple and use that spot meter reading.

Say the meter tells us the blue of that awesome car is 1/200 at ISO100 and f8. Great, now here's the catch... METERS METER TO MIDDLE GRAY (Zone V). Look at it on the scale above, then let me say it again: METERS READ BASED TO ZONE V (5). This means that a light meter is not always telling you what the best exposure is, but what exposure will give you middle grey. I know this may be surprising, but your reflective meter is simply telling you what exposure will place the metered object at middle gray tone, or Zone V. Not what is actually a good exposure (more on meters later).

How can this be? I mean you've been working under the assumption that your meter is always right. Well, it probably is. At Zone V. So unless you want your subject middle grey, you need to compensate. We'll get to that soon. Now if you're in the default Averaging type mode of many modern cameras, it's essentially reading from various parts of the scene and averaging a guess at proper overall exposure. This is a nice tool, but it's often misguided and takes the control out of your hands. Yes, that's probably why those lovely faces in your portraits come out too dark. So we'll stick with spot metering mode for now.

What all this means is incredibly powerful. The meter is still brilliant. Knowing that you meter gives you a Zone V reading for the metered section of the scene, all you have to do is decide which Zone any element should fall in, then compensate accordingly. Remember that each Zone is one stop. Let's say you want the car at Zone VI (6). All you have to do is expose one stop above what your meter told you and the tone will be placed at zone VI. It really is that simple. Let's say in another scene you metered a dark section of foliage and imagined it at Zone III. Well, all you have to do is spot meter, then drop down 2 stops lower. Violà, you've placed it at Zone III. It can't be that simple can it? Well, yes, it is.

*Regarding meters: Meters can vary, and you need to know your tools, so let's clarify them bit. A spot or in camera meter looks at your subject and reads based on "reflected light" (just as you and your camera see it). An incident meter (the kind with a white sphere that you hold in front of your subject), reads the light being cast on it through it's translucent grey sphere.

Incident meters cannot see the reflectiveness of the subject (think snow vs. a dark red curtain). Now the idea is that an incident meter is reading the oncoming light through it's grey sphere, effectively placing it in its sphere at Zone V (similar to if you spot metered on a grey card). Because of that, other tones "should" follow accurately (what you see is what you get). That said, it's not quite that simple. While it should be close, certain tones may not render exactly as expected because while the incident meter has its standard (the sphere) to read from, it still can't "see" the subject being metered.

So while both meters are effectively metering based on Zone V, an incident meter is a bit less specific in my view because it's only reading that oncoming light and you still may need to account for the reflectiveness of your subject. Some might argue that because incident gives you what you see, then we don't need the Zones. I beg to differ. In many non studio or close up situations, incident readings are not possible. Even when they are, what you see is not always what you want. Based on a natural incident reading that car may fall at Zone V, but you might still want to place it up to zone VI (6) to achieve the visualization you want and properly convey your feeling of the scene.

This does not mean you can't use incident readings in cooperation with the Zone approach. Just understand that incident and reflective read a bit differently. As a general a rule I would say that when you meter with incident, assume it's reading is close to what you see. You can then compensate with Zones to place elements anywhere desired. If you like it as is, that's fine, but seeing your Zones will still help you plan a better image.

Reflective meters. I prefer the more absolute nature of the reflected reading (generally spot). One, because even if you don't have a separate meter, your in camera meter will work the same. But more importantly, because a spot meter always gives you a fixed point to start from. It effectively places whatever object you point it at into middle grey (Zone V). Next you compensate to place that object in whichever Zone you want. The reflected reading is absolute. For people who don't understand their zones, everything they meter comes out grey. But for those of us that use Zones, the spot meter is amazingly powerful and makes visualizing and seeing light a simple thing. And yes, you can spot meter with strobes using some meters, (such as the Sekonic 508) though probably not with your in-camera meter.

So whichever meter you use, with natural light or flash, you can apply the Zone techniques with success. Just understand how your meter reads light and make it work for you.

Morgan's Song, Commissioned Portrait, 2011 - In a portrait, I generally want the subject's face in Zone 6-7. It varies, of course, with skin, highlights, and shadows. I placed her dress (by burning) no lighter than the face to avoid competition, continuing the reducing approach with other elements in the scene. Everything needs to lead in to my subject. Otherwise, it does not belong there.

3. The Other Zones.

OK, great you say. Now I can place ANY element in ANY Zone I want. The problem is that every other element of the scene is also exposed based on that. Some might be lighter or darker than what I visualized.

Aha! I might say. This is what makes photography an art and a science. We must now consider what Zones the low and high values will fall into. You've planned the exposure you want for your main subject. You just have to carry it through.

I should note that for film users, the Zone System has lots of other relevant pieces. Those pertain to the way we process the film, how we print, and more. But we should think in terms of the medium being used. For most that's digital. Even when I use large format film I scan to digital for my final processing rather than printing in the darkroom. With that in mind, let's examine the basic elements of further tone placement.

So consider this. We placed the blue car at Zone VI (6). But because of that, the bright blue sky might have come up Zone XI (9). That's almost pure white. Yet maybe you want a rich sky blue around Zone VII (7). You have a visualization. How can you make it happen? Clearly we have to darken that sky while maintaining our subject. We could do this in camera, placing the sky where we want it while keeping the subject at its chosen Zone using extra light; a reflector, fill flash or the like. Something that lights our subject and places it in the correct Zone, while exposing the background where we want. This is called keying for the background.

Keying your exposure is very applicable to portraits and commercial work, though it may not always be the look you want. Another method would be adjusting in post, using a burn (darken) brush, or a gradient to bring down the tonal value of that sky. Even when I use a flash I'll often burn or dodge to control tones on a very specific level. Either way, since we know exactly what we're visualizing, we can easily answer questions to make it happen perfectly.

For now, let's talk about the burn and dodge approach since it addresses some important issues. We know the car is placed Zone VI (6). The question is this: is the camera capturing the information we need in the other areas? Digital is improving, but it still has less range than film. If the sky is clipping to white in the histogram, we probably need a darker frame. This isn't a problem; make a separate exposure with the sky in the Zone you want. Back in the digital darkroom, you could blend those. Maybe with HDR software and tone mapping, or more likely just with a simple layer blend in Photoshop. Mix the rich sky into the scene while retaining our subject at its given Zone.

Still, maybe the camera has enough dynamic range in one file. If you look at your histogram, and the highlights (right side) are not clipping, then you may have what you need. The same goes for the shadows (left side). Visualize your darkest areas. Is the image capturing enough light to place everything where you want it using gradients, brushes, burning and dodging in post processing? These are questions I can't answer, but their simple once you have a plan.

You might strike a balance, compensating your exposure a little to the right or left of what your Zone planning suggests, making a file that has a completely non clipped histogram and then slightly adjusting to subject later to the desired value. Just remember your subject is the VIP. The less you have to adjust main subject exposure in post, the more your light and image quality will sing. In any case, plan where those Zones should be placed. Meter, then expose as you see fit and go to work on the finished product. Burn, dodge, blend layers, control tonal values, and make your visualization happen. Not so unlike Ansel did in his darkroom. Once you start using this, it soon becomes second nature.

4. Lets Recap.

1. Look at your scene and see in terms of Zones. What light do you have?

2. Analyze your subject. What zone do you want it placed in? There are no limits.

3. Consider other elements. What zone should they fall in to best complement the subject?

4. Meter your subject and determine what its exposure would be at Zone V. It's also good to meter other areas in the scene to better understand how might range you're dealing with.

5. Adjust. The meter gave you Zone V (5). Now adjust your exposure compensation (EV) up or down to put the metered subject in the Zone you chose. Remember that each step on the Zone Scale is simply one stop, or EV

6. Check if the camera can capture enough range to place all objects in the zones you visualized. If not, take extra frames as needed. Note that this is one reason why cameras average by default. Sometimes by adjusting the exposure to a happy medium you can get everything you need. Just keep your main Zone in mind. Everything has a cost, and the closer your subject is to dead on, the better. Just do your adjustments with a plan, knowing how it will affect your image.

7. Capture your frame according to what you found by metering and visualizing. Wait, did we actually plan before making our image? Yikes! That's new. Seriously though, don't be afraid to make a few test exposures along the way. But don't trust what's on the LCD. Use your metering and histogram to determine if you're getting what you're visualizing.

8. Develop that image that has now been perfectly exposed according to your visualization. Edit, apply corrections, presets, burn, dodge, tone mapping, blend layers, and whatever you need to make it match what you visualized.

9. There really is no nine. You've done it. Now go make that really amazing print.


The Whispering Brook, WA, 2011 - I followed my visualization nearly exactly on this. Knowing what I wanted in the image before I ever captured it, I kept the busy elements very simple by controlling exposure and keeping the values low throughout. The water still maintains strong contrast however, even though there is no white clipping. This is due to how dark other elements in the scene are placed.

This is from the uncorrected RAW. I did pretty well placing the tonal values using my exposure. But the final above was much more than a desaturation. I came in using presets, channels, burn, dodge, etc., and finished the image to what I had seen in my mind before I released the shutter. I knew what I wanted, and that's what I got. I admit I'm not always this well organized, but when I truly visualize, not just my capture, but how it will look when it's finished, my work seems to take on a new quality.


5. Wrapping Up.

OK, this is simple, but it was a lot of stuff. If you're feeling confused don't hesitate to read it again, because once you really start to grasp it, it will come quickly. If you think you understand but don't see the value then read it again, because you've not really grasped how powerful it is. If you think you use Zones instinctively and you already knew it, even though you don't really, reconsider. This is the single most valuable yet simple bit of photographic knowledge I have learned in nearly 15 years of making images.

I know I'm being a bit snarky, but it's only because some turn their nose up at Zones as if they already knew them and it's no longer relevant. They are mistaken. If you really know and use every step already, then huge props to you because you are among the few. But if you think it's no big deal, it's time get back to basics. Because this is no less relevant than it has ever been. In fact, it may be more so. I don't believe you can truly understand and master light until you master the Zones. No better method has ever been devised (that I've found).

I encourage you to study these concepts further. For now just start exposing in Zones. Before long, your light and your images will be forever changed. I know, sometimes you'll be on the move, and you won't have time to spot meter and plan every frame. That's why today's automated tools can be really useful. But if you slow down (check out The 111 Photo Project), if you end the mindset of letting gear think for you and put visualization, Zones, and tonal control into practice at every chance, it will start working into all your images. Even the ones you have to rush on.

I hope you've enjoyed this. Please +Like, share, and tell the world as you learn how powerful this can be. Remember it will take a little time and practice. Demand of yourself to start seeing Zones, visualizing, and planning your images. It will work. I plan to keep refining this as I improve my own skills and find to better ways explain this often neglected piece of our craft that's changed the way I see light.

Go now. Apply this stuff. Because it works so dang well it's almost unbelievable. Good luck!


Further study....

Andrew at Mission Bridge. Commissioned portrait, 2011 - I was using 4x5 film here. I focus heavily on of space in my portraits, but to show that environment I need to control it. The subject has to stay strong. I kept the elements darker, though few were black. And kept my subject dominant up around Zone IV.

This was on 4x5, and it came out as planned. But you see how the final development I did in LR/PS completed my visualization; by editing the supporting cast tones to where I wanted them and working with details, I kept the subject primary in this open scene. I finished the final above as a 40 inch print on canvas for the client.


June 2013