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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50 Comments

Jan Kruize's picture

I don’t understand.... a sensor has a certain dynamic range. When you expose on the highlights in a hi contrast scene, the shadows will be black without any detail. You never get it back.

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

In the old days, you would burn certain parts the paper longer or shorter to get the right overall exposure. Digital dynamic range tries to mimic the same result, but it doesn't always work, which is why multiple exposures are used and the average HDR is worked out. In other words, less light is "burnt" on the sensor in bright areas (eg highlights), and more light is "burnt" on the sensor where it's darker (eg shadow). I don't know if I'm making sense, but I hope it helps.

Mark Wyatt's picture

I think the sensor has more dynamic range (in RAW especially) then you get in a jpeg, so you do have some room to move up and down in- just beware not to lose the highlights, because if you do, they are gone. I find I have a lot of room to bring up shadows.For landscapes I tend to do what the author says- basically make sure the sky is good, no clipping of clouds, then bring up the shadows in RAW as needed. When shooting film I tend to use filters to darken the sky (reduce overall dynamic range) and maybe shift exposure a little up or down.

EL PIC's picture

In actual real world you get far less dynamic range than the number “advertised” by the camera manufacturers. If they say 13 or 15 you might get 10 in the real world.
Author needs to realize that you can’t control it in the digital world as you could with film.

Jan Kruize's picture

That's completely right i think. Ansel Adams controlled everything with exposure and the development time of the film.

Nando Harmsen's picture

That might be true. But it is not really that important. It is about the way of exposing and "developing" your digital photo. If the DR is larger than the sensor can register, it is always possible to make an HDR and use something like the zone system for developing that HDR file

Dave Thomas's picture

Jan Kruize , you're right that once you've gone past the dynamic range of your sensor, the data is indeed lost. Also, it's more of a strict cliff than analog, where old films had a gentle fall-off in the "shoulder" or "toe" which still have some data, which you could use as-is, or compensate for by changing the development time, at least for highlights.

I think the analogy "expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights" to "expose to the right, and let the shadows fall where they will" is pretty accurate and good advice for a technically careful photographer wanting to use their gear to the best.

The "why it works" to the analogy is more that the default matrix meter in most digital cams expose for middle gray, which can leave sometimes shadows, sometimes highlights clipped. (If you are set to JPG, you are stuck with the dynamic range of that color profile; with RAW, you have the entirety of the dynamic range available in post, especially shadows).

The analogy is a real thing, for a few reasons:
1. the scene you're shooting might actually fit in the dynamic range, but if you meter for 18% gray default, you might still clip even in RAW.
2. when shooting in RAW, it might look like after shooting like you have clipped shadows, you might discover that the DR of your expensive camera surprises has saved your ass, and you can recover them; it's less likely you can get the highlights back
3. effectively all digital sensors (and film does too) have more noise in the shadows than in the highlights. It has something to do with the physics of light triggering electrical currents.

ETTR is a great tool, because it lets you use the least-noisy part of your sensor, minimizing the risk of clipping. The only trade-off is you have to do at least a basic grade in post: that only sucks if your client expects to see your best right out of camera and there is no time for post production.

The only thing where the analogy doesn't fit in the DR discussion of film vs digital, is that with film, you control the dynamic range during the development phase by deciding how much long you let chemicals act on the latent image; and with digital, you're locked in.

Alan Brown's picture

re"ETTR is a great tool, because it lets you use the least-noisy part of your sensor," This is misleading. Sensors are linear in nature and do not have a "noisy part" as indicated As with any electronic device all cells do have an inherent low level noise component, this becomes more evident in low light situations where the signal has to be amplified (by exposure compensation/ISO)

The trick to reducing noise is to have good light, or if not allowing more light through the lens (ie open aperture)..

Also ETTR increases the risk of blowing the highlights. The best advice I can find is to ensure that you don't exceed the boundaries of the histogram - note that this may require exposure stacking to capture the full dynamic range.

Dave Thomas's picture

RE: "linear in nature" Perhaps I'm misinformed. I understood that being linear in nature means they capture twice as much light as values one step down. My reference: https://luminous-landscape.com/expose-right which albeit is an old link, I'm told by engineers may not reflect current cameras, is scientifically accurate.

I've only used the ETTR Camera feature in Magic Lantern firmware Canons about 5 years ago https://wiki.magiclantern.fm/ettr, which does exposure by analyzing histograms at several ISO settings, allowing you to choose the blown highlight cutoff. I presume the newest cameras equipped with computational photography algorithms and ML do this innately.

Dave Thomas's picture

Yes, was thinking about it today, I think I do have it right. If digital sensors were logarithmic like stops, then you would get the same # steps (bits) per value at zone V vs zone VI. But they're linear, not logarithmic, so you get half the # bits at zone V as you do with zone VI.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Not all situation will end up with completely black. Most situations the dynamic range will be enough to recover at least a part of the dark areas. If you run into a higher contrast, you can always use bracketing

Mark Wyatt's picture

Interesting article. I have been thinking about this for some time.

I have never used the Zone System formally, but try and consider its principles when I shoot. For digital it is pretty easy (expose for sky, bring up shadows/mid-tones in RAW). For film, I only shot/shoot roll film, so custom development was not worth it, but I had interest. I had a spot meter, but it stopped working, and I just replaced it. Even if I don't change development (I have a couple of Graflex cameras to restore) I will try and use the spot meter to help place my exposure. I really do not need the spot meter for digital.

Dave Thomas's picture

Really, the zone system is an attempt where you decide when you take a picture what you want it to look like after you've finished printing it. So you take a lot of notes on where your spotmeter says the darkest and brightest area is, and the put extra work into developing a few sheets of film, all so you don't need to futz around a lot in the darkroom wasting expensive paper until you're satisfied.

The zone system is a very technical process (but a simplification of the field of sensitometry) that encourages an artist to slow down and produce something really good that will hopefully put them on the map, or keep their clients coming back. For others, it's a boring distraction that's like reading a high school math book, so they say go have fun shooting instead, and your prints are going to look fine. This worked best when they followed the advise from their teachers: to choose a single film, and get totally dialed into it, so you know what it'll do and you won't mess up an important assignment. That line of thinking is equally applicable to digital photography.

Mark Wyatt's picture

True. Film purists will argue that there is no Zone System in digital, because the Zone System was so tightly integrated with the photo-chemical process. But some of the ideas around tonal control contained in the Zone System can be translated into digital as something else (DigiZonal Luminosity Control System?).

It's very true that the zone system is not just about exposing the negative. It's about exposing a negative for a particular paper. But not just as a time an money saving process but as a way to get the final print results you want/imagined.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I agree it is kinda boring to work only with such a system, but it can help even with the creative part of photography. Knowing the system is enough, but following it as a mandatory rule is not really creative

Dave Thomas's picture

I agree with you guys to an extent. If you want to take an image, analyze it as fitting 10 zones, and call it Zone System, then most photographers won't argue with you.

Personally, I do film testing for fun (see attachment). 75% of my photography is on film or early historic processes. 90% of the rest is on an iPhone, but I do use a Sony a7 when my client (usually my wife) insists. So I own a densitometer, graphing software, all of which I use more than the full frame, and I have put at least hundreds of hours into testing film and studying photographic sensitometry. It helps me get really dialed into materials, and I like switching materials to experiment with a new look (ie I don't shoot tri-x all the time). Studying also helps me produce a look that is way way different from the norm. I would not say the results are better that digital photography, just really different.

IMO, it's all really overkill for the majority of photographers, what's more useful is just talking about getting that "look" you want by adjusting curves.

"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."

That's limited thinking. One can't do it in all scenes but in many you can bracket and blend the exposures and use luminosity masking to dodge, burn, etc. and get Adams' 11 stops.

Nando Harmsen's picture

True, but this is not about those kind of tricks. Multiple exposures make it possible to have everything within the "dynamic range" of the image you look at on screen or print. But it is not always good to have everything within those boundaries. I see a lot of bracket shots and HDR or tonemapping photos that are flat and dull because of that. Even with HDR like imaging you can play with the tonal range of the zone system. I even thing that would be more necessary, to prevent those flat images.

I did full on Angel Adams Zone B&W years ago. I had a Weston meter, adjusted developer temp, used print paper numbers-every variable to place greys,etc. etc. Although your photos have dramatic contrast and value range they most certainly do not achieve Angel Adams effect. Sorry. The value relations are harsh, IMHO. You will never get close with 5DMk4. The closest you can get is with Leica Monochrome, Daniel Morrison B&W conversions, Sigma DP Merrill, etc.

Adams played the grays like notes on a piano-eg. white, black, zone 6 only. Or only grays from Zone 5 to white. He heightened as well as REDUCED and softened contrast. He COMPOSED values. Just having a lot of clearly defined grays is not enough. There should be a theme, an aesthetic to the value choices-a decision.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I like the comparison with music :)

Dave Thomas's picture

"The negative is the equivalent of the composer's score, and the print the performance"

Agree, it's hard to match his mastery as a photographic printer. I bet nobody ever will. What's even more amazing is he was always working real magic with really poor negatives by todays' standards. He made thousands of incredibly fine prints with them and he would refine the prints he'd make from a single negative over decades.

"With analogue film, underexposure is not recoverable, and overexposure is recoverable." That's really only true (and only sort of true) for b&w film. Slide film is the opposite, and more like digital.

Mark Wyatt's picture

Isn't slide film worse than digital? Even Ekttachrome.

I don't shoot slide film very much, but yeah, I'd say even the new E100 Ektachrome is worse than current, good digital cameras as far as shadows/underexposure go. But it does retain a lot in the shadows.

The trick to shoot chrome is that it has a third of a stop EV Latitide . Your exposure must be spot on take your readings at the highlight with detail. Then adjust accordingly. Remeber that clear blue sky registers as 18% gray. I would put my chromes up against any Digital camera image any day of the week . All it takes is practice . Shooting chromes will slow you down in the beginning but is worth it .

Dave Thomas's picture

"Isn't slide film worse than digital?" you mean with exposure latitude? In practice, yes, especially if you want them to look perfect on a light table. You can get a bit more detail out of a good drum scan. I have some stunning chromes from a vintage camera that has a shutter that's only good to 1 stop, so if you are looking for something unusual and willing to break some rules, chromes can be pretty cool.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Indeed... I did not think of that... slide film was so wonderful because of it's limited dynamic range. You could play with contrast more easily

First a couple of mistakes There are 10 zones not 11.(Zone I black no detail, ZoneV 18% gray Zone X paper white no detail. :source The Negative,Ansel Adams). Second a digital sensor only records detail fron zone 3-7. Anything below 3 is blocked no detail. Anything above 7 is blown out. Metering is also different taking multiple spot readings at darkest area with detail, lightest area with detail and possibly a midtone at zone 5 The reading are done in EV. Not F stops or Dynamic Range. It a different scale. You also have adjust for EV Latitide to maintain the required stop difference ratio this is determined by the film sensitivity characteristics and if you are pushing or pulling the film . You must decide where to place the the subject into their correct zone .by doing a calculation N+1/N-1 . For example if your mids zone 5 is reading at zone 4 you must increase by a stop.Each zone equal a full stop difference. When you shoot the zone you must also use the same N+1/N-1 for both film development using a compensating developer amd also in tje print development when choosing paper contrast of filter contrast grade. You will also be dodging and burning to achieve final balance. It is essential to know tje EV scale and know where your meter is reading to achieve zone 5 18% gray. Or the system will not work. Hint Dynamic Range does not work with film amd EV does not work with digital . I have been shooting the zone for 43years and can recommend a few good books covering the subject . I do not shoot digital at all and would venture it would be rather difficult for digital users to get it to work . The system was meant for large format film and was adapted to medium(120)and small (35) format. The zone system uses exposing ,developng and print making in its you. IMO unless you have patience of a saint some things are best left to film.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Well...it works for me :)

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