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  Photography Forum: Philosophy Of Photography Forum: 
  Q. Ansel Adams/Fred Archer and The Zone System
Rashed Abdulla
Asked by Rashed Abdulla   Donor  (K=163889) on 8/28/2006 
The zone system is a unique approach to film exposure and development invented by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer in 1939 or 1940. The zone system provides photographers with a systematic method of precisely defining the relationship between the way they see the photographic subject and the results they achieve in their finished works. In a sense, the zone system plays the same role that color management does for digital photographers. It allows for a direct correlation between the visual world and the final photographic print.

Unfortunately, the zone system gained an early reputation for being overly complex, difficult to understand and impractical to apply to real-life shooting situations. Two facts account for this misunderstanding: the first is that Ansel Adams, as the chief exponent of the zone system until the 1980’s was a gifted artist but tended to assume more technical knowledge than the average student who approached his workshops or books. Also, the zone system was initially designed for use with large format cameras where individual sheets of film could be processed separately. This allowed photographers to apply the zone system method to each subject discreetly, which is an ideal approach not easily applied to roll film cameras that, until the digital revolution, dominated photographic practice.
One other misconception about the zone system is that it does not apply to color or digital photography. In fact, the zone system is conceptually extremely simple and because of certain limitations inherent to traditional and digital photographic materials, any photographer who achieves consistent quality in their work has to be using some variation of the zone system whether they are aware of this or not.
Dynamic range
What makes the conceptual basis of the zone system necessary is the fact that modern photographic papers and current digital light sensors are very limited in the range of tonal values they can render. If you were to double in steps the amount of brightness you used to expose photographic papers, depending on the grade of paper or variable contrast filtration you are using, you can only go between 6 to 12 steps (or stops) before the paper would stop recording any difference between one stop and another. Another way of saying this is that the dynamic range of photographic papers is limited to a ratio of very roughly 1 to 512. (It is interesting to note that in the earliest days of photography, printing papers had much longer scales. The trade off is that they were also much less responsive to light).
On the other hand, through a complex process of biochemical adaptation and our pupils adjusting, the human eye can perceive an extremely wide range of tones from the darkest value we can see, to the brightest light we can tolerate. The dynamic range of the human eye can be 1 to 1,000,000.
This means that photographers must bridge this gap through a method that allows for the final prints to approximate the way the world looks to our eyes. The zone system does this by providing photographers with a simple way to control the contrast of the film negatives in their cameras.
Contrast control of this kind is made possible by the fact that the amount of exposure the film receives has its primary effect on the darker parts of the photographic subject. The amount of time that film is developed controls the density of the lighter parts of the subject. This classic rule was stated in this way: “Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights”. By first properly exposing their film, and then either increasing or decreasing their film development times, zone system photographers can, within limits, produce negatives that will print beautifully, regardless of how contrasty or flat the original subject happened to be.
Careful and committed photographers came to understand the above-described principles through the process of trial and error long before the zone system was formulated. The real genius and contribution of Ansel Adams and Fred Archer was creating a way for photographers to easily translate the range of tones they could see into a visual ruler that could be used to measure various subject tonal ranges in a predictable and practical way. This process is known as “previsualization” and it depends upon three related ways of defining something called a “zone”.
Measuring Zones
Zones represent amounts of light that double as the zones become lighter and halve as they get darker. In this sense, zones are equivalent to all other photographic controls. One zone equals one whole f/stop or shutter speed, one EV meter number, and ASA numbers as they double and halve. This equivalency allows you to measure the contrast of any scene with f/stops, meter numbers, or zones. For the purposes of the Zone System they are all the same.
The zone system of exposure
A dark surface under a bright light can reflect the same amount of light as a light surface under dim light. The human eye would perceive the two as being very different but a light meter would measure them as exactly the same. For this reason, light meters are designed to render any tonal value they measure as Zone V. As noted above, each zone is equivalent to one whole aperture stop or shutter speed step so, by combining these two facts the zone system provides photographers with a very simple and reliable way to properly expose any photographic subject:
1. Previsualize the area of the subject you would like to be a dark value with full texture and detail, or Zone III, in the resulting print. The correct rendering of Zone III is important because if dark textured areas of the subject end up as zones below Zone III they will appear underexposed.
2. Carefully meter the area previsualized as Zone III and make note of the meter’s recommended exposure.
3. Remember that the meter’s recommended exposure would render the chosen area as Zone V instead of Zone III. To correct for this the photographer would simply shoot subject using an exposure that was two stops darker than the meter’s recommendation.
The zone system of development
Every combination of film and developer has a recommended “normal” development time that will result in a negative that has contrast equal to that of the subject. In other words, this normal development time would result in a flat negative if you were photographing a low contrast subject, and a contrasty negative if you photograph high contrast subjects
Proper development means understanding how to either increase or decrease the film’s development time to allow flat or contrasty photographic subjects to print well on contemporary photographic papers.
The zone system provides photographers with a way to measure the contrast of photographic subjects in terms of the zone scale which makes clear if the film requires more or less than “normal” development. These are called either “Normal Minus (N-)” or “Normal Plus (N+)” development times. The specific times for N+ or N- developments are either determined by doing systematic tests, or using development tables provided by certain zone system text books.
The zone system can be used in digital photography in a similar way to how it is used in film photography. The important difference is that while with traditional film photography (i.e with negative film) one exposes for the shadows and develops for the highlights, with digital one exposes for the highlights and post-processes for the shadows. In this sense digital media is similar to color slide film. Until recently, digital sensors had less range than color film, which, in turn, has less range than monochrome film. There are more and more exceptions in the digital world. One of the first ones was Fujifilm's FinePix S3 Digital SLR, which has a sensor specifically developed to overcome the issue of limited dynamic range. The CCD is able to expose at both low and high sensitivities within one shot by assigning a honeycomb of pixels to different F-stops of light. This effectively allows for an image to have information from a darker middle gray and a lighter middle gray, plus the dynamic range surrounding them. The Hasselblad medium format sensors followed then, which are able to decode 16 bits of color and expanded light information. Now, most of current Digital SLRs have 12 or more often 14 bits in their RAW image format and can achieve a 10-stop dynamic range (or very close), with moderate noise interfering with signal in lower zones. It is also possible to overcome the problem of limited dynamic range by creating multiple exposures of the same scene. The inherent problem with digital is that any pushes or pulls in brightness alter the amount of noise that appears in the final image (in a similar manner as film grain build in pushed areas). While making the image darker usually does not hurt too much, increasing brightness may have severe effects on final image quality. This is overcome by shooting the same scene twice, once exposed for the shadows, and once for the highlights. The image is then overlapped and masked appropriately (tutorial example) so that the resulting composite represents a wider gamut of colors and tones. [edit]
Ansel Adams generally used selenium toner when processing prints. Selenium toning can alter the color of a print and act as a preservative, but Adams used it subtly, primarily because it can add almost a full zone to the tonal range of the final print, producing richer dark tones that still held detail. The zone system requires that every variable in photography, from exposure to darkroom production of the print, be calibrated and controlled. The print is the last link in a chain of events, no less important to the zone system than exposure and development of the film. With practice, the photographer visualizes the final print as the shutter is released.

If you can understand and respect all of this, you can take Perfect Photographs ( Rashe )


Doyle D. Chastain
 Doyle D. Chastain  Donor  (K=101119) - Comment Date 8/28/2006
Thanks Rashe . . . awesome and very good of you to take the time out to share. I should note, also, that shooting in RAW helps a bit too since images can be adjusted (exposure levels) twice per image to bring in the dark details in one . . . and save the normally overexposed light (generally sky) areas in the other . . .
Using post processing . . . the overexposed area on the dark developed side of the image can be selected and eliminated . . . to be replaced by the perfectly exposed lighter areas in the second version . . . blending the two seamlessly. Great presentation my friend!!

Doyle I <~~~~~

Helen Bach
 Helen Bach   (K=2331) - Comment Date 8/29/2006
Hi Rashed,

Thanks for posting this.

Wouldn't it be a good idea to explain what came from Wikipedia?


Rashed Abdulla
 Rashed Abdulla  Donor  (K=163889) - Comment Date 8/29/2006
Dear Sir Helen Bach, I did not post this here for an expert man in photography like you, this is posted for some contributions I try to do for this site and the people who might never came across Ansel Adam before.

This is of course with all of the English difficulties I have, it is there fore, if you do not like it Big master, please do not read it.

No wonder why no one even likes to view your images except me.

If you wish to know what the Wikipedia is, visit this place please Mr., as I did not find any meaning for it yet.

Rashed Abdulla
 Rashed Abdulla  Donor  (K=163889) - Comment Date 8/29/2006
Iam so sorry Mr. Helen Bach,

I wrote all of this about you as i thought this word Wikipedia was a bad word to say:((((((((

Please forgive me , I tried to find this word still not possible as it has no meaning to me , but some one told me it is not bad:(((((((((

I know you are much older than me and will forgive me , this is my mistake I did for you while I like you a lot:((((((

Helen Bach
 Helen Bach   (K=2331) - Comment Date 8/29/2006

My point was that you have posted someone else's article (apparently from Wikipedia and also from other sites that use Wikipedia entries) without acknowledging the original source. That's all.

Best wishes,
PS I'm female.

 Tom Meyer   (K=3514) - Comment Date 11/23/2006
wasn't that Fred Picker?... t

Helen Bach
 Helen Bach   (K=2331) - Comment Date 11/25/2006

'Fred Archer' is correct. Ansel Adams credits him in the introduction to 'The Negative'. That should be a fairly reliable source.

Fred Picker was 75 when he died in 2002. He would have been quite an accomplished child if he had developed the Zone System in his pre-teens.


Patrick Ziegler
 Patrick Ziegler   (K=21797) - Comment Date 1/21/2007
Funny thread, I think it is important to remember that people on this site are from different parts of the world and attributing to source of an article may not be as important to someone from Qatar as it might be to other in other parts of the world.

Back to the Zone System and digital photography, I think the best answer or solution or evolution of this process in the world of digital is HDR. I wonder if Ansel would have abandoned to the zone system and photographed Yosemite in HDR had he had the tools to do so.

Helen Bach
 Helen Bach   (K=2331) - Comment Date 1/23/2007

I'm well aware that different cultures have different attitudes towards authorship, and that is why I started by thanking Rashed, gave a gentle hint and kept things polite. As you appear keen to give me advice, what do you suggest that I should have done differently?

By the way, this was not the first time that I explained to Rashed that I am female.


Patrick Ziegler
 Patrick Ziegler   (K=21797) - Comment Date 1/23/2007
Well, since you asked,

Nothing, do as you wish; who am I to tell you how to post a comment in a thread on this website. Appearances can be deceiving, I am not keen on giving you advice, I only said that “I thought it important to remember…” My comment was not directed to you specifically, just a general comment about the thread.

But if it is advice you want, I would say, “Relax, and don’t sweat the small stuff.” Advice once given to me that I found useful.

Have a great day 

Rashed Abdulla
 Rashed Abdulla  Donor  (K=163889) - Comment Date 1/23/2007
Dear Helen, I always been so respecting you and by all means I learnt a lot from your advice, you are not just a lady but the best lady I do see in this world, I do mean this.

Dear Pat, thank you so much for your input, Helen is a great photograph and a great person, when you know her well, you will like her the way I do.

I like UF so much because, I have experienced that all of the best members here are learning from each other, no one is perfect and that’s including me, I did post that thread the way I found, I thought it might been helpful to others but the way I have presented it might been wrong, so I feel sorry for that.

I wish you all, peace and joy where ever you are and very best regards from Qatar.

Helen Bach
 Helen Bach   (K=2331) - Comment Date 1/23/2007

I wasn't sweating the small stuff - I wasn't sweating anything. Read what I wrote, not what you think that I wrote. I think that it is important to remember that what some people think of as sweat, others think of as a walk in the park on a summer day with a friend. I like Rashed, and fully understand that English is not his first language.

I've posted some of your pictures on another website without revealing that they aren't mine. I guess that you won't sweat it.


There is nothing to be sorry for! In case there is any misunderstanding because of our different languages, the tone of my posts here is entirely friendly, not at all critical.

Your comment elsewhere about someone telling you that I sleep a lot may be a mistranslation for my legendary calmness, which is often commented on. It may, on the other hand, be a mistranslation of something else, but we won't go there.

Best wishes,

Rashed Abdulla
 Rashed Abdulla  Donor  (K=163889) - Comment Date 1/23/2007
My sweet lady, sleeping a lots means to us, that if do not want to replay a comment, i will keep waiting for it for ever and it will not be there, It do not mean bad thinks by any means, as you said its different interpatations, some times it means something to me but it do not mean to you anything and the other way around

I am very glad that you answered me, i copied and pasted all that on an MS word file, so when I can always read and feel good.

All of my best regards to you and also to our friend Pat Ziegler.

I am sure you and him are all nice.

Patrick Ziegler
 Patrick Ziegler   (K=21797) - Comment Date 1/23/2007

You asked me for advice and I had none to offer so I passed on some generic advice once given to me and about 90% of the other English speaking people on this planet. You took it and twisted it around to be some personal insult towards you. It was not.

And then on top of that you make an indirect jab towards me with the plagiarism remark when you know as well as I it is another shot at Ali’s original post in this thread. The question of proper attribution has been addressed, enough said.

I am beginning to think you are a passive aggressive who just likes to keep the fight going even when there is none. Or, perhaps you consistently take things the wrong way.

For future reference, perhaps next time we run across someone who does not speak the same language and has done or said something that needs to be corrected we should explain the custom rather than posing a question like, “Don’t you think you should have…”, because that can sound condescending and supercilious and start bad blood between people.

For the record, I could care less if someone cuts and pastes from wikipedia without proper attribution because there is an excellent chance that whoever posted the text to wikipedia in the first place, probably cut and pasted it from somewhere else.

Enough said, again.

BTW, the third party in this conversation is Ali. Rashed is his brother. If you would take the time to know Ali you would understand that he is a terrific person with a great passion for photography and very well liked in this community. You would also then understand why he attaches his brother’s name.

I knew Rashed before I came to know Ali and I will always stand up for both of them because I consider them friends and great photographers.

Helen Bach
 Helen Bach   (K=2331) - Comment Date 1/24/2007

I'm sorry that you interpret this in such a dark manner. I didn't think that you were insulting me - you have read into this friendly exchange unpleasantness where non existed. It's probably the difference in our two cultures. Let's leave it at that.

As far as I'm concerned, this thread had ended in an entirely friendly manner five months ago. Lord knows why you decided to dig the dead issue back up. There's no need to do the amateur psychoanalysis thing either. That personal remark about my character was entirely out of place, and it can only have been made in ignorance.


Rashed Abdulla
 Rashed Abdulla  Donor  (K=163889) - Comment Date 1/24/2007
I always had a great feeling that you are like most of the American people, nice and gentle.

I been ordering stuff from adorama for the last 2 years and my brother also did the same.

People in Qatar are turning to digital, and that made films so rare these days, we do still have nagtive 35mm but even the 120 is not more supply here, may I was one of the last to change into the digital world but i feel so sad to see my Sinar F1 not been used.

My friend Helen, thank you for your offer, I can get better deal from you being a friend , this worth the value of the whole world to me, Friendship to us means a lot, I like every one on UF and I every day leanrn something new here and meet wonderful people from all over the world

In Ham radio greetings we say 88's , thats go to a gentle female like you while for a male we say 73's.

Wishing you all of the best my friend and wihsing UF all of the best too.

Rashed Abdulla
 Rashed Abdulla  Donor  (K=163889) - Comment Date 1/24/2007
I hope all of the best also for our friend Pat Ziegler, we all can be best friends, I hope

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