Another Revelation (for me at least) – The Zone System

There are a number of givens, certainly within the Photography world, that are supposed to lead. They end up confusing and confounding most beginners. Don’t allow this frustration to get to you, or divert you from your fascination. You want to take pictures, you want to make a record, it makes you happy, and with the world becoming a smaller place, it will likely make an audience happy too.

Do your homework, research, experiment, explore, review and reach conclusions… (don’t let this confusion distract you)

One of the many sources of information out there is CreativeLive, a spectacularly awesome education framework. I use it a lot. I only wish that they had this around when I was at school and college; things may have been considerably different now.

I had the pleasure of enjoying a certain young gentleman called Don Giannatti (@Wizwow) deliver at CreativeLive recently. I enjoyed the broadcast so much I bought the download… Don turned on a light for me, and made a coin drop. Allow me to wind back a little while.

There are a number of items here which to me appeared disjointed. Sure they were all to do with photography, I just didn’t get where they were supposed to go, how they meshed together, how the sequence went. They were simply floating around waiting for a home…

Zack Arias, another presenter on Creative Live (at least that is how I got to know him), started with setting what the camera thinks is the right exposure, by setting the exposure for your subjects cheek. Got that, I can work with that one, on its own. This doesn’t need anything else to work. Set my Depth of Field where I want it to be, get the exposure right for the subjects cheek, and go at it… got some nice results too… encouraged me to explore further… It’s a little simplistic, but it gets results. It creates a degree of satisfaction, and drives you forward. After all I picked up a camera because I wanted to take pictures.

This soon became the desire to make pictures, and will likely progress to creating pictures soon enough…

Phil Malpas, and David Präkel, with their books talking about Capturing Colour, Composition and Exposure, in the Basics Photography series mention the Zone System by Ansel Adams, and Fred Archer.

The Zone System talks about making sure that your light and dark values render as well as they can, in relation to the available light, the medium which you are exposing and all the little bits and pieces that come together to make the image. Challenges here are many…

  • The picture that you have visualised, the one that is in your mind’s eye.
  • The picture that is sat in front of you captivating you to want to operate the shutter.
  • The picture that your camera can see.
  • The picture that the medium you are exposing can actually capture…
  • The picture that you can work with in post, and subsequently print to enjoy at your leisure (so that you can then communicate that to a wider audience).

As you can see these are all challenges, and all floating around in my head waiting to find a slot in a sequence to call home.

This is where Don makes the coin drop, and turns the light on. I was doing fine with Zack’s advice and turning out acceptable images. A nice logical progression from where I was previously… The Don drops the coin, and turns on the light… Expose for the cheek (check – heard that somewhere before, listening hard now) it’s a nice mid tone, a middle grey (heard this before, another coin drops (18% grey card), trying to listen even harder now over my deafening heart beat), a zone 5 (POW! Shebang! ZAP!). I am sure I can hear angels singing…

All these seemingly disparate items all drop into place. A nice orderly sequence, a framework… A series of checks and balances, of give and takes… the negotiation of the vision to create the image.

So, let’s put this in my sort of order. I want a portrait; it’s all I ever wanted.

Expose for the cheek. (My camera is a little ‘hot’ sometimes, so I sometimes drop a third or a couple of thirds) But using the camera meter, I take a reading through the lens.

Now I know why I am doing that, so that the focus of the interest in the image is exposed correctly, and my composition should draw your view into the area of highest contrast. The rest of the image should fade into the background, holding your focus where I have directed you to look. To the eyes, to the profile, to the detail, whatever it is…

The trick here is, to retain a level of useable detail in some, or all, of the rest of the composition; an understanding of the zone system allows you to concentrate on the contents of the whole frame not just the small section that you have your meter focussed on. You are building a complete image, a vision that will draw the gaze in, and hold it there. A great image will offer something new every time that you look at it. You may already have some of these images, either your own, or someone else’s, that bring you back again and again. These images will accomplish this through their management of the Zone System, through composition, through texture, through emotion, etc…

Take aways:

  • Get to grips understanding your kit, to take better pictures, more often.
  • Meter what you are taking, get to recognise what the tones are, drive it, don’t be driven by it…

PS. This all being said, get out there and create images…


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