The Zone System

Just what is the Zone System and how does it help me to be a better photographer?  

The Zone System is a photographic technique used by photographers to determine the perfect exposure for their photographs. It was created by Ansel Adams and allows the photographer to Pre-Visualise the outcome of their imagery and can be applied to colour and black and white film, as well as digital image taking.

Simply put, it is the ability to visualise the end result, in this case a photograph, and then use your techniques and knowledge to realise that vision. In order to create a more considered image, photographers have to have in mind the final outcome.

Ansel’s system allows you to create the perfect exposure for your vision. Do you want the subject to be shrouded in light or perhaps appear as a silhouette against a background?  Maybe you want to capture the subject as true to life as you can. By using this system you can ensure that you can create the right exposure for the task at hand.  Ansel devised a Zone chart from the darkest black to the lightest white and numbered each step from 1 to 10, with mid-grey, or 5 , being the perfect exposure.

Ansel Adams Zone System chart

This system works with a Light Meter to enable the perfect exposure , 5 or Mid-Grey. The Light Meter ( you can read more about how they work here . ) measure the lighting around the subject and then calculates what setting the camera needs in order to create the image. So for example, if I want to create a silhouette against a brightly lit window , I would need to ensure that the light meter was in the lightest part of the scene. This would be x.  I could then get the correct ISO , F-Stop and Shutter speed in order to capture my vision. Conversely, if I want to capture the subject as though it was falling into a flood of light, then I would need to meter the darkest point of the image.


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