Camera Position 43 : There’s Creativity in The Zone

Creative photography benefits from mastering technical content. This first installment of a discussion of The Zone System of exposure will help you stop worrying about whether the photograph will “work out” so you can concentrate on being creative.

Zone Scale

In the photographs below, the highlighted side of the ball (left image) was “placed” on Zone VIII and the under side of the fountain was “placed” on Zone III.

(photographs by Jeff Curto; click images for larger views)

Ball placed on Zone VIII Fountain placed on Zone III

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12 thoughts on “Camera Position 43 : There’s Creativity in The Zone”

  1. Great show Jeff, I’ve recently been reading up on the Zone System and finding a few parts of it a little difficult to grasp. The pdf you’ve put together certainly makes it easier to understand.. Thanks for the hard work you’ve put into it.

    Cheers from Australia.


  2. Thanks, Matt… one of the things that has always mystified me about the Zone System is that it has mystified so many folks. It’s really pretty simple stuff and the concepts are really just as applicable to the digital world as they always have been for the film world.

    I think it’s one of those things that people *want* to have be complicated, so they *think* that it is.

    I’ll get the other parts of the PDF together in the next week or two and we’ll get another podcast or two up about these topics.

    One question I have for folks is whether they like this “somewhat more technical” topic as compared to the other “mostly creative” topics that I’ve been covering.


  3. Matt,

    this is such a useful podcast and information to me. I like to thank you truly for sharing this information. This kind of information are very important for amature photographer like me that didn’t learn the photography in school.
    Thanks Thanks


  4. I’ve read the Ansel Adams books, but frankly the zone system was way beyond me and I decided not to worry about it any more. Not that I didn’t understand the big principles of it, but it all seemed to much of a bother.

    As a somewhat older student of photography (o well, 42 isn’t old, is it?) I’ve had a number of teachers trying to explain the zone system to me, but none of them could convince me to change my ways. Mainly probably because none of them used the zone system themselves (lazy buggers).

    After listening to you podcast however, I’ve decided to give it another go. How about that?

    Geert Huysman from Belgium

  5. Heya Jeff

    Just saw your comment asking for feedback about technical vs creative topics. One of the main reasons I listen to Camera Position is because of the creative content, there’s plenty of technical based podcasts out there, however I think from time to time we do need to hear some of the technical behind the creativitiy when its relevent..


  6. Dear Jeff, I am listening to your podcast from Hamburg, Germany.

    I studied Design with a concentration in Photography. I had to make my own program back then so I really appreciate your History and Camera Position podcasts to help refresh my understanding.

    Though I can see its application in digital imaging, isn’t the Zone System less appropriate for roll films? Though I get only 8 exposures with my 6×9 camera, I rarely take all 8 of the same subject under the same lighting conditions. Can you suggest a practical way to work with this concept using roll films?


  7. Gusto;

    Thanks for listening and thanks for your comment. You’re right, of course, that with film, the Zone System makes a lot more sense with sheet film, where individual exposures can be given individual development treatment. Some medium format (6×7, 6×6, etc) cameras have detachable backs, where you could designate one back (or roll of film) for “plus” development, and another for “normal” development and still a 3rd for “minus” development. In fact, according to his books, Ansel Adams did just that.

    But, if that’s not an option, you have to just adjust your exposures slightly so that you are able to give that roll of film a development time that works for all exposures on the roll. It’s sort of a side-step approach, but it works, especially because it helps you to make decisions on how to figure the exposures for that roll and make some good choices in that regard.

    Hope that helps!


  8. Tim;

    Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t seen that web page before. I don’t necessarily disagree with it, though don’t think that, in the end, whether it’s 18% or 12% or some other reflectance value matters to serious photographers who (should) end up calibrating their materials and equipment so they get what they expect.

    Here’s what I think (or what I think I know…)

    Back in the “old days” of film, especially B&W film, we had a situation where, if you did exactly what the packaging instructions said on B&W film and developer, you got “sort of OK” results.

    When Adams codified the insanely complex (for photographers, anyway) world of sensitometry into the Zone System, what he did was give us a way of making sure we got what we had in our heads on film. To do that, he first acknowledged the problems of inadequate separation of values in the dark areas of the scene and the issues of blocked highlights in the film’s upper (highlight) reaches. To that, he added a verbal (meaning “non-technical”) method of describing those values. Ultimately, what his testing (or any testing of film to wring the maximum tone range out of it) did was show photographers that their film wasn’t quite as sensitive as the manufacturer told them it was and that they could get quite a bit more usable range of density out of the film.

    To put a concrete face on this… in all of the thousands (literally) of students I’ve led through the set of steps to do “zone system tests” on film, about 85% discovered that: 1) the film speed setting that the manufacturer printed on the box was too high by about 1 stop and 2) that the development time to get film to a maximum useable density was too low. Nearly all of the folks I’ve walked this through with end up with a lower film speed and a longer development time (including me with every film/developer combination I’ve ever tested, save for one).

    Whether the meter manufacturers did it on purpose or not, or whether the meters didn’t exactly link up with the real sensitivity of the film, or whether the film manufacturers just wanted to put a “bigger is better” number on the box, the fact is that most meter/camera/film combinations resulted in slight underexposure. For most photographers of the casual variety, this was a good thing because it kept photographers out of the way of the bigger problem of overexposed (blown-out) highlights, which was probably deemed to be more acceptable than lack of shadow detail separation. It’s the same for color film (especially transparency film) because a blown-out highlight is dead, but a dark shadow is simply… dark. There is an analogy in the auto industry, where most manufacturers dial in some “understeer” to make the car safer for the average driver, even though a well-trained driver would rather not have that handling characteristic.

    Fast-forward to the digital age, where over-exposure is dead, under-exposure is salvageable, especially with Raw files. Again, the combination of the meter/camera/sensor seems in some cases to be set up to favor under exposure.

    I’ll fall back on student data again here. In my Tools & Techniques for Digital Photography course, I have my students do a sort of rudimentary Zone System test. I have them photograph a single-toned, textured object first at the indicated meter reading and then at one stop increments 5 stops up the scale (more exposure) and 5 stops down the scale (less exposure). We look at their results in class. My primary objective for the assignment is to have them see how quickly detail drops away at the high end of the scale and how much they can get out of the low end of the scale. It also allows me to look at the problem of bit distribution across the scale and how few bits of data there are to describe the low values in an image, especially compared to how many bits there are to describe the high values. Most of our students have either Canon or Nikon digital cameras with a few falling into the “other” category.

    Now, another thing comes out of this test and that’s the point of my describing it. We usually (in, say, 75% of the student tests) discover that the “middle gray” reading for Nikon cameras is about 1 to 2 stops brighter than it is for Canon cameras. In other words, the Nikon meters are reading something like 18% to 20% reflectance and the Canon meters more like 12% to 14%. Near as I can figure, this is the two engineering teams from Nikon and Canon are taking different approaches to the problem of the exposure scale in digital cameras.

    Nikon is (seems to be) making sure that its customers are getting exposure that is pretty far up the exposure scale… and probably praying that no one has blown-out highlights but counting on the extra bits of data available at the high end of the scale to give them some leverage in post-exposure production.

    Canon is (seems to be) making sure that its customers don’t have blown-out highlights by giving them a bit less exposure and they are counting on the power of the linear digital file to render enough shadow detail to make the images look good.

    Another way to look at this is that Canon is banking on the relatively (compared to Nikon) noise-free “floor” of its sensors, while Nikon is keeping people from finding out that there is a lot of noise down there at the bottom of their (comparatively, at high-ISO speeds and until their most recent models… don’t want to piss off any Nikon fans here… great cameras, really) image files.

    So, the problem comes in that meters aren’t really *any* one (or two, or 3) sensitivity. We tend to simplify it by saying “18%” but in reality it’s “variable.” I used to have 5 light meters and they all read the exact same object, in the exact same light, as being a different reflectance. I ended up getting rid of all but two of them because it was like trying to cross a stream on unbalanced rocks… I had no solid place to stand.


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