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