Getting in the Zone

Chris Dodkin

West Coast Correspondent
The next step from the spot metering methodology covered in is to translate the rather abstract exposure values into a logical and easy to apply exposure system.

Luckily, a little known photographer called Ansel Adams helped to develop just such a system with Fred Archer in 1940 - now known as the Zone System.

The basics are easy enough - the zone system is a set of shades from black through to white - 11 grades are used to divide up the shades as below.


So pure pure black is zone 0 and pure pure white is zone 10.

Zone 5 represents the midtone in the scene - this is the 18% grey tone that a lightmeter is looking for. Anything one stop darker will be Zone 4, two stops darker, Zone 3, and so on. Each shade is a stop from it's neighbor.

Anything one stop lighter than the midtone will be Zone 6, two stops lighter, Zone 7, etc.

Most digital cameras can show detail in Zones 3 through 7, but not beyond that. (Without post processing)

So Zone 8 and above may be clipped, and Zone 2 and below are dark dark black or blocked black.

A light color will lose saturation above Zone 6, and a dark color goes muddy below Zone 4.

So how does this impact our image from the exposure testing?


We'll start by selecting the key highlight—the brightest significant part of the scene that needs to have detail and texture. This would be the sunlit pillar in this shot.

Then we decide what zone that highlight should be. There are really only two choices. Zone 5 isn’t a highlight, it’s a midtone, while Zone 8 is potentially clipped.

So that leaves Zone 6 or Zone 7.

Use Zone 7 for objects that are light, such as sand or very light rock.

Next we spot-meter the highlight we've chosen - the pillar.

we get 1/1000 f/8 on our meter - which is of course assuming the target is a midtone 18% grey.

To make that area a Zone 7, we increase the exposure by two stops. In other words, if the meter indicates 1⁄1000 sec. at ƒ/8, we lower the shutter speed to 1⁄250 sec. to make that highlight Zone 7. (2 Stops)

We have our exposure for the scene - 1/250 at f/8 ISO200

We can go around the scene metering the same points as before and we can see how the various brightnes levels measured will translate into Zones.


The dark area in the porch is zone 3 - it's 2 stops darker than our mid tone but will still show detail.

The grass is zone 5, it's the same brightness as our mid tone. As mentioned earlier, we could have used the grass as a good analog for an 18% grey card, and used this to establish our mid-tone exposure setting.

None of the zones measured are outside of the range of the camera to register them - I've shown how the zones map to an exposure meter in the middle top of the image, and also how they map to a camera histogram top right.

We've successfully mapped our exposures to the Adams Zone System, and can use this to interpret a scene and judge how it will translate into a color or B&W image. We can judge the dynamic range, and make decisions about what in the scene should be a highlight, a dark area, pure white, pure black, or a mid tone.

Good B&W post processing software like NIK Silver FX will allow you to view the image in a neutral B&W conversion, and go through the zones (bottom right under the histogram) highlighting the areas for each zone on the image using a hatched overlay pattern.


Here, I have Zone 7 selected in the histogram window, and the image has a hatched overlay showing the stonework and some of the sky as being in zone 7.

As mentioned in the previous write-up, there's far more to the Zone System, and a read of Ansel Adams The Negative is recommended.

The Negative (Ansel Adams Photography,Book 2): Ansel Adams,Robert Baker: 9780821221860: Books

It's an old book - but it's just as relevant today with DSLRs and Mirror-less Compacts, as it was when it was written.

When you've got this down, you'll be able to do the whole thing without even needing a meter - well, that's the theory any way... :D
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Thanks, Chris. I wondered what those zone tabs were about in Nik Silver! Now I'll pay more attention to them. Of course, the point is to pay more attention before clicking the shutter. And that's something I'm going to have to understand when my MF camera arrives on Tuesday...
Chris, the picture of the zones has 11 inc 0 as pure black not 1 ...

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I you need to ammend, you will have to ammend both the article and the thread ... Don't delete the article and start again though as it will delete the thread ... Ill clean these messages when you done :)

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It still frys my brain this zone system ... Maybe I'll buy the book
Well spotted Hamish. I think there are variations on the zone method especially now it has been modified for digital. I thought zone 0 was 100% black and zone 1 was maximum black possible by the developing process and in most cases these were actually considered the same thing so zone 0 was discounted, making 10 zones in practical terms.

The Nikon P7000 had an excellent feature where you could review the image with the zone swatches running down the side of the screen. You could select each zone and the relevant part of the image would flash. This was handy as you could use the camera as quite a nifty meter.
Doh! Never was good a math :D

Fixed this post ok - but when I edit the article and hit SAVE the changes don't remain, it reverts to the original.

What's up with that Hamish?
I should add that the above method of exposing for highlights is good for digital and slide film, but if you're shooting negative film (as Adams mostly did) than you need to flip the idea and expose for shadow detail.

So you pick the area in the scene which is dark but you still want to just make out detail, and you start with that. This zone should be two stop away from your mid-tone Zone 5, so Zone 3.

On my test image that would be the porch area at 1/60 f/8

So open that up two stops and you have an exposure for the image of 1/250 f/8.

You can of course start with any point in the Zone System, which is it's great advantage - if you have something you want as the mid tone, you start right there at zone 5. If you have something that's lighter but not a highlight, you start at zone 6.

It gives you a mental reference point to start - and hence be able to get consistently good exposures across a wide range of lighting conditions.
odd - still looks like it hasn't changed when I click via the link on the home page :(

Even when I refresh
That did it - thx :)