10 Shades of Grey
Plus White
Have you often heard about using the zone system to expose and develop your black & white film? Why not in digital images too? Do you equate it with images taken by legendary photographer Ansel Adams? Is it that you have never tried to use the Zone System because you thought it to be too technical and time consuming?

Your first inclination may be that the Zone System is about capturing 10 shades of grey plus white in your photographs. The practice of using the Zone System is to know the zones and to expose film or digital captures and process them to have certain elements of the scene mapped to particular zones, no matter what your cameras meter may think.

In this image I have marked the 10+ zones as an example. But in some scenes or if you prefer high contrast images, you will not need or actually have all ten zones. But the practice of mapping certain areas of the scene to a particular shade of grey can still be of use.

Since a light meter will give you a proper exposure value to reproduce the area you metered as neutral gray to have 18% reflectance across the visible spectrum, you will use that as a basis to help you figure the change in EV to remap the area to the zone you wish it to become. This would be a great reason to use your camera in "manual mode" so you can override the settings determined by the cameras meter.

Although camera meters have really advanced over the last few years, you may find the need to go against the recommended setting anyway. You can also actually override the camera's choice of EV if it has an EV Lock button, one of the routines I explain in my workshops. As it is possible to make your camera choose the manual settings you prefer even if you have it in a semi-automatic mode such as Shutter or Aperture Priority. Knowledge of the Zone System will enable you to know the adjustments you may need to make on a given scene to get the results you really want.

Better Images?
Mastering the Zone System does not mean that you will have great images with a full range of shades, but instead you will be creating images in which you control the actual shade values of the subject. Just because the meter recommends a set exposure, your interpretation and presentation of the scene may require it to contain different values of what is seen by the eye and the meter.

Determining the exposure value that you will capture the image with is only part of the battle. The common rule of theory for the Zone System is to expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights, which is the practice I go through when processing my captures RAW image editing program such as Nikons software or Adobe Camera Raw.
In the image above you can probably find all 10 shades in each of the 3 photos, but the difference is in what part of the scene that you wish to be that 18% gray or neutral. Although when shooting in RAW, you can alter the original exposure, but you can't really salvage the highlights in some severely over exposed scenes. In most RAW images you will have control over changing the exposure values, but you will see noticeable and better images when the EV in the camera is what you wish to process the image at.

There is also another factor involved that helps make your in-camera-tone-mapping look better than altering the EV of a RAW image. Even in monochrome images, there is still a color temperature of everything in the scene that determines what shade or luminance that color will have. When you alter the RAW data so much that you try and take a grey shade 2 or 3 numbers to the right, you will see noise.

The Zone System In Color?
So in essence if we expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights, then we will have a contrast range that we control and will not be at the mercy of the camera's meter.

As in this camel scene, I knew I needed to over-expose slightly to bring the details in the back where the #1 shade is falling. If I just let the camera average out the exposure, then the lightness of the rest of the scene would very likely cause some under-exposure on the deepest parts of the scene but it would also salvage the highlights and retain more of them.

I exposed for the shadows in this scene and then processed it so that I get the highlights of a lesser exposure time. A procedure that is what makes HDR images have so much detail and punch to them.

The difference being with this type of processing over HDR, is that you increase the dynamic range without increasing the color saturation and graininess.

While you can do a lot of "fixing" when shot in RAW, you will be even more satisfied with the results when you also capture the image with the tonal ranges that you plan to fix in Photoshop. You will get shadow details that don't begin to start showing some minor noise as you "open up the shadows" in an image editing program. Gaining knowledge of the Zone System allows you to learn to improve your color exposures and how to relate colors to the ten zones.

Outsmart Your Cameras Light Meter
Different cameras have some very different modes of metering the scene you see in the viewfinder. Especially on the higher end models that allow you to even set one of the focus spots as a spot meter, but that in fact would be the ideal situation for you to tell the camera what you want to shoot at instead of the camera telling you.

The image capture here was shot at ISO 400, 1/60. f/14 as chosen by the cameras metering. If you over expose the scene to bring out the details in the dark shadows of the grill, then you would end up blowing out the sky to almost pure white.

As you can see in the lower image of the two, that by exposing for the shadows and developing for the highlights that the grill is very nicely detailed and also the sky is not blown out and has even more details than in the auto exposure.

Although there are some areas that need individual processing such as the stop sign reflection in the windshield, you can still see the advantage of knowing ahead of time that you wish to have maximum quality in the shadows of the grill.

The closer you get the exposure in-camera means less chance of introducing noise and pixilation resulting from fixing the image in Photoshop or Lightroom. And when shooting at fairly high ISO, you will see the noise in the shadows even more so, once you try to "lighten" them.

It is also almost impossible to bring back highlights that were totally blown out, even when shooting in RAW. Don't shoot in RAW as a "crutch" but rather use the capabilities of RAW for altering color balance or an exposure error by 1/2 to 1 stop. Just grabbing a shot thinking in the back of your mind you will change it in processing shouldn't be in your mind at all. Start looking at the scenes you capture and imagine a zone chart along the bottom.

Perfecting your exposures will be a step closer to perfecting your ability to capture as your mind saw it and wanted to present it. Don't let your cameras meter determine how your work will look. But instead, you determine the depth of the shadows and the brightness of the highlights.

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