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December 16, 2010



The Zone System

Journal Entry: Thu Dec 16, 2010, 11:25 AM

Between 1939 and 1940 Ansel Adams and Fred Archer developed the Zone System technique for proper exposure and development. The Zone System gained momentum after Ansel Adams published the book, "The Negative".

There are countless resources about the Zone System on the internet and, if you truly love photography, you will benefit greatly by learning it. Basically the histogram on your cameras image is a Zone System giving you the ranges from dark to light. Traditionally the Zone System breaks up the image in eleven zones. Zero being total black and ten being total white.

All of this is important to know because it is what allows you to see the Tonal Range and the Dynamic Range so you can understand how to create the depth of the story you are attempting to tell with your photograph. It allows you to see your picture from the inside at every level and not as an outsider looking through glass.

What is so brilliant about the Zone System is that even though it was developed for B&W sheet film, it works perfectly well with color and especially in a digital workflow when we are adjusting the tonal qualities of the image.

Here are some useful links if you want to know more about the Zone System.

Ken Rockwell's discussion -…
DPanswers Adapting the Zone System to Digital Photography -…
Wikipedia -…

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Thank you for sharing this, I will definitely read through it. Sounds interesting, but complicated. Do you use it? :heart:
nivaun Dec 16, 2010  Professional Photographer
It can be complicated especially if you are developing film and printing it yourself. However, it can be quite simple as well. Kind of like putting the camera in Auto and letting it take the picture or putting the camera in Manual and you taking the picture. It all depends on how complicated you want it to be.

Yes, I use it all the time. For my B&W photos I use Nik Silver Efex Pro plug-in and it uses the Zone System. I can turn on a zone and it will show me all the areas that are affected by that zone and then I can adjust that tonal quality for the zone I want it to be in.

If anything gets confusing just let me know and I will try to make it easier to understand. :)
Okay, so it only works with film cameras? I don't understand what is needed for this zone system photography? What do you have to do?
nivaun Dec 17, 2010  Professional Photographer
No, this works with digital as well. Film exposure principles apply to digital also. Both cameras are the same it is just that a film camera uses chemical to record light and produce an image whereas digital uses electrical pulses.

One thing to remember is that when you are working with the Zone System you are working with only one tonal range (color) at a time. If your photo has red then you would zone the red into 10 different shades from light to dark. Then you would work with then next color, and so on. Doing this creates more depth and dimension to your photograph.

The easiest way is to use the Nik Software plug-ins but you can also use photoshop by selecting different colors and changing the levels (I am not successful using curves). It would depend on what program you are using to process your photos.

Don't try to understand all of it right away, just work with what you can grasp. Practice with one area of the Zone System and then move on to the next. You will be amazed at what you start to see over time.

I hope this makes sense.
What is the Nik Software plug-in? Is it a software for the PC?
Yes, makes sense :) it's a bit clearer now :D
nivaun Dec 17, 2010  Professional Photographer
It works on Mac or PC and will work with Aperture, Lightroom, and Photoshop.

Here is a link to their site: [link] Nik has created U-Point Technology [link] to adjust an image. Here is how they explain it on their site:

"U Point technology is a revolutionary new way to selectively edit images in a very fast, easy and natural manner.

The U Point technology powered Color Control Points let you identify and isolate objects within a photograph by placing a Color Control Point directly on the object or area to be affected. By analyzing the color, tonality, detail, and location, the Color Control Point automatically determines where and how to apply certain effects, based on your needs.

If you’re familiar with using more "painterly" methods to apply effects to images (as in all other image editing software), this can take a few minutes to get used to, however the learning will be well worth it! Control points can be used to make changes such as changing the contrast of clouds in the sky, darkening a background to make your foreground objects "pop" more, brightening objects that need a little extra help, or selectively sharpening or blurring objects.

However, Color Control Points can also be used to enhance fine, small details in an image, such as isolated changes to a face or specific object. All Color Control Points within the active image communicate with each other, providing continuity of control over multiple objects throughout the image."
Sounds interesting. But I use PSP, not Photoshop, so I won't be able to use it. And I think it's not for free, is it?
nivaun Dec 17, 2010  Professional Photographer
I don't use Photoshop either. All my adjusting is done with Aperture. PSP has a lot of limitations but you could use the Zone System by going into levels adjustment and in the color changer tool.

I thought there was a stand alone version of Nik but it doesn't look like it. No, it is not free. :(
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