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Remembering The Zone System for Better Black & Whites

Using zone 0 through X helps to frame this bride even more dynamically.
Using zone 0 through X helps to frame this bride even more dynamically.

As someone who learned photography in the Age of Analog, I often find myself cringing when I see those who have only ever known digital, under-utilizing the power of black and white with the quick click of the grayscale button. Their images can be so much more than the general gray blahness that just the unrefined desaturation command can do.

In school, we were held to the standards of The Zone System; a method developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. It was our constant benchmark of a dynamic exposure. And when one has a dynamic exposure, you can’t help but be interested in the image. While the scale was originally developed for black and white analog film, and later used with color film, we can still apply its basic ideals to bump our digital black and whites to the next level.

An Overview of The Zone System:

Adams & Archer cemented the principles of The Zone System in the late 1920s & early 1930s. They were looking to reduce the amount of guesswork with their exposures so that they could capture more consistent results that more accurately represented the scene in front of their cameras. The system, once mastered, would also provide an easy and foolproof guide for creatively & intentionally over or underexposing an image as well. There are 11 steps in the scale:

Deep shadows in the folds of the dress emphasize the texture and structure creating a very statuesque feeling.
Deep shadows in the folds of the dress emphasize the texture and structure creating a very statuesque feeling.

0 – Pure Black
I – Near black, slight tonality but no texture
II – Textured Black, the darkest part of the image in which slight detail is recorded
III – Average dark materials that show adequate texture
IV – Average dark foliage, dark stone, or landscape shadows
V – Middle Gray; clear north sky; dark skin; average weathered wood
VI – Average medium tone skin, shadows in snow in sunlit landscapes
VII – Very light skin; shadows in snow with acute side lighting
VIII – The lightest tone with texture, textured snow
IX – Slight tone without texture, glaring snow
X – Pure white; light sources & specular reflections/flare

Applying the Zone System in Weddings:

In many situations with photography & applying the zone system, you have to interpret colors into zone values. It takes some practice and after being off by a stop or two, eventually you get really good at it. So isn’t it nice of weddings to make things super easy on you by providing you with foolproof values of VIII & III? Of course Im talking about the wedding dress and the tuxedo! Its genius! Whenever I edit wedding photos, I always strive to keep my dresses in zone VII & VIII. By doing that, I ensure that all those subtle little details (that the bride paid a pretty penny for, I might add) are still celebrated in the image. Similarly, by striving to keep the average black tux in Zone II & III, I ensure that my grooms don’t end up looking like heads floating on black, boxy blobs (or a guy in a faded, dusty old tux).

How I Apply It:
My absolutely favorite program to edit black & whites in is (the recently purchased by Google) NIK Software Silver Efex Pro plugin. It work for PS, Lightroom, and Aperture and does a spectacular job helping you to coax every bit of development out of that RAW image as Adams did in his darkroom processing techniques.

Out of the camera RAW image.
Out of the camera RAW image.

While you’re in Silver Efex Pro fiddling (and boy are there a lot of ways to fiddle!) you can check your progress with each zone in the loupe area. When you mouse over the area of the loupe & histogram in Silver Efex Pro, you’ll actually see The Zone System Scale pop up from 0-10. Roll over each number and colored shading will appear on your image that corresponds to each zone. Its brilliant! Now I can easily double check that I am including all the tonalities in my image; making sure the dress isn’t just flat white and that I have the appropriate shadow depth to really make those highlights sing. As an added bonus, you’ll be pleased to note that when you employ these Zone System principles in your editing, you’ll find details and textures in your images you may never have known existed!

Raw image with just grayscale edit applied.
Raw image with just grayscale edit applied.
Here, zone 0, V, and IX are highlighted in Google NIK Silver Efex Pro, show exactly which tones are which zone value.
Here, zone 0, V, and IX are highlighted in Google NIK Silver Efex Pro, show exactly which tones are which zone value.
Editing that utilizes the full range of the Zone System.
Editing that utilizes the full range of the Zone System.

Lisa is a Washington, D.C. based wedding & portrait photographer with and check her blog for more of her work.

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