A Different Approach To The Zone System
By Dorothea R. Hooper
How many times have you fallen asleep with a Zone System book on your chest? You really want to learn this information so you can apply it to your serious photography and start getting those intense tonal ranges that you've read about, right? But somehow the details of the data put you to sleep.
It's not any writer's fault that this technical approach to your favorite hobby is so intense. It's the character of the information. It's highly complex and very exacting information. It has to clearly delineate the steps involved in the scale and in the process.
One of the problems with this type of information (which I have tried to overcome) is how linear it is. As creators, photographers aren't necessarily very scientific people. Once a shooter decides to learn more about the medium, they quickly realize they have to learn some math and chemistry.
When they get around to the Zone System, the graphical portions are usually presented in a left-to-right or top-to-bottom orientation. And I agree this helps in the visual understanding of how it progresses from one step or stop or tonal gradient to the next.
However, my thinking was that there had to be another way to look at it. Students needed a way to remember how many stops are involved when they get to the point of wanting to place densities on certain zones.
Doing the unforgivable, I cut up a book with the graph in it and started playing with it on the kitchen table. Now I know Ansel Adams was probably frowning down on me at the time. But before I knew it I had put it back together in a form that seemed easier for students to memorize - a pyramid structure.
With some sense of trepidation I made a few photocopies and took them to my next class on the subject. As I presented them to the first group of students, I expected to hear some kind of accusation of blasphemy but instead I heard, "Oh, I see, there really is a correlation!"
Since that time I have given hundreds of students this handout and seen the light bulbs going on all over the room. For some reason this simple twist on an old theme is a much easier way of remembering the progression when you are out in the field shooting. It isn=t just a strip of paper running from D-Max Black to Paper White any more.
It is now a pyramid of tonal values with a built-in way of remembering which step is which and how far apart in stops a particular value is from Zone V, 18% Gray. Nothing revolutionary, simply a pneumatic device to hopefully help each one of us at some point.
The information contained in each Zone has not changed. Zone V is still where we place Medium Gray, 18% reflectance value and so on. The only change is that we can now more easily visualize the number of stops worth of change required to move a density or place it somewhere else on the Zone System.
Many photographers choose to meter for shadow detail and place that density on Zone III. What they are essentially doing is placing their Zone V reflectance measurement back two stops on the scale, or under exposing the scene by two stops.
Most of us then meter the highlight density where we also want detail and with any luck it falls within a tolerable limit for the film we are shooting. If it does not, then we have to adjust with development. But that's another article and diagram.