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Re-using the zone system?

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Black and white, Composition, Photography Ideas   |   6 Comments

Re-using the zone system in a digital world

Does the venerable zone system still have some use for digital photography

Whilst some of the principle behind the development of the zone system may seem to have little relation to modern digital capture, there are some very helpful principles that can still be of use.

Spring snow in Colorado

Spring snow in Colorado

Does the Zone System still have a place in digital black and white?

If you’ve explored much black and white film photography, you’ll have come across references to the ‘Zone System’, a technique for optimising film exposure and development. It’s commonly associated with Ansel Adams and has been refined and developed over the last 70 years (see WP for a relatively short overview).

The zone system has always had two important elements for myself. One was thinking about what sort of print you wanted from the scene in front of you (visualisation), and the other was the categorisation of whatever film you were using, both from an exposure and development point of view.

Whilst I find all the zone system history and the reasons for doing it, intellectually interesting, I’ve always had misgivings when I see it advocated as a tool for the purely digital black and white photographer (as I consider myself nowadays).

I’m of the belief that the exposure, development and printing of film is a sufficiently different process to that with digital, that what worked well for film is not automatically transferrable to digital.

The principles of exposure and tonal range maybe, but the inherent non linearity and processing options for film make it sufficiently different that I would not introduce the calibration aspects of the traditional zone system to someone without a film background.

Indeed it’s this measurement and calibration aspect that has done much to scare off many photographers, where it’s (IMHO wrongly) seen as an undue adherence to technique rather than expression.

two images of hood canal to show conversion of colour to black and white

Colour original and black and white version – Hood canal

A while ago, Robert Fisher wrote a guest article here, describing how some common digital exposure techniques could be related to ideas of the zone system :
Digital’s Analogue

It’s effectively what I use for a lot of my outdoor photography – in a way it flies against many people’s desire to ‘get it right in the camera’.

I’m looking at my raw files as just a step in the process of obtaining a print that relates to what I thought of when I took the photo.  In general, I think of it as a ‘don’t clip what you might need’ approach (or ETTR as it’s sometimes known)

The Hood Canal image was deliberately over exposed (but not clipped) on a dark grey day, so as to get the most data to work on (and lower noise) for a B&W print.

So, in a way, I’m using techniques related to the technical side of the Zone system – but what about the pre-visualisation?


I have to split my B&W photography into two fairly different types to address this.

There is my professional commercial and architectural work where I almost always use a tripod and may bracket exposures so as to keep noise out of the shadows and retain highlights. I may consider filters or borrow some HDR type techniques, but I’m usually wary of anything that produces contrast halos or anything that looks ‘wrong’ to me (obvious graduated filter effects really grate with me). I’m essentially trying to produce the effect of a single image, but with a sensor that may not yet exist in real cameras. This includes using my GigaPan to give the equivalent of a large format camera with a lens that just doesn’t exist in the real world (I see the GigaPan as so much more than a panoramic photo tool)

the different zones in the zone systemThe second side is my landscape work, which is intended to be ‘of the moment’. I rarely have a tripod with me and may take half a dozen shots (or more) in a few minutes trying to capture an idea, a fleeting instance of how the view or scene made me feel. Here, my exposure rule is likely to be ‘don’t blow highlights you want to keep’.

There are 9 other RAW files shot at the same time as the Hood Canal image above – this is the version that I think works best as a print. I’d love to say that I could have predicted this on that damp morning in Washington State, but I’d be wrong…

[Feb. 2013] I’ve written a detailed article about the whole process of producing the Hood Canal print

My visualisation of what I want to create is there in the scene right in front of me.

The image in the camera is merely some data waiting for me to try and create a print later on. The print will work if it evokes some of the response to the scene that moved me to want to create an image. There is no ‘mid tone’ when I’m looking at the scene. I’m looking at the structure and fabric of the view – tonal balance in the print comes later.

I may decide that it’s OK if some of the sky is blown, but given my liking for cloud structure, that’s not common. The concept of ‘getting it right in the camera’ only extends to things I can’t fix later – focus, depth of field, lens choice and composition (although I’ve no problem with cropping afterwards if it results in an image I prefer)

This is where I find digital so much more liberating for my artistic expression. I am not someone who will repeatedly return to a scene to ‘get it right’ – there is no such thing as perfect. That kills the emotion stone dead for me (YMMV in a big way here).

A personal approach

To come back to the zone system (as espoused and developed for a film based workflow), I see its roots as an attempt to codify and control an unruly and non linear recording medium, where a lot was needed to be correct right from the outset and throughout the process through to final print. Remember that you don’t get a second chance when developing film, whereas in RAW file processing I can potentially come back years later with improved software to get more out of a file.

Digital Black and White LI group
FYI: I’ve set up a LinkedIn group (~8k members) for people interested in all aspects of Digital Black and White photography – click on logo for more.

In a way I am using a zone system in my landscape work, it’s just that there essentially two zones – clipped and unclipped data. There is a third ‘noisy zone’ in dark shadows, which if it contains important detail, is a sure sign that I may be trying to capture a scene that can’t fit into the dynamic range of my camera. Whilst I can and do ‘fix’ this in my commercial work, it usually suggests that I’m not going to get the sort of landscape print I want (since dynamic range for physical printed media is vastly lower than what a modern digital sensor can capture)

A few more zones come in when I’m looking at what can be shown as a print, but they tend to be quite fluid and as much driven by the different types of balance and symmetry I find in prints that work.

I’d be interested to know of how others make use of the zone system or related ideas in their digital work? Also if my suspicion, that it’s only those with a lengthy film background who really push it in digital work, is true?

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  • Reg Hearn

    I am an old time silver photographer. I used Ansel Adams techniques extensively. In fact, spent an entire year calibrating my equipment and processes. I love the B/W silver prints, especially in portraiture. A big book of Josef Karsh portraits was my inspiration into serious photography. The transition from silver to digital baffled me and I have not be seriously involved in photography for several years. Attempting to use what I learned through the Zone system in a digital format did not work well. My interest in photography is returning.

  • Lynn Allan

    > ETTR only applies when shooting RAW (the digital equivalent of an unprocessed negative)

    I’m not sure I agree with the statement above. I’m a “RAW shooter” with my DSLR, but I occassionaly use a 24x zoom point-n-shoot without RAW capability.

    With .jpg’s, I am more concerned with getting WB correct than with RAW, but I still fgure I’m probably going to do some post-processing of the jpeg, in no other purpose than cropping.

    With RAW/DNG files, I don’t mind going “in and out” of ACR and/or LR since multiple steps and open/tweak/save’s don’t cause additional “bruising the pixels” or lossy re-compression.

    With .jpg’s, I try to accomplish everything I intend to do to that image in a single open/tweak/save pass, which includes reducing the exposure when I use ETTR with a jpeg, plus WB, crop, gradients, brushes, etc.

    And that “do everything in one pass” may be appropriate when using PS, but perhaps unnecessarily restrictive with LR. My impression is that with LR (and ACR?), the adjustments you do to a jpeg are accomplished as a “log of instructions”, which aren’t necessarily applied/committed until you export the jpeg. If so, then multiple open/tweak/save passes on a jpeg don’t result in cummulative “bruising” and multiple lossy re-compressions.

    Or not?

    • In general I’d be far more inclined to go for ‘correct’ exposure with jpeg, due to the compression and limitations of working at 8 bit.

      That said I never use jpegs from the camera as anything other than a raw backup.

      However, I don’t really use cameras without raw capability, or use LR at all. So to be honest, I’ve never pushed the limits of how best to use jpegs.

      Something else to add to my ‘to do’ list ;-)

  • Sadly for the fundamentalists, the practicalities of the Zone system as originated by Ansel Adams have been outdated for many years. The original concept relied upon the film emulsions responding in a specific way when development times were changed. This worked well with the emulsions of the day which were predominantly silver chloride and had fairly short knees and toes. Later more sophisticated emulsions using more silver bromide content did not rspond in the same way. However in this digital world I still use my Pentax spotmeter as a tool to evaluate contrast ratios and its EV scale is great for this. I use Lee grads and the fact that I can measure and place tones where I want them is useful. I still however expose to the right. The Zone system is still useful, but not in the absolute way that Ansel Adams used it. It’s a tool and like any other tool it has to be used with intelligence. (Photographers and intelligence … what next?)

  • I like your approach to getting it right in the camera. You point out some things that can’t be fixed in post-production. Another would be the use of a polarizer, if needed. Clearly, these things should be done “right” in the capture. But everything else is open to interpretation. The capture is just the first step in the journey of interpreting and, possibly, reinterpreting the image. There’s no reason to limit yourself to what the camera can do (which is constantly evolving and growing, by the way). IMO, once you start talking about things other than those basics mentioned here the only good argument for getting it right in the camera is to force you to pay attention and improve your photographer’s eye.

    • I was never a big film shooter, and have only shot pro with digital SLRs.
      I do use aspects of the Zone system in my work, namely I spot-meter areas of the scene (since I shoot people, it’s often skintone) and use them to place the exposure where I’d like it. It often doesn’t matter if a sky is blown, but not details in a wedding dress, so if that’s the brightest part of the scene, I’ll meter that to +3.
      I continue on with the system when I think about “developing” it in the RAW processor, looking at which zone I’ll place particular shadows or highlights, etc.
      I would say it’s been a very helpful tool in understanding “exposure” throughout the imaging pipeline.