Have you ever wondered how some photographers can produce photos that look so radically different than what we can see with our eyes?
Digital photography allows you to manipulate photos using a computer to make them look surreal. Some cameras include features that can make High Dynamic Range (HDR), multiple exposure and black and white photographs. These are not techniques I wish to address in this article. I like to keep it more natural.
Having a good understanding of certain techniques and the physics of light, you can produce unreal looking images in camera. You do not have to rely on modern camera technology or heavy use of post-processing.
A brief introduction to the Zone System
The Zone System has been around for decades. It was developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer based around sensitometry. It’s a tool designed to be used to help photographers plan and control exposure and processing.
Naturally, as it came about in the 1930s, it was created for use with film. Although there are arguments against applying this technique to digital photography, I believe it to be very useful.
Adams and Archer divided tone into eleven zones and designated a Roman numeral to each. Zone 0 is black, zone X is white and V is middle gray. Each zone is separated by one photographic stop.
Photographer Alan Ross, who worked as Adam’s darkroom assistant, tells us on his website the system was created “to give the photographer the ability to effectively evaluate the qualities of a scene and follow through with confidence that the information necessary for the photographer’s visualization would end up on the film.”
Most of what I’ve read over the years about the zone system I consider overly technical. I try not to be. Often the photos published alongside articles expounding the virtues of the system in more recent years are dull. This usually happens when photography tools are used for the sake of it and at the expense of creative expression.
The Zone System – another tool in your kit
More guidelines than actual rules. This is how I prefer to regard the rules of photography.
Many will teach you to learn the rules and then break them. I teach people to learn the rules so well the can apply them intuitively.
The zone system is based on scientific fact, you can’t break it. Learning to apply the technique will give you more freedom to be creative with your camera. Consider it another tool in your kit.
Like any tool, you need to first learn the basics of what it does and how you can make it do what you want it to. I’m not going to get into teaching the ‘how to’ in this article, as there’s already so many books, blogs and videos on the topic already.
My main intention here is to encourage you to check it out and show you some of the benefits of learning the photographic zone system.
Why bother learning the Zone System?
Averaged metering on modern cameras is designed to render a mid-tone across the whole composition. Camera metering is calibrated on everything being middle gray. But everything we see is not middle gray.
Photographing a black dog on a black rug, or a white rabbit in the snow is challenging. Your exposure meter will want to render both scenes as middle gray because that’s what it’s been programmed to do.
Compositions containing a limited mid-tone range do not pose modern cameras any problems. Especially when photographing them in soft, low contrast light. It’s easy to make a good exposure in these circumstances. But they can quite often look dull unless we boost them in post-production.
Learning the zone system will enable you to make decisions on how to get your photos looking the way you want them to. Using this system well allows you to translate your creative desires into technical choices.
Use it in line with your intent
Hard light and contrast always involves making decisions about exposure before you take a photograph.
Cameras cannot see the same way we do. At this stage of technological development, they are considerably more limited. This means we may see a scene different than how our camera will record it.
Your camera does not know what you are looking at. When you use the exposure meter, it’s programmed to give you an accurate reading for middle gray. This is why it was common in times past for photographers to carry with them a small sheet of 18% (middle) gray card. They could make a reading from the card in the prevailing light conditions and set their camera accordingly.
Setting your exposure for middle gray every time will often produce poor results when there’s a broad contrast range.
You are best to decide what part of the image is most important and make a meter reading from there.
In my outdoor studio portraits, I take a spot meter reading from my subject’s face and set my exposure. I’ll use the same setting photographing against the black or the white background. This is because the light value reflecting off the person’s face is the same.
Having an understanding of the zone system equips you to make the best exposure choices in difficult situations.
It ain’t easy, but it’s not rocket science either
Like learning anything, you must practice to become proficient. To become an expert, you must practice a lot more.
The zone system is not so complicated. When you grasp the basics of it you can apply it as a part of your overall skill set. Then you can make extensive use of it and see the difference in your improved photographs.