Exercise 1.8: Zone System in practice

Demonstrate your awareness of the principles of the Zone System and your ability to take accurate light readings by producing three photographs taken in relatively high dynamic range, i.e. contrasting light conditions. Make sure that your exposure choice renders as much detail as possible in the brightest and darkest areas of the photograph. Collate your work and any reflections in your learning log.

Digital and analogue cameras are limited in the range of tones that they can cope with in one exposure. High contrast situations such as a figure in front of sunlight result in a silhouette as the camera is unable to record both the details in the brightest tones as well sin the darker areas. Photographers need to be able to expose correctly to present a natural image.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and other pictorial photographers set themselves apart from earlier practitioners by pre visualising and planning the exposure carefully rather than manipulating it afterwards. Ansel developed the zone system with Fred Archer in the 1930s to 80s which divides the tonal sensitivity of a negative into distinct zone within that range. Each is an “f stop” difference in exposure. The dynamic range is the total number of zones that a film or camera can accommodate in one exposure. Zone V is the middle grey tone that a photographic light meter identifies when it indicates that a subject is correctly exposed (Jesse). However not all subjects are grey!

The zone system is a systematic procedure where a photographer has personal choice of the exposure especially to cope with subjects where there is a high contrast.These photographs demonstrate the effect of altering either the shutter speed or the aperture to achieve the correct exposure, one which enables detail in both the light and the dark areas of the image – In each case the correct exposure is the middle image:


f5 1/60                                                       f5 1/15                                            f5 1/8



f5.6 1/80                                          f5.6 1/50                                              f5.6 1/40


f18  1/4                                               f16 1/4                                             f13 1/4

It is never easy to expose correctly but by adjusting other the aperture or shutter speed by one or two stops when shooting manually you have a better control of best exposure  to give the right amount of detail in both the dark and highlight areas in an image.