The Practical Zone System for Film and Digital Photography

Focal Press, $39.95 (376 p)
ISBN-10: 0240817028, ISBN-13: 978-0240817026 

In this fifth edition of his well-regarded book Chris Johnson explains why the Zone System, developed as paradigm for film shooters, can also be easily applied in the digital age.  First developed by Ansel Adams (with whom the author studied) and Fred Archer, the Zone System encompasses both the scientific and quantifiable relationship between lights and darks within a frame as well as the more 'right-brain' process of pre-visualizing the tonal relationships within the desired final image. 

In essence, the book functions as an excellent primer for thinking technically and creatively about exposure.  

Johnson begins with an introduction to the system and a description of the 'Zone Scale' - a gradated line broken up into 10 symbolic tones arranged in order from black to white. He follows his overview of the Zone with several chapters about how to employ it when exposing, processing, and printing film (especially B&W). In the later chapters, using the same precepts, he describes an entirely digital workflow. In writing about both processes, he covers some of the major differences of exposing film vs. digital sensors.

A recurring adage in the film chapters, explained in great detail, is that when using film photographers ought to expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights. Digital photography on the other hand, especially when using a Raw workflow, encourages the photographers to expose for the highlights (i.e. to the right of the histogram). 

Johnson argues that with the Zone System, practitioners (regardless of what camera they use) have an especially useful way of addressing some of the conistent challenges in photography: high contrast or low contrast scenes. Johnson’s tome, with its straightforward style and its density of information, sometimes seems designed for classroom use. But thankfully Johnson periodically peppers his work with relatable explanations (well-toasted bread labeled as 'Zone IV') and vivid metaphors (using the Greek myth of Procrustes to discuss the limitations of photographic papers) that make the book more readable than the average textbook.

Because the Zone System touches on the entire workflow, a side benefit of Johnson’s book is its clear descriptions of a range of photographic concepts beyond the System itself. Confused about bit-depth, the difference between hardware pixels and image pixels, or effectively using a handheld meter? Johnson provides lucid explanations.

Other pluses: thorough appendices with suggested reading, valuable web resources, recommended artists and museums, as well as a decent glossary. Although readers who have no interest whatsoever in the many chapters on film could easily skip them, I worry they might ultimately may be frustrated with the heavy coverage on this mode of image-making. 

But for readers wanting a deeper knowledge of how to best expose an image so as to realize their photographic vision, I recommend giving this book a close look.  It makes an excellent case for the Zone System as a powerful tool, regardless of mode of capture.

'The Practical Zone System for Film and Digital Photography' is available on amazon.com


Adam Koplan is head of the Performance Department at the Dreamyard Project which brings arts programs to NYC schools. He is also Artistic Director of The Flying Carpet Theatre Co. Follow him on Twitter @FlyingCarpetNYC  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 102
PatRM2
By PatRM2 (Oct 11, 2012)

I learned, as well as most, what the zone system was many years ago. Not saying I ever mastered it, but that isn't really the point. The zone system is somewhat like the stick shift on a car. Useful, but not for everyone. Film is still out there, but even though I spent 5 decades with film and only 1 decade with digital, I cannot argue that one is better than the other as it is like apples and oranges. I think the crossover, using the zone system concept, with digital is a challenge in itself because of the terms and icons used on cameras, such as pictures of mountains, etc.

The other point is the hostility and crassness shown such as the post by By Mrrowe8 (1 day ago). Sorry, but I really cannot see how language and comments such as that can further the cause of a site that should be about photography and photographers. It should be flagged. Are there any moderators on this site?

1 upvote
juan bobo
By juan bobo (Oct 11, 2012)

I've been applying my knowledge of the zone system to digital tools as long as I've been shooting digital so I'm not sure this book is right for me, but it never hurts to review. I still reread Ansel Adams "The Negative" every few years because it's still applicable.

Most darkroom photographers didn't use the complete zone system because it all but required an MS in chemistry- not to mention an expensive spot meter in many cases- but understanding the zone system lead to better negatives and ultimately better prints. For many of us, the zone system could be reduced to "Expose for the shadows, and develop for the highlights."

Now there's no reason not to use the zone system in post because there's no chemistry required, and one can more easily hit the exact zones one wants especially with all the latitude that a RAW image provides. Just knowing how to identify the zones and how to "speak the language" of the zone system will make one's work better.

0 upvotes
Ringo Karma
By Ringo Karma (Oct 11, 2012)

If you’re concerned about the cost of film and darkroom processing, or want to argue about whether or not to learn Zone System principals don’t get in the wet-film, fine arts market. Join the amateurs running around with D7000’s hooked to kit lenses, handing out business cards identifying themselves as professional photographers, producing images that are little more than snapshots. I meet a lot of folks calling themselves professional photographers in my business. Maybe one in 10 has a few basic skills in place, one in 100 might be approaching competent, one in a 1,000 reaches a level worthy of being called a professional, and out of that bunch there’s a slim few whose images will be remembered. Real pro’s would not argue about the Zone System or film versus digital; they are all tools in their kits. Also, with a real pro, cost never enters the conversation.

1 upvote
rallyfan
By rallyfan (Oct 13, 2012)

The comment that a real pro will never discuss costs is astounding.

Whether someone's artistry or technical skill meets your criteria has no effect on whether that person is a pro.

Whether that person makes money and pays the bills via photography is all that makes them a pro.

Your evaluation of their technique, kit lenses, and photographs are not relevant. Money is. If you don't like their images don't buy them.

All a pro needs is a business license. They don't need approval by forum posters; they probably also don't need this book, frankly, though the older edition was interesting.

1 upvote
Nishi Drew
By Nishi Drew (Oct 18, 2012)

That's right, rather unfortunate too though, because you don't have to be good at what you do, just as long as money just ends up in your pockets while you're doing something then bingo! You're a professional whatever.

0 upvotes
Ringo Karma
By Ringo Karma (Nov 26, 2012)

I stand by my comment. A real professional is earning sufficient money that he or she purchases equipment that will do the best job. Most pros would also agree that those of us who earn our living in this business are very aware of our peer's technical skills, and whether or not someone calls themselves a professional we know who is. Saying that all a pro needs is a business license is like saying that all someone needs to be an artist is a watercolor kit and a table at a craft fair. I know dozens of people who paint, but only one artist. Because I earn my living as a photographer I also know many others in the business. Three, at the most, have earned the title of photographer. The rest are photo-hobbyists and wanna-be pros. A pro has a studio, a staff, does not have to advertise, and turns down more work than he or she accepts. What's truly astounding is that "... amateurs running around with D7000's hooked to kit lenses" actually believe they belong to the big leagues. Enough said.

0 upvotes
Chugger
By Chugger (Oct 11, 2012)

I read this a couple of months ago, as a replacement to the 3rd Edition, which I bought back in the last century to supplement my set of Adam's books. It was a great refrsher, and definitely worthy of being part of any photographer's working library. While maybe not essential to taking good photographs, an understanding of previsualization and the zone system is absolutely critical to making images that look exactly how you want them to look - in camera. And it also helps you determine how to take it in post to get it where you saw it.
Anyone can take an occasional lucky shot; the information in this book, if applied fully, helps virtually every shot turn out like the lucky one.
My only gripe: grammatical typos and one particularly glaring error (that you can figure out easily if you think about it for a moment - I'll let you find it ;-)

Comment edited 27 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
JustFred
By JustFred (Oct 10, 2012)

The LightZone photo editor I use has this ZoneMapper feature. It is in a way similar to Curves but much better and gives you much better control too. Such a pity that the owner stopped his project and went to work for Apple. The zonemapper is a brilliant tool. Here is more about the Zone Mapper. Other photo editors should pick up on it. To see what it is and how it functions and how versatile it is check out this article describing how it works and how to use the functions. In one word...brilliant.

http://doonster.blogspot.nl/2008/01/lightzone-zonemapper-primer-for-curves.html

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
1 upvote
maniax
By maniax (Oct 10, 2012)

who needs digital. Expensive pile of obsolete junk. Grab a $10 slr camera and you got a "full frame" camera. Read how the zone system works and you know exactly what you're doing with more good pictures then the guy that makes 50 shots of every subject.

2 upvotes
Nishi Drew
By Nishi Drew (Oct 10, 2012)

Too bad a good roll of film costs more than your $10 camera, and as Kodak disappears and Fuji pulls several rolls off their shelf it's like photography as a whole will become obsolete.
And "Full Frame" in film land is better regarded as 120, not 135, with the big bulky expensive MF gear, that, takes one into another magical realm ~

1 upvote
blacklion
By blacklion (Oct 10, 2012)

My 120 film camera weights about 2.5lbs (slightly more than 1kg). Fyl I can put it into my jeans side pocket (but I'm not small man).

0 upvotes
rallyfan
By rallyfan (Oct 10, 2012)

To those arguing that modern photographers may not understand tonal range, histograms, or even aperture -- if that's the case, what help would the zone system be to these people?...

Isn't this "zone system in the digital age, advances be damned" thing more of a case of "get off my lawn!... kids these days!..." I wonder?

0 upvotes
Nate21
By Nate21 (Oct 9, 2012)

It seems like a great tool to understand photography.

1 upvote
rallyfan
By rallyfan (Oct 10, 2012)

Truth be told, I don't disagree. It is in fact useful in understanding photography.

0 upvotes
designdog
By designdog (Oct 9, 2012)

Most, if not all, comments here are supposition from people who have not read the new edition of the book. Just ordered mine.

Would not a good understanding of Zone principles help any photographer using spot metering rather than evaluative or average? Or in post processing? Or in merging HDR?

I doubt that most people using digital cameras have any idea about tonal range, EV, histograms — even aperture. The mere existence of a proven and well regarded system for visualizing this has to have a place in digital photography. The light is the same, even if the tools have changed.

1 upvote
writelight
By writelight (Oct 9, 2012)

Thank you. As we've seen, silliness abounds.

1 upvote
photowipe
By photowipe (Oct 9, 2012)

It's simple. Everything about film involved guessing, even highly educated guesses like the Zone System provided. Anyone even considering applying the Zone System to digital should already know enough about the current tools that hardware and software provide (histograms, previews and highlight warnings) to know that guessing is no longer necessary. It's the same reason why you don't see very many photographers who fully understand digital using hand-held light meters any more- they only helped us guess what the exposure should be, but usually needed to be interpreted. Film is about guessing, digital is about knowing. The Zone System is a film technique.

0 upvotes
Vitruvius
By Vitruvius (Oct 9, 2012)

Wow, you obviously have not read the whole book or you just don't understand it so why are you commenting? I see far more digital photogs guessing today than I ever did with film. Guessing used to cost money and was risky with film which is why people learned. Most people I talk to now with a digital camera don't know what aperture means.

Comment edited 10 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
writelight
By writelight (Oct 9, 2012)

Wow, thanks for distilling the usefulness of the Zone System. Your ability to synthesize something as complex a methodology is truly amazing. Looking forward to seeing what you'll do with quantum mechanics; maybe just two sentences. I'm sure Adams could've used your help.

0 upvotes
MrMojo
By MrMojo (Oct 9, 2012)

A hand-held digital flashmeter actually requires less interpretation of its readings compared to a camera meter because it measures the light falling on the subject vs. light reflected by the subject. It's essential if you use multiple non-automatic strobes.

Photowipe's comments indicate that he/she is rather ignorant about the tools and skills required to be a successful film photographer. Skilled photographers using film did precious little "guessing" and produced excellent photos without having to resort to bracketing, etc.

The only time we really needed to check our results prior to shooting was when doing multi-light set-ups. Since rear LCDs didn't exist we used Polaroid film so we could see the results. But Polaroids weren't intended to check exposure because Polaroid film usually didn't correspond to the kinds of film being used. It was used primarily to see where shadows fell, unwanted reflections, etc. Determining exposure, etc. is best accomplished with an incident meter.

0 upvotes
photowipe
By photowipe (Oct 11, 2012)

You're welcome, writelight. I'll stick with photography, like I said, it's simple. Quantum mechanics is hard. The Zone System was plenty useful 80 years ago, and in many ways laid the groundwork for how we work digitally, but you have to admit that Ansel would have soiled his shorts to have a histogram and a highlight clipping mask on his view camera instead. Mr Mojo, I am rather ignorant in plenty of areas, but photography ain't of 'em. I'm modestly successful there, and am more than familiar with meters, Polaroids, bellows factors, Sinar's measured photography principles for offset reproduction, pulling and pushing Ektachrome, etc, all of which required educated guesses to one degree or another. Digital just flat out confirms exposure on the camera in real time, period, and tethered shooting in the studio takes that confirmation even further. Meters are old school, unless you work for Sekonic.

1 upvote
BBZone28
By BBZone28 (Oct 9, 2012)

Generally, I think digital photographers can get by w/o using the Zone System, but it's another tool that enhances their knowledge and ability as a skilled photographer vs. being a digital photo hack, especially in high contrast scenes. The Zone System gives digital users an eloquent way of thinking about and understanding the tonal scale. I've found it deepens one's ability to "see" and appreciate tonality, especially for black & white imagery, and is a useful guide for making post-processing adjustment decisions and evaluating print quality. Most of the time the DSLR + histogram + post-processing are adequate, but there's something satisfying about recognizing a specific zone, spot metering, shifting exposure and seeing the results!
Maybe it's like shooting in Raw w/o presetting WB, just tweaking in post processing, or maybe shooting with higher megapixels using only one lens... after all, you can post-process crop/stitch/filter(lens distortion) to create a wide range of images!

0 upvotes
Vitruvius
By Vitruvius (Oct 8, 2012)

I got the first edition from a used book store. Excelent tool and most of it still applies to digital. Not sure why this system needs a digital translation except to make more money from sales. Even the new cover is an obvious sales push.

Lots of old school rules in the book that most people have not heard about. Like how to get a propor exposure range for people shots outside by metering the back of your hand in direct sun and then in shade. The auto settings on your camera will take everything into account. But only you know that the skin tones need to be in the middle of he exposure range. Or you can just AE bracket like a clueless idiot and cross your fingers and resist learing anything useful and still get something and spend more time later on the computer and not be any wiser.

Comment edited 57 seconds after posting
3 upvotes
Vitruvius
By Vitruvius (Oct 8, 2012)

Just realized that the latest edition now covers digital histograms. That might be nice info addition.

5 upvotes
Houseqatz
By Houseqatz (Oct 8, 2012)

all this talk of film technique, makes me wonder why nobody ever talks about reciprocity, or reciprocity failure.. i know that it isn't really something we worry about with imaging sensors.. but it was REALLY important with film..

zone, and reciprocity.. two topics RARELY mentioned by photographers (under the age of 35) =\

i'm not trying to be nostalgic, but understanding how different types of film reacts to different colors/light helped me a lot when i was younger, and now with digital, i still think about these things..

1 upvote
Model Mike
By Model Mike (Oct 8, 2012)

I guess he doesn't talk about reciprocity failure for the same reason we don't drive with a red flag in front of our cars. Perhaps it's time too that the zone system was consigned to the same corner of photographic history. But hey, if knowledge the zone system is a right of passage (crutch?) for the practitioners of the ancient art of film, then so be it. A good understanding of tonal curves and how they relate to contrast and brightness is arguably more relevant in the digital age.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 3 minutes after posting
1 upvote
rallyfan
By rallyfan (Oct 8, 2012)

The book itself, at least the early version, was very interesting. (I see there are sub-$10 copies available around, it's not bad at all, I'm being honest - no digital info in that version though).

Fun as it is, a photographer born this century can go their entire life without ever becoming familiar with the zone system, and the exposure of their images will be just fine. Sorry. It's not just photography; a mechanic born this century could go their entire life without knowing how to set the gap on ignition points or adjust a carburetor and their cars would be just fine. That's life. In the digital age the system is much less useful, at least in its current incarnation. Many of the remaining fans simply use it as a right of passage or a character building exercise.

If you are an artist with a vision and you know Ansel and His Work, by all means load up 40kg of kit and head for the hills. Take the book with you too. Bye!

1 upvote
peatantics
By peatantics (Oct 9, 2012)

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Mathematics Newton to You too few
Discovered, no thought inertia frame.

Photon electron interface energetic
Minuscule forces mass unit value
Potato skins bitumen silver
Bullets holster of lone practitioner.

Working equals force buy time of act
Photon multi plyers charged coupled
Devices detected rainbow Huey
Tuned memorial of ones or zeros.

Pixiel pixies in space of color shoe.
Standard values for all, the sum of you.

n-joy=peat<8<(1)>

0 upvotes
tdptdp
By tdptdp (Oct 8, 2012)

I'm well schooled in Zone System photography, but digital isn't slide film. The magic of working with the system is the ability to manage C&D from exposure through to output - in this case a wet print. It works great in black and white, and can be applied to wet process color, but I'm missing the connection to digital.

I would think that a truly digital 'zone' system would have to combine exposure in all three channels, probably employing UniWB, and then correlate those values to the output media - either print or digital display. End-to-end control, so that the photographer knows that the highlights she's preserving in varying lighting conditions are going to be expressed in the final photograph.

It's what we did when learning Zone in the first place - shoot, then print, then calibrate.

0 upvotes
Scott Eaton
By Scott Eaton (Oct 8, 2012)

I learned zone system in college from a protege' who learned directly under Adams. Zone system was a means to and ends, not the other way around as Ansel worshippers here are trying to tell us. It was also practiced by the commercial printing industry in different form and merely applied to chemical photography by Adams. Adam's didn't invent the discipline from ground zero if you ask any retired pre-press tech. The end goal of Zone System was to produce a print with aethestically linear values that were under control by the photographer from the exposure stage, to the printing stage. The problem is that the majority of photogs don't print anymore and don't process film. What's left is some relevant disciplines towards tonal control, but if you really need to understand this from a zone system perspective, which is print orientated you likely don't get it anyways. However, it might give you confidence to make insulting comments about digital photography not being as good as film, etc.

2 upvotes
obeythebeagle
By obeythebeagle (Oct 8, 2012)

Lugging an 8x10 around Yosemite will keep you in shape! One can only image what Ansel would think of the Sigma D2 Merrill, with high res in a pocket camera? Would he auto bracket? Why not.

1 upvote
mantra
By mantra (Oct 8, 2012)

this is the second edition ,isn't it?
i bought the first edition but it is more oriented to the film

does someone buy the second edition ? is a help for digital?

thanks

Comment edited 51 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Mollysnoot2
By Mollysnoot2 (Oct 8, 2012)

The snapshot of the front cover included in this article clearly shows that it is in fact the FIFTH edition, as does the article text itself.

M

1 upvote
Micky Nixgeld
By Micky Nixgeld (Oct 8, 2012)

Why buy what you can get free? Besides, there´s already tons of info out on the market. Why another book about the same?
Check the tube!

0 upvotes
qwertyasdf
By qwertyasdf (Oct 8, 2012)

Zone system has it's place in photography, but a whole book about the topic?
I think one page is enough, you either get it or you don't....

0 upvotes
Piet Maartens
By Piet Maartens (Oct 8, 2012)

One aspect that is often overlooked is that Ansel Adams worked mostly with large format view cameras – I think up to 11 x 14 inches. This probably limited the amount of film he could take with him and the Zone System enabled him to get every exposure spot-on. Exposure bracketing would not only have been impractical, but also very expensive. Such limitations hardly apply to 35 mm photography and digital imaging. Whilst it is always good to have a sound understanding of the theory, the practical relevance of the Zone System nowadays seems to be limited. The only benefit I can see is that it trains the photographer’s eye and mind. Or am I missing something here?

3 upvotes
writelight
By writelight (Oct 8, 2012)

Well, your second- to -last sentence is what matters, isn't it? That's why we appreciate artists such as Adams. While most people don't know or won't care about the Zone System, others understand that the System helped him accomplish his vision.

1 upvote
DaveMarx
By DaveMarx (Oct 8, 2012)

Is the practical relevance limited? If the only issue was the cost of sheet film vs. memory cards, yes. Economic necessity may have helped drive the development of the Zone System, but its goal was to achieve a pre-visualized result. You can bracket a 5-stop spread and all 5 might contain blown-out highlights, or fail to pick up desired shadow detail. No matter how cheap the recording medium, you have to know how to get what you want, or you'll likely waste both time and opportunity.

For me, the intellectual beauty of Adams' work was his ability to pre-visualize a result coupled with the technical mastery to bring that result to fruition. That's my personal definition of art.

Sure, we all discard far more frames than we keep. Even Adams expected to produce no more than 6 worthy images in a year. But we have to ask ourselves, when does all that bracketing and multi-frame burst shooting move our work from "art" to "luck?"

3 upvotes
meanwhile
By meanwhile (Oct 8, 2012)

"when does all that bracketing and multi-frame burst shooting move our work from "art" to "luck?""

Never. Luck has always been an element of art. Both good luck, and bad luck. You still have to be there, and engaged, and creating, and have something in your viewfinder worth capturing.

0 upvotes
photowipe
By photowipe (Oct 11, 2012)

the harder you work, the luckier you get.

1 upvote
40daystogo
By 40daystogo (Oct 8, 2012)

I am a zone system user from darkroom-chemical days, but someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the provision of real-time histograms on the rear LCD of the DSLR or high-end premium compact gets me there most of the time, in terms of not over-exposing the highlights, or not under-exposing the shadows excessively. Whilst it may not be precise in terms of getting Zone VI precisely on Zone VI, the histograms serve the same end goal of giving me a tool for not blowing out highlight or shadow detail. Also, the histogram, plus the ability to roughly check exposure on the LCD act as two tools that make the Zone system procedure only really useful in ultra-precise photos where you have time to go through the mental steps, as opposed to a fast-changing situation that requires fast shooting.

8 upvotes
writelight
By writelight (Oct 8, 2012)

Good points. I think the primary benefit maybe training the eye and the imposition of a reliable discipline. You're probably right about the histogram in most situations. Not really sure the LCD however.
What % of the Zone System do you get with the histogram for practical purposes? It's a tough question.

1 upvote
siark
By siark (Oct 8, 2012)

Well, remember that the histogram is based on the *converted* raw image... using the white balance and conversion settings you have set in camera. These settings can have quite an effect on whether highlights are blown or not. This assumes you are shooting raw of course ;-)

0 upvotes
tem00
By tem00 (Oct 8, 2012)

I too used the zone system, in the 80's, but i dont see the application in digital where you tweak everything in real time.

1 upvote
writelight
By writelight (Oct 7, 2012)

It's only worth the money if you care about your photograph, understand the role that light and shadow play, and wish to have control over your work. Digital doesn't change this, much to the chagrin of the peepers. Just because the lab's in your software doesn't mean you should relinquish the camera's capabilities prior to post. The Zone System is all about how to develop an understanding of the image. It's for those who want to grow and actually have a clue about what they're doing, not for most.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
3 upvotes
Julian Bates
By Julian Bates (Oct 8, 2012)

I think its faintly ridiculous to suggest that buying this book is a way of demonstrating that you *care about your photographs*. It sounds like most of the book is focused on film techniques, and the original approach was developed to deliver good exposure in an age where it was expensive and time-consuming to make mistakes, so for most people this book probably represents *very poor* value for money. Of course we should think about dynamic capture range and the role of light and dark in artful composition, but a whole book on an archaic approach doesn't seem the best way to go about it.

3 upvotes
faterikcartman
By faterikcartman (Oct 7, 2012)

I have Ansel Adams' "The Camera", "The Negative", and "The Print". Does the book offer anything "The Negative" doesn't cover? I spent most of my photographic life shooting positive slide film. I'm really not a post-processing digital expert so I'm not sure if this sort of work is really helpful today. Personally, I regularly get properly exposed shots right out of the camera, or have a good sense what needs correction/adjustment. But I'm not sure if that's from reading about Adam's zone-system, or years of experience shooting slides and their tight range.

1 upvote
Micky Nixgeld
By Micky Nixgeld (Oct 7, 2012)

Does somone need "The Zonesystem" in the age of HDR and other digital "goodies"?
For film it´s great, but...

0 upvotes
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (Oct 7, 2012)

My opinion is that zone thinking is good. Look at the scene in front of you and try to estimate what areas shall be put in dark and bright zones.

What I dont get though is how the zone system nechanics maps to a digital camera, a RAW to RGB converter and Photoshop and then printing, all color managed. It just seems to be a too complex view on something where you already have a work flow that tries to guarantee color managed correctness.

Its like cake on cake as we say in Swedish - it sounds redundant and unnecessary.

But maybe the book gives good answers to that riddle.

0 upvotes
DaveMarx
By DaveMarx (Oct 7, 2012)

Zone System is an incredible tool for fitting creative expression to the limitations of the physical medium. Whether we're talking about photo-chemical film emulsions, digital sensors, analog audio tape or digital audio (I very successfully applied Zone System techniques as a Classical and Jazz recording engineer), there are always physical limits - too bright, too dim, too loud, too quiet. How do you photograph (or record audio) so that you have as much highlight detail and shadow detail as possible within a single image or recording? Zone System. The specific techniques for doing that vary from medium to medium, but the lesson is universal.

Adams trained as a pianist in his youth, and I believe he brought his understanding of musical dynamics (from pianissimo to fortissimo) to photography. Light and shadow, loud and soft.

8 upvotes
marco1974
By marco1974 (Oct 8, 2012)

Beautifully put, DaveMarx!
I agree 100%.
Marco

Comment edited 15 seconds after posting
1 upvote
Micky Nixgeld
By Micky Nixgeld (Oct 8, 2012)

Digital Photography is a new way of shooting wich requires a new way of thinking.
Adams didn´t use the Zonesystem to develop beautiful negs to look at. He was thinking of the paper that had a DR of about 5-6 zones or steps. It was more a necessity than an "artistic visualization"
And he didn´t bracket. He shot BUPs in case a neg would get damaged.
What we do in digital photography is not too shrink the "negs" when we have a HDR scene. We bracket and merge. We don´t have only one neg. You can´t do that and many other things with film.
Digital photography is much about post-visualization and not pre-...
It´s tha same with music. Nobaody wants to listen to a "5-zone Beethoven concert". We want as much dynamic range as possible, of course. Wich the digital CD can handle but not the Vinyl-record.
e.g. It´s a new way of thinking. As said many times before. It´s better to think "DR" than "Zone". It´s better to think "what can I squeeze into my neg" than "what can I squeeze into my paper".

Comment edited 4 minutes after posting
3 upvotes
BigEnso
By BigEnso (Oct 7, 2012)

I think it would have to an exceptional book to convince me to pay $28.76 for an ebook edition. That's less than $8.00 cheaper than the paperback edition. This may be one of those times I wait for the movie to come out.

1 upvote
migus
By migus (Oct 7, 2012)

Can the B/W zone system help today's Bayer-filtered CMOS sensors?

E.g., digital multipliers "...relative sensitivity of the sensor in the 5D2 is 5:2:1 in the G:B:R channels ... before any white balance corrections are applied in the camera (for the displayed JPEG and associated histogram) or in the raw processor, the intensity of the green channel is 5 times that of the red channel. Translation: even though the red channel might look like it is clipping after the white balance corrections are applied, the raw data is not clipping, and the detail can be recovered ..."
http://community.spiritofphotography.com/index.php?topic=857.0

This, however, holds only for 'normal' daylight, not for sunset, tungsten, high elevation.
"Under extremely warm lighting (incandescent lights) you will have to watch both the green and red channels for clipping, while under extremely cool lighting (some fluorescent bulbs) you will have to watch both the green and blue channels for clipping.)" [keithsnell]

0 upvotes
Philip Corlis
By Philip Corlis (Oct 7, 2012)

I have used Chris' earlier edition to teach the Zone system for film. It is one of the easiest understood texts about Ansel Adams seminal work. I am sure his extension into the digital world is equally valuable.

Now, is the Zone System still valid? Yes. One real value of the zone system is to teach pre-visualization and the careful control of exposure. The use of a spot meter with film or understanding histograms in digital can help a photographer carefully place scene tones. It's true we no longer control film contrast through development but we do use contrast curves in post processing to do the same job.

Ansel Adams knew as well as anyone that the tools of photography will constantly change but the concepts of proper exposure and careful image post processing will always matter to many photographers.

4 upvotes
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (Oct 7, 2012)

Back to the book. Its impossible from this review to tell if its worth the money or not. Maybe it is. For those unfamiliar with zone thinking, it probably is good to read some book about it. For those familiar with the zone system, it migth (or might not) be useful to see how the author proposes to use it for digital. Only reading the book will tell.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (Oct 7, 2012)

Some posters says this is important and some says its irrelevant. Like both of those poster categories, I have not either read the book. Which of course make opinions somewhat uncertain.

I have used the zone system for B&W film. There it works fine. But - later I started to use multi grade papers and a color head and I could compensate in the post processing, and the zone system became less important. But - of course - understanding zones makes it easier to visualize the result.

Using digital is more like using multi grade paper. Its not necessary to expose and develop the "negative" correctly any more. You can fix it in post processing. Its still important to understand zones though.

It helps you to see what images are worth taking. A mish mash of tones will probably not look good. Pure and nice areas of simple constant zones is probably going to look better.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
Bob Tullis
By Bob Tullis (Oct 7, 2012)

I'd suggest it IS important to get the exposure right with the RAW 'negative'. At least, if one wants to get the most out of their sensor's capabilities. I don't believe an intimate knowledge and practice of the Zone System is necessary with digital, though a good sense of a simplified zone system can help one visualize what they are asking of their sensor for the challenge at hand.

Comment edited 36 seconds after posting
10 upvotes
Doug Frost
By Doug Frost (Oct 7, 2012)

@Roland - Nonsense. It is every bit as important to expose properly with digital as it was with film, unless, of course, you don't mind living with lack of shadow detail or blocked highlights. As with film, if it isn't there in the digital "negative", it just isn't there. No amount of post processing in Photoshop or whatever can make up for it.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
6 upvotes
Steve
By Steve (Oct 7, 2012)

yes, it is important to expose properly, but with the dynamic range limitations of the sensor, in many cases, one exposure will NOT do the trick... there are many who still have older digital cams with old sensors and i doubt the zone system is the answer for those people. nowadays, we just have to watch the histograms and shoot accordingly. our sensors now tell us how to expose.. not the zones...

0 upvotes
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (Oct 7, 2012)

@Doug. Nonsense is a big word. The RAW image is linear and my K-5 has 14 stops of information. Its perfectly useful to under expose one stop to assure not clipping high lights.

Film had an S shaped response. It also had a toe. If you under expose, the image hit the toe, and you got problems. Large sensor digital cameras are more unforgiven for under exposure.

Over exposure is another thing entirely - then digital cameras clips - and often clips ugly.

Expose the histogram to the right is often optimal. You have to be careful though. Its my experience that the histogram only is an approximation. The actual image may clip, even if the histogram dont say so.

Comment edited 33 seconds after posting
1 upvote
Roland Karlsson
By Roland Karlsson (Oct 7, 2012)

@Steve. HDR photography is tricky. You cannot really rely on multiple exposures tone mapped in an HDR software to look realistic. It might look good - but you are leaving the area of photography IMHO - end enter the area of image manipulation and artwork.

But yes - watching the histogram takes you far. Pure zone system thinking is by far to cumbersome maybe.

Hmmmm ... maybe it would be interesting to read this book and find out if the guy have made any revolutionary findings regarding how to map zone system to digital, hopefully making it easy to use.

0 upvotes
Steve
By Steve (Oct 7, 2012)

sure you can get the exposure right in camera ... and nothing wrong with that.
but since i do post anyway on all my stuff, a little raw or hdr processing is much easier than all that zone business...
having said that, i would say that ANYONE should know how the zone system works. they will then understand how light in a scene is captured. it may help to determine wether or not to lift the camera up your eyes in the first place..

Comment edited 4 minutes after posting
1 upvote
marco1974
By marco1974 (Oct 7, 2012)

All those who say the Zone System is irrelevant today must be those same people whose idea of photography is to "spray and pray" with their 10fps DSLRs set to Matrix/Evaluative metering, and then "tweak and salvage" whatever sheer chance presented them with (at least exposure-wise) in post-processing.
BUT for those who instead wish to MAKE pictures and approach photography as a more slowed-down and deliberate art akin to painting, the Zone System is actually as relevant today as it ever was.
Marco

Comment edited 51 seconds after posting
13 upvotes
Photomonkey
By Photomonkey (Oct 7, 2012)

While you are correct in the main in your comments I would observe that the automation afforded by today' cameras gets to 95% of where one needs to be in terms of creating the original file. The "good old days" never were. Adams would have been all over digital and PS in a heartbeat.

4 upvotes
Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (Oct 7, 2012)

Being an old timer with tons of experience on film photography all I can say is that nowadays with the best digital cameras that have about 14 evs of DR it is very, VERY EASY to get the exposure right, and shooting raw the adjustments needed afterwards are very, very EASY to make, child's play.

11 upvotes
zos xavius
By zos xavius (Oct 7, 2012)

I agree. I tend to expose to the left slightly and pull highlights back in post. My k-7 gives me easily a stop or so in recovery as long as I don't blow it and my k-5 really amazes me in what I can pull out. I can get a very HDR look if I start pulling things to the extremes. Digital makes everything easy for sure. You still have to have the vision and the talent to get good pictures. The medium has changed and is becoming far more forgiving, but still. Also a lot of film had great latitude and film still has better highlight retention IMO, but the shadows really suffer.

1 upvote
fuego6
By fuego6 (Oct 7, 2012)

And this is also why I got OUT portrait photography work... was finding that EVERY family has a pretty decent camera these days that can create some very good photos right out of the camera... the days where someone pays someone else to take family photos is dwindling I'm afraid... wedding and sports photographers seem to still be the only safe bets!

2 upvotes
Photomonkey
By Photomonkey (Oct 8, 2012)

@fuego6. wedding and sports are the most saturated markets out there. The real markets are in areas where the average person sees no glamour and where real skills, (developed over years) and networking are paramount. There are still big checks waiting for people who can reliably deliver on critical commercial jobs. Portraits, weddings and sports....not so much.

2 upvotes
Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (Oct 7, 2012)

And to tell you the truth the pictures Angel Adams took/made are pretty. Pretty BORING.

1 upvote
zos xavius
By zos xavius (Oct 7, 2012)

So, maybe you find landscapes boring. As far as landscape artists go, he was better than many back then and faced a lot of challenges. His attention to lighting and his zone system are very noteworthy and influenced people for years to come, myself included. I don't think he was the greatest photographer ever, but he was very good at what he did and was using very primitive equipment. If you can't have respect for that then oh well, feel free to learn nothing new. Just don't diminish a dead man or his achievements and continued influence because its not what you like. His "boring" pictures made him the highest paid photographer at one point.

9 upvotes
Robert Hoffman
By Robert Hoffman (Oct 7, 2012)

Reproductions do not do Adams justice. You have to see his original prints to fully understand their tonality, dynamic range, and sheer beauty. Even the best digital prints look harsh, in comparison.

Comment edited 6 minutes after posting
13 upvotes
Rehabdoc
By Rehabdoc (Oct 7, 2012)

Who is "Angel Adams"? Ansel Adams was a highly respected photographer whose prints have sold more copies than your DSLR camera has pixels.

3 upvotes
Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (Oct 7, 2012)

Well, Angel's pictures are technically marvellous, but the artistic side is lacking, that I find really boring. Postcards. Compositions are like everyone would do. Angel was a technician, a very skilled craftsman but not much more.

1 upvote
iaredatsun
By iaredatsun (Oct 7, 2012)

Angel Adams is one of my favourite photographers – unlike his less talented but more successful brother, Ansel.

Rehabdoc, is it really true that has Ansel sold more than 16 million prints? To quote Minor White, 'that's pixelating awesome'.

1 upvote
SeeRoy
By SeeRoy (Oct 7, 2012)

Let's see, Ansel Adams, apart from being a pianist of concert standard was a photographer of whom Edward Steichen observed on first seeing his work, "these are simply some of the best photographs I have ever seen." Not to mention the sheer level of hard work Adams put into capturing and printing these images - almost 7 days a week for an entire working life. But maybe Mr. "Rage Joe" has higher standards. Alternatively he's simply a fool.

4 upvotes
blue camera
By blue camera (Oct 7, 2012)

What is boring or exciting certainly varies between viewers. And many postcard views probably got their status from the originals of Ansel Adams and other photographers. But beyond his photos and techniques (a creative approach, a scientific application, and tons of post-processing), what I personally enjoy about Adams is the wealth of written material by, and about, him and how he actually became an established photographer. It was a time when photography was usually not considered as "art" and it's fascinating to look back and see how things changed because of Adams and his peers.

3 upvotes
dodgebaena
By dodgebaena (Oct 7, 2012)

Ansel Adams, the man and his achievements, doesn't need defending from negative criticisms that can only come, I am sure, from ignorance and other issues. Personally, I "grew" as a photographer from reading his books and consuming his photo advice. No less inspiring was his way of living. I got into 4x5, dip and dunk, and stained fingers because of Adams. Later on, even at 52, I am still shooting weddings and events beside 20-30 somethings because according to the studio who hires me, my photos have some depth, to them. Adams way of seeing was an inspiration and he still teaches me to this very day.

Comment edited 37 seconds after posting
3 upvotes
Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (Oct 7, 2012)

Well, it seems like you all liked my opinion on Angel. So I was wrong, wasn't I!

1 upvote
MrMojo
By MrMojo (Oct 8, 2012)

Ansel's landscape photography doesn't need any defending, period. The man transformed large format nature photography and inspired an entire generation (or two...) of outdoor photographers.

Ansel also created many fine images besides his iconic landscapes. His image "Woman Behind Screen Door, Independence, California" took my breath away when I viewed it many years ago at a gallery in Carmel, California.

The web image does not do it justice; the large print must be seen in person to fully appreciate its beauty. The same goes for the rest of his photography; even the best reproductions in books do not come close to the actual prints.

If you have only seen Ansel's work via postcards, posters and other published media you simply haven't had the opportunity to truly appreciate his technical expertise that allowed him to create magnificent photographic prints.

http://ccp.uair.arizona.edu/item/11701

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 52 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (Oct 8, 2012)

Ooh, to me it looks like Angel needs a lot of defending, that's just what you all did. But I still think Angel's pictures are a bore.

1 upvote
MrMojo
By MrMojo (Oct 9, 2012)

Ansel's images don't require any defending, but your opinion certainly does. But that would require some time and effort on your part... It is simply much easier for you to make an offhand comment mainly to garner a reaction than it is to offer a cogent defense of your remarks.

You can be certain that no one really takes your opinion seriously. But you can rest assured that you are a master of the lazily ignorant, dime-a-dozen forum post.

0 upvotes
Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (Oct 10, 2012)

No need, and already nine posts DEFENDING Angel against me :)))!

0 upvotes
CameraLabTester
By CameraLabTester (Oct 7, 2012)

Good luck to the success of the book.

Every author who produce well meaning books must be encouraged.

But to be honest, the subject is irrelevant and out of date, and there are other more easier and practical methods and techniques.

It is a good hobby to study typesetting and mimeograph procedures, but it is much better to use MS Office® or InDesign®.

3 upvotes
ir Bob
By ir Bob (Oct 7, 2012)

Any argumentation on why this subject is out of date and which easier and more practical methods are available would make your comment actually informative...

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
8 upvotes
JaFO
By JaFO (Oct 7, 2012)

While you might not need to know the classic procedures in detail, you do need to learn the basic language and terminology to get the best out of your gear.

Modern tech might make it easier to (automagically) adjust every possible attribute, but it still doesn't create art unless you understand why and how your changes help.

3 upvotes
Aleo Veuliah
By Aleo Veuliah (Oct 7, 2012)

Must be a good book but needs sometime to learn well. Good article.

1 upvote
AndroC
By AndroC (Oct 7, 2012)

The Zone System is about adjusting exposure and film development time for individual plates to precisely place the brightness range of a scene within the linear part of the particular film sensitometry curve, for the maximum tonal range. Ansel Adams was a techical and artistic master of the first order. But the Zone System is completely irrelevant for contemporary digital work. If it gives one a better understanding of exposure that's all very well, but in terms of image devlopment, it just does not apply. Hence the reason for the lack of books on this topic nowadays.

2 upvotes
Chris Noble
By Chris Noble (Oct 7, 2012)

I agree. I used the Zone System in my film days; the concept (but not the practice) of ZS is relevant to shooting JPEGs. But correct Raw exposure is completely different.

0 upvotes
gl2k
By gl2k (Oct 7, 2012)

high dynamic range sensors + exposure bracketing + powerful RAW software have made the zone system a superfluous art.
Today it is much more important to understand how your camera works and where are the limits of hardware & software.

if you are interested ...
http://photo.tutsplus.com/articles/theory/understanding-using-ansel-adams-zone-system/

2 upvotes
cesaregal
By cesaregal (Oct 7, 2012)

Interesting article!
Then I could :
- meter spot in what I'm more concerned
- if white snow overexpose 2 stop
- if pure yellow overexpose 1 stop
- if dark blue sky underexpose 1 stop
- if black shoes underexpose 2 stop.
Good easy solution could be a combination of an exposure braketing -1 stop / 0 /+1 stop and of 1 stop over-exposure when I suppose be in Zone 3/4 or 1 stop under-exposure when I suppose be in Zone 6/7.

0 upvotes
fuego6
By fuego6 (Oct 7, 2012)

Someday all cameras will have an automated bracketing and exposure shooting for every photo... no need to even press the shutter 5-7 times.. just hit the shutter once and the camera will do all the work to 9-10 images, mark the IPTC as a stack and provide them all to you for editing later on.

3 upvotes
cesaregal
By cesaregal (Oct 7, 2012)

My D700 can vary exposure from -1 stop max to +1 stop max in exposure bracketing.
Then if you want -2 stop exposure variation too you must underexpose -1 stop.
I hit the shutter once. Then I choose the better image without editing.

0 upvotes
mas54
By mas54 (Oct 8, 2012)

Guys, the theory of the behind the zone system is a useful tool for photographers. If you rely on the auto functions of the camera, you are a camera owner. It's kind of like the difference between using your own anatomy and knowledge thereof and buying your girlfriend a vibrator so she can do it herself.

0 upvotes
abi170845
By abi170845 (Oct 7, 2012)

I've read Adams book about it, but with digital, live view, exposure simulation, SLT, LCD playback, instant histogram, post processing, and with experience, I never really think about zone system.

2 upvotes
JaFO
By JaFO (Oct 7, 2012)

Would you have been sure if you hadn't read a book about this 'zone system' approach ?

0 upvotes
rhlpetrus
By rhlpetrus (Oct 7, 2012)

This is what every photographer that wants to control exposure and results should learn. It's interesting that digital is more like positive than negative film, meaning that the problematic area are the HLs, as were the shadows in negative film. Transparent negative film is the analog of saturated sensor photosites. The great advantage of digital is that one can see immediatley, via the histogram, if the used exposure is adequate for the ends intended.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
Gesture
By Gesture (Oct 7, 2012)

Thanks for reviewing. We need more discussion of metering and exposure for digital photography.

4 upvotes
Camediadude
By Camediadude (Oct 6, 2012)

Thanks, now this is what I'm talking about! More books, please (even though I can't currently afford quite so many treasures! At least, it goes on the 'wish list' for now..

1 upvote
jazzphotog1
By jazzphotog1 (Oct 7, 2012)

local library maybe...

1 upvote
MrMojo
By MrMojo (Oct 8, 2012)

I agree with Gesture's post. Many so-called photographers use their whiz-bang DSLRs like glorified Polaroid cameras without a solid grounding in the craft of photography. The DP Review forums are full of 'em...

0 upvotes
oionggia1255
By oionggia1255 (Mar 14, 2013)

It seems like a great tool to understand photography.

1 upvote
Total comments: 102