Zone Vocabulary for Digital Photography

Although the Zone System was developed for black-and-white photography, the vocabulary for many parts of the system can be transferred directly to digital photography without further interpretation. The terms that have the most direct transference are the zones. The zones are the values, or the light energies, that reflect from the subject and are used to previsualize the final image.

Described briefly, there are 11 zones that range from zone 0 to zone X (10). Zone 0 is unexposed or, in digital terms, at or below the acceptable noise level; zone X is pure white. In the Zone System as taught by Ansel Adams, there were only 10 stops from zone 0 to zone IX. In either zone structure the zones relate to the light intensities in the scene. When applied consistently, either system works. For our purposes and based on the linear nature of digital capture, we will use the 11-zone system.

Within these zones we can define three specific areas of concern. First are the dark zones: 0, I, and II. These dark zones add the richness to the image. Next are the middle zones: III, IV, V, VI, and VII. These zones carry the detail for the image and are the most communicative portions of the image. Last are the light zones: VIII, IX, and X. These three light zones add energy and life to the image.

The zones represent a 10-stop range of light intensities. Although there are 11 zones, for our purposes we are interested only in the intervals between the zones, or a 10-stop range. This means that as we envision our image and use the zones for previsualization, they will fit easily within the dynamic range of most sensors. From the standpoint of exposure, each zone represents twice or half of the exposure value of adjacent zones, with the exception of zone 0 and zone X. This means that the value of each zone in the final image can be moved by one zone for each stop change in the exposure.

Although the exposure information on the camera's histogram can give us some indication of how to adjust our exposure, it is far better to use a handheld spot meter in conjunction with our digital camera to determine the exposure. The histogram on the LCD is only a rough indication of the light intensities in the scene, but a spot meter will allow you to accurately determine the dynamic range of the light in the scene and give you better exposure settings.

Because the light intensities in the scene do not always correspond to the desired values for an image, the way the image is handled after it has been exposed determines the way it can be used to make a print. In the Zone System with film, variations in the chemical development times affect the outcome in the printing of the image.


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For digital imaging we use post-processing in the same way we would use developing for film. We can either expand (stretch) the intensities to make them cover larger areas of the dynamic range that we can use in printing, or we can compact (compress) the intensities to make them conform to the limits that will be available in printing. However, compression of a file is not as effective for an overall image because digital sensors clip over- or underexposure. You cannot compress data that is not in the RAW file.

Expansion and compression can be handled in one of two ways within common imaging software: with levels or a tone curve. Regardless of whether a file is adjusted during RAW conversion or later in post-processing, these controls can be applied to maximize the potential of an image.

© by Mercury Megaloudis. Courtesy of the artist.
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