# Zone. ystem. Handbook. Part 2 The Zone System in Practice. by Jeff Curto

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1 A Zone S ystem Handbook Part 2 The Zone System in Practice by

2 This handout was produced in support of s Camera Position Podcast. Reproduction and redistribution of this document is fine, so long as the contact information below is included in the document. 1/2007 Jeffrey Curto Silver Grapes Press, LLC

4 A Few more Details Previously, we Learned the Following: Light meters see middle gray We can make light meters smarter only by being smarter about what we aim them at; aiming them at important parts of our scene helps us to gain control over what the light meter sees and therefore what it tells us Apertures & Shutter Speeds have a 1:2 relationship (half-as-much / twice-as-much) The Zone System divides the dark-to-light scale into 11 Zones or areas of tone The Zones have a relationship of 1:2, just like Apertures and Shutter Speeds Zone V (five) is middle gray on the Zone System s scale, so it is what light meters want to see and create So, moving one whole Aperture or Shutter Speed in one direction or another changes the exposure of an object by one Zone A change in exposure changes all the values along the scale. Making one part of a scene one stop brighter makes every part of that scene one stop brighter. To Place a object that has a given amount of reflectance at a particular Zone on the Zone Scale, we simply have to meter that object with our light meters, note the exposure and then move that exposure up or down to make it match what Zone we think the object should be on Once we decide where an object should be Placed on the scale, we understand that since the reflectance of the scene hasn t changed, other objects will Fall on the scale in relative to how much more or less light they reflect than the object we metered and Placed Our opinion about the Zone important things in our photographs should be Placed on, or should Fall on is part of the creative process; we get to decide how the image should look The Zone System s descriptions of each Zone helps us understand the textural and brightness limits of the photographic process so we can fit the important parts of our images inside those limits Great, right? Well as you might suspect, because photography has some technical limitations, and because those technical limits change a bit depending on what material (negative film, transparency film, digital capture) is being employed, there are a few limitations as to how we can apply this scheme of making images. These aren t deal breakers, but rather realistic issues that are part of the photographer s tool kit. An issue in applying these principles is how light actually affects light sensitive materials during exposure. There is also the issue of what happens after an exposure is made. Whether in the computer or the traditional darkroom, we can exert post-exposure development controls on our photographs. In both cases, exposure and development, the application and effect is different in the film and digital worlds. 2 A Zone System Handbook

5 Film: Light & Exposure It s Graded on the Curve For film exposures, it takes a quantity of light to get the film s response moving. For the first small amounts of exposure (dark picture areas), very little change occurs in the density of the film. Then, once enough exposure has been reached, the film s changes in density more or less match the changes in exposure. At a point up at the high (light picture areas) end of the scale, however, the film s changes in density start to tail off; increases in exposure result in little to no change in film density (see illustration). So, it stands to reason that we need to fit our exposures in between these areas, causing them to land on the straight line section of the curve of the film s response to light. If we think about it, the Zone System s verbal descriptions tone and texture are telling us where the film starts responding to light and where it stops responding to additional exposure. Black & White Film: Changing Development to Control Highlights For Black & White film, a partial solution to the problem of controlling the film s density range is to change the amount of development the film receives. Changes in development time do not tend to change the shadow areas of the film very much at all, but more development causes the dense highlight areas of the negative to get more dense, while less development doesn t allow highlights to become nearly as dense as they could be. So, exposing the film so that the shadows get correct exposure for the desired Zone value and developing it so that highlights achieve the desired Zone value is the standard method of working. 3 A Zone System Handbook

7 Film: Light & Exposure Color Transparency Film: A Narrow Contrast Range Color transparency (slide) material is a lot more finnicky about exposure than negative film. Not only is there no development control over the contrast range, but the contrast range is quite narrow; about 5 stops as compared with the wider range of negative materials. When working with color transparency materials, however, it is best to place the high values, since color slides are direct positives and the high values are where the lowest density of the color dyes that make up the image occur, and you want to be able to control those areas. So, we need to do the opposite thing we would do with negatives; expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may (or, alternately, control shadow density with lighting or bounce-reflectors). Because their tone range is so narrow, exposure accuracy is important with transparency films, and we generally need to be within one half stop of accuracy for optimum results. Color photographs are closer to human vision Another thing to remember about color materials as compared to Black & White materials; most people see in color. Because of this, color photographs make them think that what they are seeing is very close to real. Therefore, black and white images allow more broad changes in your visualization than color images; people will tend to believe a photograph of a very dark gray apple, but not a photograph of a blue one. 5 A Zone System Handbook

8 Digital: Light & Exposure Digital Cameras are Linear The basic ideas of measuring light and making exposures hold true in the world of digital photography, too. With film, we ve seen that it takes a certain amount of light to start the film s response moving (Zone I) and that the film s density changes more in the middle zones than it does at the dark and light zones. The sensors in digital cameras have a linear response to the action of light. Like film, it takes a bit of light at the low (dark) end of the scale to get them going, but once started they respond in a linear fashion all the way up the scale to a point. An important difference with digital image capture is that there is an abrupt end to the camera sensor s response at the high (light) end; once the exposure has reached a certain point, all detail is lost, and it s lost for good. A good digital camera (one of the good to better DSLR cameras) can capture textured information somewhere in the area of 7 zones, from about zone I or zone II to zone VII. Zone System Concepts Still Apply We can still make placements and find out where other tones fall, but the approach is similar to what s used with working with color transparency materials; we need to work from the high end of the scale to make sure that the highlights don t fall off that abrupt edge and get blown out. With that information above, we would assume that exposing at the bottom of the scale would be our best bet; expose low on the scale to make sure that the highlights don t fall off the top end. Unfortunately, it s not quite that simple. 6 A Zone System Handbook

9 Digital: Light & Exposure Bit-by-Bit(Depth) Digital images are, well digital. This means that our digital exposures are built of the strings of Ones and Zeros ( bits ) that make up the digital universe. This means that there are some issues that are related to digital photographic exposures that compromise the information used to describe dark values and favor the information used to describe light values. If we shoot a JPEG image in the camera, the file we get captures 8 bits of data per pixel, which represents a total of 256 different levels of brightness per pixel per channel (one channel each for Red, Green & Blue). When this happens, half of those 256 levels go towards recording the brightest stop (zone), half of the remaining levels (128 levels) go towards recording The 8-Bit Problem the next brightest stop (zone), then Textured Zone Value half of what s left after that (64 levels) VII (brightest pixel) 128 goes towards recording the *next* brightest stop and so on for the rest of the stops. VI 64 V 32 There is a straight, linear halving of data IV 16 for each stop on down the scale. So, when III 8 we get down to the darkest textured areas of the image, we usually have only 4 (or, in some cases, 2) levels recording that detail, meaning that we wind up with texture being recorded by only 2 or 4 II I 0 (darkest pixel) different values, and we can t describe much delicate texture with those few values. So, with the zone system as it applies to digital photography, we want to place the highlights and then let the shadows fall where they will, making sure that, if there is important shadow detail, those shadows don t fall too far down on the exposure scale. We then just have to be aware that, when we meter something and place it on the high value, we don t get too much farther up the scale than zone VII and try really hard to make sure that our low values don t fall too far down so that they get described with enough different levels. The High-Bit Solution Textured Zone Value Number of Levels used to describe that value (8 Bit File) Number of Levels used to describe that value (12 Bit File) VII (brightest pixel) 2048 VI 1024 V 512 IV 256 III 128 II 64 I 32 0 (darkest pixel) 16 Bigger Bits with RAW There is another solution, and that s the RAW file. When you shoot RAW files, you don t just get 8 bits of data. Most of the better cameras capture RAW files at 12 bits of data per pixel, so when you have one of those files, you record 4096 levels per pixel per channel. This means that you have 2048 levels recording the brightest stop (zone), then 1024 levels describing the next brightest stop (zone) and on down the line until the darkest pixel is probably being described by at least 16 levels, and that s the black, textureless areas; lighter areas will be recorded by more levels. Obviously, this method makes sense for the photographer who wants the greatest amount of detail at both ends of the scale. 7 A Zone System Handbook

11 Doing the Zone System So, now that you have some conceptual and theoretical understanding of how all this works, what do you do next? First, remember that the Zone System is really all about by making images of things you want to make images of. You will learn lots about how the Zone System (and photography) works when you make some photographs and then process and evaluate them. Make some photographs by placing the important low values of the subject on the proper Zone for that subject. Remember that we do that by metering the significant dark area in the photograph (and only that area) and then placing that area on a dark (low) Zone by remembering that the meter wants to create middle gray and then closing down one, two, three or four stops (Zones) to make that dark area the Zone we want it to be. How do you know what the proper Zone is? The beauty of the Zone System is that you get to make the decision based on what you want to see in your finished image. Once you have made some images by placing low Zones, make more images placing high Zones. Remember that we do that by metering the significant light area in the photograph (and only that area) and then placing that area on a light (high) Zone by remembering that the meter wants to create middle gray and then opening up one, two, or three stops (Zones) to make that light area the Zone we want it to be. Pick the Zone you think is right, make the exposure and then process and evaluate the images you make. In both of the above situations, you have ignored the contrast of the scene. You have metered and exposed for only one end of the scale. The next step is to expose for one end of the scale and then meter the opposite end of the scale and find out how many stops (Zones) apart the two important values are. If (for example) you place a dark area on Zone III and the important light area is four stops (Zones) more reflective, then it falls on Zone VII. Then more of your judgment comes into call: is that acceptable to your original visualization of the image? If not, you may want to rethink your visualization, or know that you ll develop the film/process the digital file differently. You see, the Zone System allows you to become the maker of your images. It allows technical control, certainly, but what it really allows is creative control. Remember that it s all about being able to forget about the technology and be more creative! The Zones 0 I II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X 9 A Zone System Handbook

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