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digital zone system - book coverBook Review
The Digital Zone System: Taking Control from Capture to Print
by Robert Fisher

Keith Cooper reviews 'The Digital Zone System'

Some time ago Robert Fisher wrote a guest article here on the Northlight Images site, about how many aspects of digital photography had direct analogues with aspects of film based photography [Digital's Analogue].

In Robert's book, he expands many of the ideas in that article and introduces editing techniques that allow you to edit images with full control of the various 'zones' of your image.

DZS - zones

Given that the zone system (most commonly associated with Ansel Adams) was originally created to deal with the characteristics and vagaries of black and white film, it's worth wondering just what relevance it has for today's photographers.

Indeed the original system was created with large format film in mind, where you can fine tune the development of each sheet of film or plate.

As someone who developed their first photos in the mid 70's I can appreciate some of the difficulties, but I was using 35mm from the start, and 35mm has a problem with methods that alter the development of individual images on a roll - you can't.

Shooting your digital images in RAW format brings back this control over individual images.

digital black and white logoKeith runs a LinkedIn group (~7900 members) for people interested in any aspects of modern Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

The book starts with a good overview of just what issues the zone system attempted to address.

Even if you've read Adams books, The Camera, The Negative and The Print and know all this stuff, I'd suggest you don't skip this discussion, it ties many of the principles together and notes that...

  • The Zone System can be broken down into two components:
    • 1. Exposure and development
    • 2. Printing
  • The Digital Zone System (DZS) can be broken down into two components:
    • 1. Exposure
    • 2. Development and printing

The book is full of very useful information about workflow and software tools to consider using.

For example, I found the chapter about colour management and Photoshop written at a level that emphasised its importance, without going into details that most photographers probably don't need to know.

The techniques espoused are not aimed at people looking for a quick fix to their image editing needs - it's assumed that you are going to be using an editing tool such as Photoshop for all the heavy lifting, even if you've used Lightroom for your RAW processing.

As a photographer who doesn't use Lightroom myself, and relies on Photoshop for most of my image editing work, I'm fine with this.

digital step wedgeHowever, if you're looking for recipes and sets of instructions to make great photos, then you will be disappointed - this is very much a book for people who have an idea of what they want to achieve and are looking for ways to help them on their journeys.

More important basics - exposure

Do you really understand your camera's metering? Probably not as well as you think.

Many of the basics of producing an image are covered, but it's refreshing to see continual exhortations to go out and experiment for yourself.

With digital images, where I know I'm going to be processing RAW files, I've long followed the general principle of over exposing, up to the point of not clipping highlights. This is referred to as ETTR (expose to the right) and discussed in some detail, along with the importance of understanding histograms and what they really tell you about images..

I found some of the images and screen shots in the book rather too small to clearly indicate the points they were supporting - I knew what they meant and the point they were making, but that's because I do a lot of this work myself. The examples of camera noise at different ISO settings [p.49] being one such set of images.

Whilst on the subject of images in the book, I found some of the example photographs seemed to appear without warning, title or obvious reason. There is an appendix at the back of the book with image details, but you're likely to only only find this when you get there. The purple image on p.39 being a good example of one that led me to wonder 'why is this here?' Like several of the 'Feature Images' I'm immediately inclined to feel that they are over sharpened for the size, resolution and printing of this particular book (which is generally excellent)

The important bit...

The main feature of the book is an explanation of the Digital Zone System editing techniques, which allow you to edit different areas of luminance (zones) with very fine levels of control.

I'd suggest going through the manual stages of setting this up, at least once, if nothing else to realise how much effort the downloadable actions will save. Using the automated process for separating the zones (and groups of zones) makes for a quick way of applying the DZS techniques

Try these techniques on some of your own images - they really do offer a very refined approach to altering parts of your image.

The utility of the technique for High Dynamic Range (HDR) images is explored too, with an emphasis on getting realistic looking images, although the final example of the railway station shows you can use it for the garish side of HDR too ;-)


The book rounds off with a very good overview of file preparation and printing. This includes a good introduction to soft proofing and why it's so important to realise the differences you'll see in your images when printed on different types of paper.

Once again, the coverage of the printing process, and the decisions you should be making, are covered in a thorough manner, without the sorts of detail you probably never really needed - the hooks for more detailed study are there, but they don't cloud the message.

So, will I use the DZS?

It's now in my tool set, but I have to admit that it is beyond the level of finesse I'd normally look at applying to the editing of my images. It will sit there waiting for something I feel requires the effort. I know there are people who will absolutely love this degree of control and fine tuning for their image creation - others may not. The important thing is the results you get.

Despite my own slight reservations for the full DZS methodology, I still found the book an excellent read, reflecting many of the techniques and processes I try and convey in my teaching work.

There is much useful information, even if you decide that the full DZS is not for you.

I do use some of the metering and RAW processing techniques covered here, but my own approach just doesn't have quite so many zones [See my short note on 'Re-using the Zone System' for more]

  • Please feel free to add Comments/Questions below, via our blog or via Google+
Book Chapters
  • Chapter 1 - Zone System Background - Using a Traditional Step Wedge
  • Chapter 2 - Color Management, Photoshop Setup, and Image Management
  • Chapter 3 - Digital Exposure and Metering
  • Chapter 4 - Tools of the Digital Zone System
  • Chapter 5 - The Digital Zone System
  • Chapter 6 - The Digital Zone System and Black-and-White
  • Chapter 7 - The Digital Zone System and High Dynamic Range Imagery
  • Chapter 8 - Printing in the Digital Zone System

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Book details

Review History - first published February 2013

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