The Zone System in Black and White Photography

Back in the early 1970’s I learned a lesson about depth during the “String Art” craze. It was so popular it was actually being taught in schools. Basically put, you created geometric shapes, placed a certain number of points on those shapes, and connected those points with different colors of thread. The end result looked like a “Spirograph” drawing (another 70’s classic), but these were more 3-dimensional. When I first learned this, the school had us poking holes in poster board and then stringing it. My family regularly attended arts and crafts shows.

street portrait

Photo by Mario Mancuso.

We started doing something similar by using wood covered with felt, then using ½ inch nails in place of the holes. Gradually we tried bigger nails like 1 inch and 1.5 inch in size. We found that by creating more depth physically, it also created more visual depth.

Most “String Art” Kits only used the ½ inch nails and would only do five or six rows of thread. By adding more depth in the physical dimensions (the nails), we were able to create images with ten to twelve rows of colored thread. Eventually; I designed a coffee table that stood, three feet tall with inlayed glass. This creation was twenty four layers deep.

Recently a student asked me the following question: “Color impacts both the mood and emotion of a photograph; yet some people still prefer black and white, why is that?”

My immediate response was this: “Those who learned B/W photography first, were taught more art concepts. A great photo has to do more with leading lines, composition, and contrast than a single color theme. Most B/W photographers learn to capture the full range from black to white (the Zone System), most people who only see color rarely create as much visual depth.”

In pondering my reply; I realized that there is very likely a whole generation of photographers out there who have either: A) Never heard of the Zone System or B) May have heard of it, but don’t understand how it applies to images today. Let me see if I can simplify this.

beach photo

Photo by Flickr user pirindao; ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/4000 exposure.

If you listed the ten greatest photographers of all time, Ansel Adams would no doubt be on that list. He and another man by the name of Fred Archer developed the Zone System way back in 1941. Realizing the limitations of the media, they were striving for a way to create more visual depth. “Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights,” was the phrase that many photographers used to explain what they were doing when they used the Zone System.

Imagine a set of stairs. The bottom step represents pure black (Zone 0). The top step represents pure white (Zone 9). The step in the middle (Zone 5) represents the 18% gray that all cameras (traditional or digital) believe to be the correct exposure. From the mid-point (Zone 5), each step or zone (up or down) represents a change of one f-stop. Therefore, Zone 4 requires an exposure of one f-stop less than your camera indicates. And of course, Zone 6 requires an exposure of one f-stop more than your camera indicates.

Since Adams and Archer were shooting mostly Black and White, the second half of the system had to do mostly with “Pushing” or “Pulling” of development times. Most color films are not that forgiving with changes in development times; however . . . digital media and digital photo editing software (like Photoshop) can literately put you back in the Zone. If you learn to how use your “exposure compensation” on the camera, you too can expose for the shadows. If you shoot in “RAW” mode, the information you need to pull out the highlights will still be there.

In a normal shooting mode, if you use exposure compensation to take the image at Zone 4 you will darken the entire image. But since RAW mode saves all the exposure data (both shadows and highlights) it would be similar the second part of the Zone System.

black and white landscape

Photo by Olli Henze; ISO 200, f/7.1, 1/400 exposure.

Let’s say you want to photograph an interesting rock formation with a blue sky and fluffy white clouds. The rock formation is shadowed but has lots of interesting textures. You want to bring out as much detail in that rock formation as possible. You meter the shadow areas of the rock, which indicates a shutter speed of 1/60 with an f-stop of f/2.8. Then, you meter the sky, which indicates the same shutter speed but with an f-stop of f/16. Keep in mind that in high contrast scenes, you MUST expose for the shadows if you want to show those details. You decide the shadows fall within Zone 2, (very dark, but not a true black.) By using your Exposure Compensation Settings, you would stop down three stops and shoot at 1/60 at f/8. In other words: Zone 5 – Zone 2 = 3 stops less light.

If you follow the steps above, you get the details in the shadows that most people miss. The next step would be to transfer your image to you computer and start playing with the sky. Obviously, this will vary depending on what type of software you are using, but by being both camera smart and computer smart you will have an edge over 99% of the tourist that just point and shoot.

When I was young, I learned to go beyond the basics by creating more depth. Creating depth by physically changing the rules is one thing; but when you deal with a photograph, paper is still paper. To get more depth in a photograph you have to increase the visual range beyond what most cameras want to give you. Regardless; if you shoot with film, or you shoot digital . . . the best way to achieve more depth is still the Zone System.

About the Author:
Award winning writer / photographer Tedric Garrison has 30 years experience in photography ( As a Graphic Art Major, he has a unique perspective. His photo eBook “Your Creative Edge” proves creativity can be taught. Today, he shares his wealth of knowledge with the world through his website.

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7 responses to “The Zone System in Black and White Photography”

  1. Alex says:

    Great article very interesting, can you suggest some further reading?

    Also just to clarify I have this correct… In your example after metering for the sky (at 1/60 f2.8) equal to zone 5, to expose for the shadows at zone 2 you need to stop down 3 stops, from f2.8 to f4 to f5.6 to f8 keeping the shutter speed at 1/60. Is that correct?

  2. Colin says:

    Wouldn’t the recommended setting (1/60, f8) severely underexpose the rocks, insuring that you would get virtually no detail? What about using the histogram in your camera to pick the widest aperture that would not produce any blown out areas. This would overexpose the sky, but you could then selectively darken it in post processing.

  3. Ernesto says:

    For what I understand, digital photography is not the same as film. Shooting film, yes, I agree, expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights. However, I don’t think the same concept applies to digital. I believe that you do the opposite: you expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows. It is more difficult to recover detail in the highlights in digital photography. Once it’s blown out, it’s gone.

  4. Rick says:

    I also find this recommendation counter-intuitive, incorrect, maybe:

    “You meter the shadow areas of the rock, which indicates a shutter speed of 1/60 with an f-stop of f/2.8…
    You would stop down three stops and shoot at 1/60 at f/8. In other words: Zone 5 – Zone 2 = 3 stops less light.”

    How would you get more detail out of the shadowy area just by reducing the aperture without altering the time?

    I would use a larger aperture or more exposure time to get more details out of the shadows… Now that I know the parameters for both the highlights and the shadows, I’d try to increase the exposure in the shadows a few steps. Doing so will likely cause some highlights to blow out. I’d experiment and see how bad it is and choose a point that’s acceptable to me.

  5. lyle says:

    The visual end effect of zone system is a spread of tonality from black to white; as dark an area as can retain details in it, and highlights which contain some texture (not paper white). Most digital cameras have a dynamic range exceeding 9 stops. If you learn to peg your exposure to retain whites with texture and not blow them out, then use curves to adjust the rest of the image into the zones – where your darks still contain detail, you’ll have done what Adams et al had designed a system to acheive which was to fit the range into the limits of the film by placing exposure in the shadows and controlling if the highlights were white enough (by developing longer) or not blocked up (by under developing). A good technique to get you that high end control is ETTR – expose to the right – where you expose such that you never have blinking highlights you can’t pull back in your editing software. You’ll have maximized the ability of the sensor to record as much image as possible the most useful way. Read up on ETTR too and give it a try to create great tonality – I do both btw.

  6. Wendy says:

    I never got that detailed, but I learned the “expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights” rule in the first photography book I got. Makes sense for film negatives. But doesn’t digital run a serious risk of blowing the highlights if you’re using this method? I’ve always heard that with digital, it’s better to err on the side of underexposure, but your Zone would err on the side of overexposure.

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