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.