How to Use the Ansel Adams Zone System in the Digital World

How to Use the Ansel Adams Zone System in the Digital World

Our histogram shows 256 shades of gray. Besides pure black and pure white Ansel Adams used only nine shades to manipulate the contrast in his famous landscape photos. His zone-system can still be used for our modern digital photography.

Every landscape photographer has heard about Ansel Adams or will eventually come across that name. The famous American is mostly known for his black and white photos of Yosemite National Park. The 1941 photo Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is probably his best-known photo.

One of the reasons why Adams is seen as a great photographer is because of his famous zone-system. With this system Adams was able to perfectly control the contrast in his black and white photos. Adams base rule was: “Expose for the shadows; develop for the highlights.”

Some viewers called this photo Ansel Adams worthy. Although I would not dare to make the comparison myself, I do like the contrast in this photo I took at Lofoten some years ago, where the light was magnificent back then. (EOS 1Dx + 164mm | ISO200 | f/9 |

Some viewers called this photo Ansel Adams worthy. Although I would not dare to make the comparison myself, I do like the contrast in this photo I took at Lofoten some years ago, where the light was magnificent back then. (EOS 1Dx + 164mm | ISO200 | f/9 | 1/1000)

I found the huge contrast in this picture of Tinthólmur and Drangarnir perfect for a black and white conversion. The light, the silhouette, and the way how the light is crawling over the edge of Tinthólmur is amazing, I think. (EOS 5D4 + 35mm | ISO100 | f

I found the huge contrast in this picture of Tinthólmur and Drangarnir perfect for a black and white conversion. The light, the silhouette, and the way how the light is crawling over the edge of Tinthólmur is amazing, I think. (EOS 5D4 + 35mm | ISO100 | f/9 | 1/200)

The zone-system of Ansel Adams divides the photo into eleven zones; nine shades of gray, together with pure black and pure white. You could assume that a normal photo does not contain pure black and pure white. Therefor the nine shades of gray would be the only zones you can find in a photo.

Adams, who photographed in black in white negative film made sure to expose for the darkest parts of his scenery. This way he prevented to have pure black in the photo. When developing his photo paper, he made sure to manipulate the dark and light parts in his photo in such a way, that the shades of gray would follow his zone system.

The zone system as invented by Ansel Adams. A helpful way of reading the contrast in a black and white photo. But is it still usable in the digital world. I think it does, with a little tweaking. But you have to change the base rule of Adams concerning ex

The zone system as invented by Ansel Adams. A helpful way of reading the contrast in a black and white photo. But is it still usable in the digital world. I think it does, with a little tweaking. But you have to change the base rule of Adams concerning exposure and development.

Because Adams made sure to prevent having pure black, he managed to make optimum use of the dynamic range of his black and white film. During the development he was able to dodge and burn the shades of gray to end up with the best possible contrast.

I tried to use the zone system of Ansel Adams to read through the photo I took at the Faroe Islands. The contrast is enhanced during the post-processing. I took the photo using the Exposure to the Right method to maintain detail in the dark areas while pr

I tried to use the zone system of Ansel Adams to read through the photo I took at the Faroe Islands. The contrast is enhanced during the post-processing. I took the photo using the Exposure to the Right method to maintain detail in the dark areas while preventing blown out highlights.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to adapt his way of photographing in the digital photography. When we expose for the dark parts of the photo, the risk of overexpose light areas will occur. We all know, with digital photography overexposed areas cannot be recovered in any way. We all have heard the term for that kind of over exposure: blown out highlights.

This is also the main difference with analogue film. With analogue film, underexposure is not recoverable, and overexposure is recoverable. With digital photography it is just the way around, up to a certain point, of course. This means the base rule of Ansel Adams is not usable for digital photography.

Exposing for shadows, like in this example, is not wise in the digital age. When highlights are overexposed, it cannot be recovered. This is the big difference with analogue film. So it is wise to stay away from overexposure.

Exposing for shadows, like in this example, is not wise in the digital age. When highlights are overexposed, it cannot be recovered. This is the big difference with analogue film. So it is wise to stay away from overexposure.

Does this mean the zone-system is cannot be used for digital photography? Fortunately it can still be used. Instead of expose for the shadows, and develop for the highlights, we need to expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows. It is just a small, but very important change.

When there is a high contrast, always expose on the brightest part of the image, in this case the waterfall. By exposing as long as possible without blowing out highlights, you maintain the maximum amount of detail in the dark areas of the image. (EOS 5D4

When there is a high contrast, always expose on the brightest part of the image, in this case the waterfall. By exposing as long as possible without blowing out highlights, you maintain the maximum amount of detail in the dark areas of the image. (EOS 5D4 + 16mm | ISO100 | f/11 | 2,5 sec)

When we translate this to modern digital photography we see how this new base rule resembles Exposure to the Right (EttR). Exposure to the Right is nothing more than expose for the highlights, which translates to a histogram that is placed at the right side of the graph, while making sure no highlight is blown out. It is the only way to maintain as much information as possible in the dark shades of gray. And with a little luck, thus preventing to have pure black in the image.

With this image, there is room for improvment concerning exposure. It is possible to extend the exposure with almost 1,5EV, thus maximizing the amount of detail. The camera is set to a monochrome picture style to prevent color from being distracting. It h

With this image, there is room for improvment concerning exposure. It is possible to extend the exposure with almost 1,5EV, thus maximizing the amount of detail. The camera is set to a monochrome picture style to prevent color from being distracting. It helps concentrating on the contrast.

Exposure to the Right, and expose for the highlights, will not deliver an image that is usable without a proper post-processing. It is essential to manipulate the shades of gray in such a way to end up with the perfect contrast. The use of a raw file format is very important, because only then you will have the ability to use the maximum dynamic range of the digital sensor. When post-processing your raw image it is possible again to use the nine shades of gray from the zone-system that Ansel Adams invented.

With just four sliders in Lightroom, we can manipulate the contrast in the photo. You could do this globally, or locally. The latter makes it possible to make small adjustments in the photo. The detail in the shadows is present, thanks to the Exposure to

With just four sliders in Lightroom, we can manipulate the contrast in the photo. You could do this globally, or locally. The latter makes it possible to make small adjustments in the photo. The detail in the shadows is present, thanks to the Exposure to the Right method.

When using Lightroom you can use the sliders highlight and shadow to manipulate the shades of gray. The black point and white point slider will let you manipulate the boundaries, and locale adjustments make it possible to optimize any part of the photo to your liking. With proper post-processing you will end up with a perfect contrast in your black and white photo. It is almost as if we stepped into the darkroom of Ansel Adams again.

How about color? The zone-system of Ansel Adams is invented for black and white photography, of course, but it can be used for color photography as well. Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize the different highlights in a color photo. By temporary converting it to black and white, it might become possible to successfully use the zone-system of Ansel Adams again. You can read more about this method in my previous article.

What about color? The zone system is still usable for color photography, but it might be difficult to recognize the contrast. Just as I mentioned in my previous article; converting the photo temporary to black and white might help a lot.

What about color? The zone system is still usable for color photography, but it might be difficult to recognize the contrast. Just as I mentioned in my previous article; converting the photo temporary to black and white might help a lot.

Have you ever used the zone-system for your photography, either for black and white or for color? Or do you think this method is outdated and not suitable for digital photography. I love to read about your opinion in the comments below.

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Previous comments
John Ellingson's picture

I had the good fortune to know Ansel (he had several of my prints in his personal collection) and have inherently incorporated the concept and practice of the Zone system into my work. I don't calculate it when shooting (any more than I consciously work through shutter speed and aperture). All of it has become part of my unconscious work flow. I've been taking pictures for about 65 of my 77 years. With a camera with the EV range of my D850 it would be foolish to not have the Zone system or some comparable process as part of your routine. Ansel's approach to the Zone system is as much of a guide to understanding light and shadow as it is to a tool to actually use.

You had very good fortune indeed to have known Ansel, and I'm sure him to know you. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and years of experience.

If you're a Photoshop user and interested in the zone system concept, "The Zone System Express" by Blake Rudis is a great tool to streamline your Photoshop workflow. Breaks your tones into 11 zones/layers and separates your colors into separate layers so you can adjust each one individually for maximum control. Also has other Photoshop "shortcuts" for effecient post-processing.

Nando Harmsen's picture

It is not about mimic his work, it is about looking at the way light and dark in your picture. You would have known if you have read it.
I think it is foolish to give a comment about something you did not read.

Ed Sanford's picture

Not to be picky, but the article omits a critical part of Adams’ technique. He “previsualized” the scene by measuring the tonal ranges with a spot meter. If he found that tonal ranges didn’t fit the zones, he manipulated exposure and changed film development time to create a negative that had a usable dynamic range. So, if exposing for a deep shadow forced the highlights beyond zone VIII, he reduced development time to bring the highlight back into a usable range. He could do this because film development time has a greater impact on highlights than on shadows. Likewise, in low contrast scenes, he would increase film development time to push the highlights higher without affecting shadows. This is very similar to what is done in digital by exposing to the right or left. If you read the book “The Negative” where Adams explains film development, nearly all of his photography utilized manipulation of development time to create printable negatives. This also demonstrates that he did not squeeze things into nine neat zones.

Nando Harmsen's picture

A good thing to know, and to get an idea how he worked.
We now have the LCD screen and a histogram to find out if the DR fits the sensor, and we can use multiple exposures to get the result we want.
Thanks for mentioning

Ed Sanford's picture

Good point; I have to tell you the LCD screen itself can be misleading because it does not give you an accurate histogram of a raw file. I purchased an application called RawViwer. It enables you to visualize the histogram for the actual raw file rather than the jpg implant. You can read the raw histogram while it is on the card before you upload to a computer. It also allows you to flag and rate your images and those flags are carried into Lightroom. Typically, the jpg histogram can be one to two stops off the latitude of a raw file. When I am working on images, I now set the exposure using the histogram on the camera, and then do more brackets by exposing to the right 1 to 3 additional stops. That ensures achieving an optimal file for processing.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Indeed. the histogram is of the jpg. There is more room on both sides of the histogram in the raw file. Unfortunately it will be experiences how much room there is. If you know how much, you can anticipate with the exposure setting.
Nevertheless, the histogram, even for the jpg, is a wonderful tool to have

Dave Thomas's picture

Completely agree with you Ed about previsualizing. Finally the voice of reason.

To make matters even more complicated, it's not just about getting the zones on the negative to be in one range, Ansel says in "The Print" that at the time of that writing, multigrade papers had not yet gotten to the point where that were as good at making fine prints as graded papers.

That matters to photographers who did their own printing because they would need to keep a stock of paper of every grade, in every size they printed. If you didn't apply the zone system, you would need to be switching between these papers with nearly every photo you printed. That's an unnecessary investment that a "pro" could avoid by learning the zone system from Ansel. Instead, just by using use your light meter in the field, over time you would nail it with every negative, and only need to buy one grade of paper (you might standardize on grade 2). Further fine tuning is still possible in the darkroom with various times using 2 baths, one a low contrast developer like selectol-soft, and one a high contrast developer like dektol.

"With analogue film, underexposure is not recoverable, and overexposure is recoverable." -- good luck taking that approach with colour reversal films like Fujichrome.

Daniel Medley's picture

With digital sensors, the key is to optimize the data/light hitting the sensor. In theory, the best way of doing this is ETTR and shooting raw. But the problem is that the histograms built into cameras are based on JPEG which means there's always a bit of guessing going on (unless you're shooting JPEG). An optimally exposed raw image will likely not equate to an optimally exposed JPEG and vice versa.

An obvious answer would be if we had the capability of having on board raw histograms. That would be awesome.

Ed Sanford's picture

That point came up earlier. I found an application called FastRawViewer. While not being an onboard application, it can be used while editing. It will read images on the card when it is connected to your computer and provides a histogram for your actual raw images. You are able to see your raw exposure histograms from dark to light, and it let's you know if you went too far in either direction. It also allows you to do a basic retouch to show you how it would potentially "edit". So, what I do now is to use the onboard jpeg histogram to get my recommended exposure, and then bracket by mostly pushing to the right. When I am ready to edit, I can go through and view the images before I upload them to Lightroom. By the way, you can make stars and flags right on the images in the card and when you upload to LR, it preserves those pre-edit marks. The application can be found here: https://www.fastrawviewer.com/download. A fellow fstopper told me about this application in another discussion.

Ed Sanford's picture

Daniel, I also have rawdigger; I find that it is technically so far over my head that it is not usable for me. I find that fastrawviewer is straight ahead and is more user friendly. In fact, I think that it was you in another post that introduced me to both of these applications.

Daniel Medley's picture

I think so. Yes, Rawdigger can be a head scratcher for sure. For me, anyway.

Mark Wyatt's picture

You could also extend the translation of the Zone System to Digital. With film, to appropriately implement the Zone System, you would usually calibrate every lens, camera, enlarger, film, developer, paper, etc using trials and a densitometer. This gives you predictability with your equipment and processes. You could do something similar with your camera, lenses, sensors, and ink-jet (or other) printers.

Dave Thomas's picture

I used ML on my Canon digitals a few years ago. https://wiki.magiclantern.fm/ettr

It's scary to install, and my wife (then-girlfriend) hated the user interface. But it enables some very powerful features.