login info join!
Forums > Photography Talk > Digital zone system Search   Reply
12last
Photographer
A K
Posts: 194
Charleston, South Carolina, US


Any photographers using the zone system for digital? This is something I've been exploring and writing about.

Drop me a line if you're interested in discussing. I can give you some example of my thoughts/techniques.

Aaron
Jan 11 13 01:27 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Kaouthia
Posts: 3,152
Lancaster, England, United Kingdom


Here's how my digital zone system works.

Put my highlights in the zone right before the one that makes 'em blink on the camera's LCD and let everything else fall where it may.

Since DSLRs switched over from 12 to 14Bit RAW, I haven't worried about it.
Jan 11 13 01:41 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Model Art Photo
Posts: 637
Monterey, California, US


Hmm, maybe I should put my compact flash card into my Jobo, and try an N-1 time with D-76?  smile
Jan 11 13 01:45 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Smedley Whiplash
Posts: 17,320
Billings, Montana, US


Kaouthia wrote:
Here's how my digital zone system works.

Put my highlights in the zone right before the one that makes 'em blink on the camera's LCD and let everything else fall where it may.

Since DSLRs switched over from 12 to 14Bit RAW, I haven't worried about it.

..which is the opposite of the zone system's first premise "expose for the shadows".
For a film negative, that makes sense.

For digital, you do have to do the opposite, expose for the highlights.

In some respects, HDR is the new zone system

Jan 11 13 02:16 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Kaouthia
Posts: 3,152
Lancaster, England, United Kingdom


Smedley Whiplash wrote:
..which is the opposite of the zone system's first premise "expose for the shadows".
For a film negative, that makes sense.

For digital, you do have to do the opposite, expose for the highlights.

Exactly.  Exposing for digital is more like exposing for slide film.

Jan 11 13 02:41 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
A K
Posts: 194
Charleston, South Carolina, US


Good points. HDR and exposing to the right are both topics that belong under a discussion of digital zone system.
Jan 11 13 03:01 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Kaouthia
Posts: 3,152
Lancaster, England, United Kingdom


It's not even exposing to the right.  Sometimes making sure you retain the highlights can mean everything else is actually underexposed by a stop or two.

But, like I said, with 14Bit RAW, I don't worry about it.  Bringing back that shadow detail and bumping the midtones in post isn't a problem.

Exposing to the right only works with low contrast scenes, whereby you can overexpose the shadows and midtones without blowing highlight detail.
Jan 11 13 03:13 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Daxxx
Posts: 55
s-Gravenhage, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands


euhm HDR has nothing to do with digital zone system, that's just about expanding the dynamic range...
exposing to the right also doesn't have to do anything with zonesystem, that's about capturing as much information as possible..

in the analogue way was just to get your highlights, shadows and midgray exactly where you want  them, and finetuning the best development times according to film and exposure and correct certain contrasts already in development.....

most above all it was about previsualisation of where to place your exposure, where would your highlights and shadows loose their structure, and where will be your midgrays be more or less..this is the only way of using it in a digital way ..so previsualisation...a concept lost on most photographers nowadays...
Jan 11 13 03:33 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Kaouthia
Posts: 3,152
Lancaster, England, United Kingdom


Daxxx wrote:
that's about capturing as much information as possible..

I was always under the impression that that's what the zone system with film was all about.  Capturing as much information as possible on the film, then you can make the decisions about what you want to do with that information when it comes time to make the print?

Jan 11 13 03:42 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Daxxx
Posts: 55
s-Gravenhage, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands


Kaouthia wrote:
I was always under the impression that that's what the zone system with film was all about.  Capturing as much information as possible on the film, then you can make the decisions about what you want to do with that information when it comes time to make the print?

no it's about where to place your zones...and develop THEN accordingly...

IF it would only be about as much as possible information, then you need to develop only with the lowest contrast possible, so one type of development,...no matter what, that's total opposite of zone-system..

Jan 11 13 03:49 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Kaouthia
Posts: 3,152
Lancaster, England, United Kingdom


Daxxx wrote:
IF it would only be about as much as possible information, then you need to develop only with the lowest contrast possible, so one type of development,...no matter what, that's total opposite of zone-system..

No, because lowering the contrast doesn't necessarily increase the information, just the potential dynamic range.  It may decrease tonal range between the black & white point and lose information.

Exposing & developing to have your blacks black and whites white, and having the dynamic range of the shot fill the negative with as many tones in between is as much information as possible.  Which is what everything I've read about the zone system is.

Jan 11 13 04:20 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Daxxx
Posts: 55
s-Gravenhage, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands


Kaouthia wrote:
No, because lowering the contrast doesn't necessarily increase the information, just the potential dynamic range.  It may decrease tonal range between the black & white point and lose information.

getting closer wink

so it's all about placing the different parts in an image before the shoot in the zone-sytem, and develop accordingly...not about :

Kaouthia wrote:
...
Capturing as much information as possible on the film...

but about deciding before the shoot already which information you will keep, and which you will disregard (aka previsualisation)...and ideally that it then (because of the adjusted development to the subject) could be printed on a Normal paper

Jan 11 13 04:26 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Section 008
Posts: 98
Chicago, Illinois, US


i thought the zone system is for film, exposing for shadows and developing for the highlites (something like that) ???
Jan 11 13 04:27 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Daxxx
Posts: 55
s-Gravenhage, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands


Section 008 wrote:
i thought the zone system is for film, exposing for shadows and developing for the highlites (something like that) ???

first of all, which shadow? zone 1 (dark/shadow with structure) or the shadows in the scene? it could be that you decide that the zone 1 should be placed somewhere else in the scene (what we normally would not call shadow)....or that we would be placing zone 1 on a  half shadow, instead of a core-shadow...and therefor changing the tonality..and the samething where to place the zone 8 in the scene....and because the dynamic range between zone 1 and zone 8 would not correlate with the amount of eV/Lumen, adapt the development accordingly...

Jan 11 13 04:31 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Section 008
Posts: 98
Chicago, Illinois, US


Daxxx wrote:
first of all, which shadow? zone 1 (dark/shadow with structure) or the shadows in the scene? it could be that you decide that the zone 1 should be placed somewhere else in the scene (what we normally would not call shadow)....or that we would be placing zone 1 on a  half shadow, instead of a core-shadow...and therefor changing the tonality..and the samething where to place the zone 8 in the scene....and because the dynamic range between zone 1 and zone 8 would not correlate with the amount of eV/Lumen, adapt the development accordingly...

regardless of which shadow you expose for, you have to use only 1 shadow and 1 highlight in the frame per exposure.  then when you develope your film you either push or pull it depending on stops there were between your shadow and your hilite.

i thought you would "normally" take your darkest shadow in the frame so that it does not come out black but still dark enough, and same with the highlite, you dont want your pic to have any blown out spots, unless your creating art smile

Jan 11 13 04:43 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
J O H N A L L A N
Posts: 10,071
Santa Ana, California, US


Kaouthia wrote:

Exactly.  Exposing for digital is more like exposing for slide film.

Yep - the only think I don't do anymore with digital is dropping exposure an extra 1/3 stop sometimes to saturate a bit more.

Jan 11 13 04:48 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Silver Mirage
Posts: 1,578
Plainview, Texas, US


Far as I can see, you just flip the film negative system -- expose for the highlights, then 'develop' for mid tones and shadows. "Expose for the highlights" is not necessarily the same thing as "expose to the right," and developing of course is done visually in the computer. Sort of like the old develop by inspection technique, one could say.
Jan 11 13 04:52 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Daxxx
Posts: 55
s-Gravenhage, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands


Section 008 wrote:
regardless of which shadow you expose for, you have to use only 1 shadow and 1 highlight in the frame per exposure.  then when you develope your film you either push or pull it depending on stops there were between your shadow and your hilite.

Correct

i thought you would "normally" take your darkest shadow in the frame so that it does not come out black but still dark enough, and same with the highlite, you dont want your pic to have any blown out spots, unless your creating art smile

No, the thing is...a shadow is a relative meaning...what is a shadow in your scene is not necessarily a shadow in you photograph...

imagine a tree lying on the beach, then the blue ocean behind it, and then a gorgeous sunset..

where would you place your midgray and then accordingly your shadow?

you can decide to put your midgray on the light structure of the tree....as a consequence the sunset will be moved pass zone 10...and the see might become zone 9 and the zone 1 would end in the dark part of the structure of the tree, putting the attention of your image on the beautifull structure of the weathered tree wink

if you want to have a very intense sunset, you place the sunset in your midgray (colours would become more intense), the tree will be totally black, loosing most structure and the sea might go into zone 1

you can also decide to place  the sea in zone 5 (for a very rich sea structure), then the tree's dark structure will go into zone 1 and the sunset would go into zone 9...this would be the default or conservative exposure if you would have a overall metering

Jan 11 13 04:53 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Nick Peluffo
Posts: 120
Brooklyn, New York, US


Well put Daxx.

The Zone system, as conceived by Ansel & Gretel (Fred Archer), was a system to predict the rendering of tones (shadow values) when you didn't have a histogram or digital raw development. when you couldn't see what was being exposed, and later how the negatives were getting developed, until the process was completed. It was a very worthy pursuit of prefection (predictability). When you were in the dark (pun intended) from exposure to finished negative, mastering this was a neat trick.

Even though the DR of cameras nowadays is a lot narrower than it's film equivalent (it was called Contrast Index for negatives and Gamma index for positives), and T-max 400 could pull almost 20 stops if developed properly, I still visualize an image for composition with the zone system 30 years later by just visualizing and comparing the "shadow value" of the different elements of a scene in my head. That being said though, I wouldn't go prancing around the woods with a light meter figuring out the EV of every twig. for that, I'd just shoot tethered.
Jan 11 13 05:47 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Nick Peluffo
Posts: 120
Brooklyn, New York, US


Guess I should clarify that I NEVER achieved 20 stops with anything except falling asleep on the subway.
Jan 11 13 05:52 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
MartyG uk
Posts: 8
Johnstone, Scotland, United Kingdom


Maybe we need a new term for the zone system in the digital era.

Call it something like gray scale placement system don't see this name catching on too technical and not sexy enough.

Personally I still use an incident light meter to establish basic exposure, the key element of the scene is placed on whatever zone I want it to be (thanks be to Gossen) - expose, chimp and adjust accordingly, then change my mind in post.
Jan 11 13 06:43 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
A K
Posts: 194
Charleston, South Carolina, US


Daxxx wrote:
most above all it was about previsualisation of where to place your exposure, where would your highlights and shadows loose their structure, and where will be your midgrays be more or less..this is the only way of using it in a digital way ...

That's what I was thinking about. I may want, for example, to photograph a model and have her skin tone run through a wider range of tones than what might appear normal skin tone. Exposure considerations may only be the first step. Adjustments in software can play a role.

I think it may be only a certain type of image where this sort of thing is a goal.

Jan 12 13 10:19 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
A K
Posts: 194
Charleston, South Carolina, US


MartyG uk wrote:
Maybe we need a new term for the zone system

The tone-control workflow?

Jan 12 13 10:23 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Daxxx
Posts: 55
s-Gravenhage, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands


A K wrote:
The tone-control workflow?

what would be the workflow then?...the development would be like a normal development...only way would be to use very specialised raw-converters...



just digital zone system wink...there is actually a image-editing program, non-destructive even that work according to the zone system.. "Lightzone" for Mac and Linux....project will be revamped as it's now in zombie-state

LightZone’s individuality shines brightest in its unique approach to lighting and tonal corrections. Photos are broken into 16 shades of gray, displayed in a linear scale called the ZoneMapper (derived from Ansel Adams’ photographic Zone System), wherein each shade represents the lighting difference of half an f-stop. Hover your mouse over any shade and the corresponding areas light up in the ZoneFinder, a small grayscale representation of the photo at the top right of the window. (If this sounds a bit complicated, don’t worry; LightZone’s help system is amazingly well developed, and it will get you up to speed quickly.)

Jan 13 13 05:21 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Smedley Whiplash
Posts: 17,320
Billings, Montana, US


Kaouthia wrote:

No, because lowering the contrast doesn't necessarily increase the information, just the potential dynamic range.  It may decrease tonal range between the black & white point and lose information.

Exposing & developing to have your blacks black and whites white, and having the dynamic range of the shot fill the negative with as many tones in between is as much information as possible.  Which is what everything I've read about the zone system is.

Sort of...

The zone system's main premise is "pre-visualization", which means that if you wanted to purposely block up your shadows, you could do it. Or vise-versa with your highlights. But... in practice, Ansel generally tried to get the longest range possible, knowing that graded b/w fiber paper could only print 5 zones anyway... (the paper grades had different built-in contrast grades 1-5) so the purpose of the exposure was to compress 10-12 zones available on a negative, into roughly 5 to 7 printable paper zones, with some burning and dodging to make up the difference.

My guess is that most of Ansel's negatives were relatively flat looking.  (like a RAW file shot at 0,0,0 )  a bit like the CinemaStyle camera preset for video.

In any case, what Daxxx is alluding to is pre-visualization.

Jan 13 13 08:31 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
B R U N E S C I
Posts: 25,319
Bath, England, United Kingdom


With digital I always endeavour to ETTR in order to maximise shadow detail.

Effectively that's the same as placing whatever you want to keep as your brightest detailed highlight into zone 8 then 'developing' the RAW file accordingly.

As far as I'm concerned the only zones that really matter when shooting with digital are 8, and 9. I ignore zone 10 completely because it's not really safe to try to distinguish "just blown out" (zone 9) from "completely blown out" (zone 10) in digital terms.

Thus, three somewhat extreme examples:-

1. A snow scene in bright sunlight with the sun behind you, where you want to retain detail in the snow - put the brightest snow on the borderline of zones 8 and 9 (just about 1/3 of a stop into the 'blinkies' in typical camera LCD/histogram terms).

2. A snow scene with the sun behind a blonde Caucasian model - try to get the model's brightest facial skintones into zone 8 (just below the blinkies) and try to make sure most of the snow is in zone 8/9 (occasional blinkies) with only unimportant highlights in 9+ (blown out). If you're going for a high key effect and don't care about detail in the background/snow (eg. when using a shallow DOF) then put the model's brightest skintones into zone 8/9 and don't worry about anything else.

3. A light grey cat with white whiskers in a coal cellar - you can probably get away with putting the grey of his coat in zone 8 and letting the whiskers blow out.

Each of these will require a different adjustment in the RAW converter but in all cases you should have maximized the usable data captured by the sensor and kept noise to the minimum achievable for that scene.



Just my $0.02

Ciao
Stefano
www.stefanobrunesci.com
Jan 13 13 11:00 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Jim Lafferty
Posts: 1,941
Brooklyn, New York, US


I just have to say...

Ansel Adams shot a certain way because his *subject* dictated that. Any good photographer lets their subject dictate their style to a degree.

Does Terry Richardson give a damn about his highlights clipping or where on the histogram his shadows fall? No. Because his *subject* is not just celebrity or debauchery, but *spontaneity*. And using technical concerns as the mold to which he conforms his subject would be the death of his work. He inverts the typical photographer's anxiety over technical form and instead puts his energies elsewhere.

Adams on the other hand would sit at the base of a mountain for eternity. His subject was sweeping, transcendent beauty as manifest by *nature*. He had the impetus and, eventually, the luxury of something like The Zone system.

Again: did Bruce Davidson give a shit about The Zone when shooting on the subway in the 80's? Probably not in the literal sense, probably yes in a very distant, theoretical sense. But for him it was instinctual, not labored over.

If we're talking fashion or beauty, I would say the most compelling aspects of that (to me) are narrative and abstraction.

Narrative: Helmut Newton had narrative down cold - women weren't just pretty, they were playing the role Newton wanted them to with relation to a larger context ("you're the lonely wife of a wealthy man who is cheating on you"). Doesn't benefit by the Zone system.

Abstraction: Txema Yeste and Camilla Akrans do this very well - they reduce the image of a face or whole body to an abstraction of shapes. On the one hand, you could say this requires an understanding of the Zone system, on the other hand... in practice, I think the condition of allowing technical concerns to dictate method is anathema for this caliber of work. It's really about developing a sense for throwing out or compressing a lot of detail, and in that sense the idea of "pre-visualization" becomes key... but The Zone is probably the last place these photographers acquire this sense from. Here's some of their work to show what I mean: http://imgur.com/a/db9xM#0
Jan 13 13 11:19 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Art Silva
Posts: 9,373
Santa Barbara, California, US


MartyG uk wrote:
Maybe we need a new term for the zone system

Digital Bracketing

I hear sensors now are capable of doing a set of pre determined exposure compensations [in 1/3, 1/2 or full stop increments] in one click of the shutter, kind of along the lines of HDR but not as destructive. At that point I would expose slightly to the highlight side since digital sensors are more prone to fail at the highlights IMO.

True Zone system works when you have the dynamic tone range that only film will give you which has a 2 or 3 stop more latitude on both ends of the scale compared to the more narow range of digital sensors, therefore bracketing would be your best bet to match the film Zone System capabilities.

Jan 13 13 11:34 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Hugh Alison
Posts: 2,112
Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom


There's quite a lot already written about a Digital Zone system already.

I found the series of articles in the first link useful:

http://www.russellcottrell.com/photo/BTDZS/index.asp

http://www.outdoorphotographer.com/how- … ystem.html

http://www.varis.com/DigitalZoneSystem/ … art_1.html
Jan 13 13 03:05 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Herman Surkis
Posts: 8,685
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada


Daxxx wrote:
euhm HDR has nothing to do with digital zone system, that's just about expanding the dynamic range...
exposing to the right also doesn't have to do anything with zonesystem, that's about capturing as much information as possible..

in the analogue way was just to get your highlights, shadows and midgray exactly where you want  them, and finetuning the best development times according to film and exposure and correct certain contrasts already in development.....

most above all it was about previsualisation of where to place your exposure, where would your highlights and shadows loose their structure, and where will be your midgrays be more or less..this is the only way of using it in a digital way ..so previsualisation...a concept lost on most photographers nowadays...

Well done.
You beat me to it.

Jan 13 13 05:56 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Herman Surkis
Posts: 8,685
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada


Daxxx wrote:

no it's about where to place your zones...and develop THEN accordingly...

IF it would only be about as much as possible information, then you need to develop only with the lowest contrast possible, so one type of development,...no matter what, that's total opposite of zone-system..

Somebody knows the Zone System.

Jan 13 13 05:57 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Herman Surkis
Posts: 8,685
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada


Silver Mirage wrote:
Far as I can see, you just flip the film negative system -- expose for the highlights, then 'develop' for mid tones and shadows. "Expose for the highlights" is not necessarily the same thing as "expose to the right," and developing of course is done visually in the computer. Sort of like the old develop by inspection technique, one could say.

That too.

Jan 13 13 06:00 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
B R U N E S C I
Posts: 25,319
Bath, England, United Kingdom


Daxxx wrote:
exposing to the right also doesn't have to do anything with zonesystem, that's about capturing as much information as possible..
[...]
most above all it was about previsualisation...
[...]
a concept lost on most photographers nowadays...

ETTR isn't in conflict with the zone system or pre-visualisation - in fact it requires the photographer to be more able to pre-visualse, as what you see on the LCD isn't typically what you will end up with after developing the RAW file.




Ciao
Stefano

www.stefanobrunesci.com

Jan 13 13 06:02 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Herman Surkis
Posts: 8,685
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada


What has been alluded to, but not directly mentioned, is that Adams would have killed to have the post shot control that ACR now gives.

Also generally 14bit and the new sensors give a greater latitude then any old colour film.

Zone System is good to think about what you want your image to look like.
I think ZS at the shutter when I want to force myself to really think about the final image.
Most of the time I shoot ETTR to get the most information, and then think ZS in post.

I truly think (sort of) ZS when lighting the subject.
Jan 13 13 06:17 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Daxxx
Posts: 55
s-Gravenhage, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands


Hugh Alison wrote:
There's quite a lot already written about a Digital Zone system already.

I found the series of articles in the first link useful:

http://www.russellcottrell.com/photo/BTDZS/index.asp

http://www.outdoorphotographer.com/how- … ystem.html

http://www.varis.com/DigitalZoneSystem/ … art_1.html

Thanks for the links!...good read smile

Jan 14 13 05:46 am  Link  Quote 
Retoucher
Han Sam
Posts: 141
Guangzhou, Guangdong, China


Hugh Alison wrote:
There's quite a lot already written about a Digital Zone system already.

I found the series of articles in the first link useful:

http://www.russellcottrell.com/photo/BTDZS/index.asp

http://www.outdoorphotographer.com/how- … ystem.html

http://www.varis.com/DigitalZoneSystem/ … art_1.html

Thks you. Really useful for me. I try understand and use Zone Systerm chart when retouch smile

Mar 12 13 08:29 pm  Link  Quote 
Photographer
WIP
Posts: 15,425
Cheltenham, England, United Kingdom


How many here think ' I need to put that into zone 8'.
Mar 13 13 04:47 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
Tony-S
Posts: 1,384
Fort Collins, Colorado, US


Zone system for film: Expose for the shadows, process for the highlights.

Zone system for digital: Expose for the highlights, pray for the shadows.
Mar 13 13 06:38 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
John Horwitz
Posts: 2,655
Raleigh, North Carolina, US


A K wrote:
Any photographers using the zone system for digital?

Aaron

Ansel Adams just wrote a book about it called "The Silicon Chip" smile

Mar 13 13 06:58 am  Link  Quote 
Photographer
D-Fotograf
Posts: 54
Frankfurt, Hassia, Germany


Daxxx wrote:
euhm HDR has nothing to do with digital zone system, that's just about expanding the dynamic range...
exposing to the right also doesn't have to do anything with zonesystem, that's about capturing as much information as possible..

in the analogue way was just to get your highlights, shadows and midgray exactly where you want  them, and finetuning the best development times according to film and exposure and correct certain contrasts already in development.....

most above all it was about previsualisation of where to place your exposure, where would your highlights and shadows loose their structure, and where will be your midgrays be more or less..this is the only way of using it in a digital way ..so previsualisation...a concept lost on most photographers nowadays...

Remember the zone system is comprised of several other markers... one, developer time, film and paper. None of the digital uses anything like Bromide paper??? More importantly, camera metering is designed to give correct readings under average circumstances. This means that the camera would look at a scene and try to render it as average reflectance (18% reflectance), which is middle grey (a value right in the middle between pure black and pure white). When a scene contains too much bright, however, the camera tries to render it as average so it darkens it causing under-exposure. On the other hand, when a scene contains too much dark, the camera tries to render it as average so it lightens it causing over-exposure.

Mar 13 13 07:28 am  Link  Quote 
12last   Search   Reply