The Zone System

Craig Primas Photography’s

The Story Behind the Image: The Zone System

All serious photographers (past the age of 30 anyway) know the name Ansel Adams. Landscape photographers for sure. Ansel, and his landscape photographic images, was and is an inspiration to many, including me. Ansel was a landscape photographer best known for his black-and-white images of the American West. He, along with and Fred Archer, developed an exacting system of image-making called the Zone System, a method of achieving a desired final print through a deeply technical understanding of how tonal range is recorded and developed in exposure, negative development, and printing. The resulting clarity and depth of such images characterized his photography. The zone-system of Ansel Adams divides the photo into eleven zones; nine shades of gray, together with pure black and pure white. Adams, who photographed in black and white negative film made sure to expose for the darkest parts of his scenery. This way he prevented to have pure black in the photo (1).

The Zone System provides photographers with a systematic method of precisely defining the relationship between the way they visualize the photographic subject and the final results. Although it originated with black-and-white sheet film, the Zone System is also applicable to roll film, both black-and-white and color, negative and reversal, and to digital photography. With the Zone System. you understand and control every level of light and dark to your best advantage. It works in digital just as it does for sheet film. Having a system allows you to understand and be in control, instead of taking whatever you get.

Ansel Adams was asked in the 1950s if he thought the Zone System was still relevant in that then-modern world. He replied "If you don't use the Zone System, then what system will you use to know what you've got as you photograph?"

There are many ways to evaluate what you'll get in your final print or display as you photograph. The Zone System is one way to get a handle on everything. When you know what you're going to get you can make changes as you're photographing to optimize your final prints.

From the 1920 through the 1960s The Zone System usually required creative film developing, since people developed sheet film one shot at a time and printed on fixed-contrast papers. It was a laborious. In the 1970s through today the Zone System for film became more involved with printing as people tended to shoot rolls of film that are developed all at once and print on variable contrast paper. With digital in the 2000s the Zone System focuses more on understanding how digital cameras respond to different levels of light and dark. The Zone System is the basis of understanding Photoshop's Curves command. With digital cameras you set contrast in-camera, or do as I do and let the camera do this automatically (with exposure settings fixed). The biggest advantage of understanding a Zone System is understanding what's going on. You'll be able to concentrate on making great images instead of worrying about petty things like technique and exposure.

Digital cameras no longer require spot meters. Spot meters were used to evaluate subjects before they were photographed. It was the only way we had to predict exactly how to expose, develop and print before we made an exposure on film. Today we have histograms and LCDs instead. Today I use a digital camera instead of a spot meter to evaluate this better than a spot meter for my view camera.

The benefits of the Zone System allow you to get the right exposure every time without guessing. It does not require you do any special film development and you never have to waste time with bracketing. The Zone System can be employed with photography outside of Ansel’s black and white film photography. I have used it with color transparencies and more recently with all of my digital photography. Today the Zone System is the careful and analytical setting of exposure. Almost no one does special development for each negative any more. Most is done in-camera and perfected in post-processing.

The image I present here (Lund, Nevada), is a very weak attempt of channeling Ansel. It was taken some years ago with my 4” x 5” film camera. I have since gotten a lot better at the zone system and use it consistently in all of my work.

I can apply Ansel’s quote about the Zone System to life itself: "If you don't use the Zone System, then what system will you use to know what you've got as you go through life?" I think Anne and I too have zones in our lives. Our darkest days are the blacks; our brightness the whites. In between are many shades of gray. It is how we develop these tones that define our happiness at best, our sadness and despair at worst. Like photography, living our life together has been a process. We too have adopted a “system” in order optimize its worth. Our zone system gives us what we believe to be a more balanced and fulfilling existence; a perfect exposure so to speak. Our life’s tonal range is defined by the houses we have lived; places we have traveled; people we have befriended; moments spent alone; time spent with family; visiting different geographic locations; down time; social time; eating new foods; keep moving physically; enjoying the journey, together. All of this gives us a wide dynamic range as we try to balance life’s exposure. But like Ansel’s Zone System, we recognize there are blacks, whites and many shades of gray. The goal is to find our perfect exposure. Having a system allows you to understand and be in control, instead of taking whatever you get.

Get the image HERE.