The Zone System

Method or Madness?

By Alan Ross Back to

zone system, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Alan Ross, photo technique Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, Carmel 1975. 35mm - I have no idea what kind of readings I may have made! Good detail in the shadows, though!

Seventy years ago, Ansel Adams and Fred Archer, both teaching photography at what is now the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, CA, announced they had come up with a means of analyzing the “brightnesses” of a scene and using that information to anticipate and manage the way those “brightnesses” would be rendered in a print. They called it the Zone System (ZS).

Considering the rapid development of computerized camera meters, and “auto-this” and “auto that,” it seems a good time to ponder whether we have now fast-forwarded to the past, when Kodak announced, “You push the button, we do the rest!” Does the Zone System still have any valid practicality? My answer is an emphatic YES! However, I do consider myself something of a Zone System heretic. It’s perfectly all right to make your own rules, and the Zone System is not the Zen System. And neither one is for everyone! In spite of all the books, articles, how-to’s, and now, chatroom debate, the Zone System is astonishingly misunderstood, misrepresented and misapplied ─ a real pity since it is, in fact, extremely simple in concept and of immense value in application!

Ironically, Ansel himself contributed greatly to the confusion that exists concerning the Zone System. His early writings on the subject were rife with confounding terminology, circular references and critical information contained only in captions and it is something of a wonder anyone grasped the process. A quote from The Negative (1968) reads in part, “…we see that the film-base and fog density is arbitrarily assumed to be 0.1 so that the actual density represented by the heavy line is 1.10 ─ a density of 1.10 (or opacity of 12.5) above the film-base and fog.” Now, I did fairly well myself in university-level calculus, physics and chemistry courses, and numbers and science don’t scare me, but I have to say my first reaction to reading something like that is, “Huh?”

The honest truth is you don’t need math to understand or use the ZS successfully. You don’t need any fancy or expensive equipment. This article, though, is more about the Zone System’s place in photography, why so many folks are baffled by it, and why it is still something very much worth looking in to. The nitty-gritty of how to use the ZS, however, is beyond the scope of this writing.

There are a lot of us who do find a great deal of utility in the ZS. For me, personally, one thing it provides is a huge time-and-material saving short cut for testing film ─ and I hope the idea of testing film isn’t scary─we all need to do it in some way, even if we don’t call it that. Having started out in his early years intending a future as a concert pianist, Ansel was comfortable with a regimen of daily practice. When photography became his main muse, he kept that discipline in order to master the control of tones of light and dark instead of pitch. One of his favorite quotes was one he at- tributed to Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Well, when he came upon the scene of Moonrise, Hernandez, and couldn’t find his light meter, he was still prepared. Keep in mind this was October 1941 and he had already formulated the ZS:“The moon has a luminance of approximately 250 candles-per-square-foot. Therefore, if I place the moon on Zone VII, my ‘basic’ exposure is 1/60 second at the square-root of my film speed.” So there!

zone system, Alan Ross, Ansel Adams, photo technique
Tenaya Lake, Autumn Clouds, Yosemite 2010. 4×5 – Dark Forest placed on Zone III. I confess I have not yet made a silver print. This is from a scan of the film. The negative has excellent density in the shadows.

Again, Ansel had some culpability here. In part, in order to make a case for the virtues of the Zone System, he tended to underplay the extent to which he utilized dodging and burning as a creative control, and instead sugarcoated the process a bit with comments such as “…and it printed quite easily on Velour Black No. 2 with very little manipulation.” The implication, of course, was that if you exposed and developed things properly, burning and dodging would be optional. The truth is, in the five years I worked with him in the darkroom, I never saw him make a straight print. The single and true function of the Zone System is to give a photographer the ability to effectively evaluate the qualities of a scene and follow through quickly with a confidence that the exposure will be adequate, and subsequent development will be appropriate for the photographer’s visualization. An ideal ZS negative, if there is one, may look perfectly awful as a “straight” print!

In my own case, the image in my head when I release the shutter is often at huge variance from the reality of what is in front of my lens, and I am perfectly comfortable working in flagrant defiance of the idea of squeezing or stretching the brightness values in front of my lens into a religiously defined limit. I very often give a landscape scene “normal” development, even though my meter might say some clouds are on Zone XII. The cloud tones will separate just fine in the negative and are easy to burn down, so why should I sacrifice tonal separation in the lower zones by giving reduced development just to accommodate the clouds?

zone system, Alan Ross, Ansel Adams, photo mags
Rocks and Mist, Otter Cove, Big Sur, 1980. 8×10 – I placed the sunglint on the water between Zones IX and X. Normal Development. The dark rock in the foreground fell on about Zone III, so I have to darken it a bit in the print.

A case in point is when I had a student who had adopted a very tightly defined ZS technique. We were in the mountains above Santa Fe one bright afternoon and had set up to photograph a stream that was in both sunlight and shade. Since I like to walk through exposure situations in tandem with a student, I asked what his film speed was. He replied that he didn’t know yet. Huh? Ok. He took a couple of readings, pulled out a Palm Pilot, punched in a few keys and said, “It says I can’t take the picture.” Zowie! I had him set his meter for EI 80 for the TMax 100 he was using and place a certain dark rock in the shade on Zone II and TAKE THE PICTURE! He did. We developed it “normal,” and it printed just fine with some lower contrast burning in the high values. The science of his approach was absolutely correct, but the approach itself missed the point entirely!

So what does the Zone System do?
Shadows: It lets me get my film and meter into sync. I know precisely how much light it takes to get the film to start responding. I know exactly how much exposure I need in order to record an important shadow.

High-Values: Once I have determined an appropriate exposure for a shadow, I can meter a high- value and know exactly how bright it will be if I give the film “normal” development. I can then decide to increase development time if I want the area brighter, or decrease the time if I want it darker. If I don’t have any deep shadows, I can simply decide what kind of a light gray I want and expose accordingly.

The Bottom Line: Once you are used to it and have a reliable spot-meter, the ZS allows you to achieve more accurate, consistent and planned results regardless of camera format or brand─and in most cases faster! I only need one reading to determine an exposure, and that only takes a moment.

One last thing: “Does it work with Digital?” Ab- solutely! Digital does not afford the contrast control of film development, but it still has a distinct range of values from black-to-burned-out. Use of the Zone System in making an exposure can allow one to plan and anticipate image tonal values rather than letting the camera make the decision ─only to wind up with an image cursed with a nasty histogram!

About the Author

Alan Ross
Photographer and master printer Alan Ross has been Ansel Adams’ exclusive printer for over 36 years. His experience includes operating a commercial studio with projects ranging from ad campaigns to murals for the National Park Service. Since 1993, he has devoted his energies to his personal work, teaching and work for select clients, including Boeing, Nike, IBM and MCI. His photography hangs in collections and galleries throughout the country and internationally, and he has lectured and led workshops in locations from Yosemite to China. For a more in-depth discussion of Ross’ masking process, visit his website,