Black And White Photography Zones

December 24, 2018 9:07 am by columnblogger
The zone system in black white photography
Black and white landscape
Black And White Photography Zones

Learn how to use zones of light to convert color photographs to stunning, high contrast, black and white images. In this episode, Mark explains his abbreviated version of Ansel Adam’s Zone System. Mark explains the five zones of exposure and demonstrates how to manipulate them using Lightroom 5.

We have covered many other techniques for converting color images to Black and white as well as retouching B&W images in Photoshop – you can find all of the on our Black and White section here on LensVid.

Imagine a set of stairs. The bottom step represents pure black (Zone 0). The top step represents pure white (Zone 9). The step in the middle (Zone 5) represents the 18 percent gray that all cameras (traditional or digital) believe to be the correct exposure. From the mid-point (Zone 5), each step or zone (up or down) represents a change of one f-stop. Therefore, Zone 4 requires an exposure of one f-stop less than your camera indicates. And of course, Zone 6 requires an exposure of one f-stop more than your camera indicates.

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You can find  many more helpful photography tips and techniques on our Photography tips section here on LensVid. You can also check out more of Wallace tutorials here on LensVid.

On this Adorama video, Mark Wallace takes a look at the zones of light method in order to convert color photographs to stunning, high contrast, black and white images.

9 responses to “The Zone System in Black & White Photography”

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Back in the early 1970s I learned a lesson about depth during the “String Art” craze. It was so popular it was actually being taught in schools. Basically put, you created geometric shapes, placed a certain number of points on those shapes, and connected those points with different colors of thread. The end result looked like a “Spirograph” drawing (another 70s classic), but these were more 3-dimensional. When I first learned this, the school had us poking holes in poster board and then stringing it. My family regularly attended arts and crafts shows.

If you listed the ten greatest photographers of all time, Ansel Adams would no doubt be on that list. He and another man by the name of Fred Archer developed the Zone System way back in 1941. Realizing the limitations of the media, they were striving for a way to create more visual depth. “Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights,” was the phrase that many photographers used to explain what they were doing when they used the Zone System.

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Mark Wallace is a photographer based in the United States. Best known for his web-based video series Digital Photography One on One and Exploring Photography sponsored by Adorama. Millions of people have watched Mark’s videos on YouTube, and the numbers continue to grow. Mark has a strong social media following on Facebook and Twitter, where he spends time interacting with viewers and workshop attendees. In 2014, Mark left the United States to embark on a 2 year worldwide adventure. He visited 28 countries and captured thousands of unique photographs across the globe. In 2016 Mark decided to give up planes, trains, and automobiles and is now exploring the world on his motorcycle.

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Recently a student asked me the following question: “Color impacts both the mood and emotion of a photograph; yet some people still prefer black and white. Why is that?”

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My immediate response was this: “Those who learned black and white photography first, were taught more art concepts. A great photo has to do more with leading lines, composition, and contrast than a single color theme. Most black and white photographers learn to capture the full range from black to white (the Zone System), most people who only see color rarely create as much visual depth.”

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When I was young, I learned to go beyond the basics by creating more depth. Creating depth by physically changing the rules is one thing, but when you deal with a photograph, paper is still paper. To get more depth in a photograph you have to increase the visual range beyond what most cameras want to give you. Regardless,if you shoot with film or you shoot digital, the best way to achieve more depth is still the Zone System.

Let’s say you want to photograph an interesting rock formation with a blue sky and fluffy white clouds. The rock formation is shadowed but has lots of interesting textures. You want to bring out as much detail in that rock formation as possible. You meter the shadow areas of the rock, which indicates a shutter speed of 1/60 second with an f-stop of f/2.8. Then, you meter the sky, which indicates the same shutter speed but with an f-stop of f/16. Keep in mind that in high contrast scenes, you MUST expose for the shadows if you want to show those details. You decide the shadows fall within Zone 2, (very dark, but not a true black.) By using your Exposure Compensation Settings, you would stop down three stops and shoot at 1/60 at f/8. In other words: Zone 5 – Zone 2 = 3 stops less light.

On the video, Wallace explains his abbreviated version of Ansel Adam’s Zone System. He uses five exposure zones and demonstrates how to manipulate them using Lightroom 5. He starts with the midtones, sets black and white points, adjusts the shadows and highlights and finally makes “color” adjustments to get the most out of the contrast of the image.

In a normal shooting mode, if you use exposure compensation to take the image at Zone 4 you will darken the entire image. But since RAW mode saves all the exposure data (both shadows and highlights) it would be similar the second part of the Zone System.

We started doing something similar by using wood covered with felt, then using ½ inch nails in place of the holes. Gradually we tried bigger nails like 1 inch and 1.5 inch in size. We found that by creating more depth physically, it also created more visual depth.

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Most string art kits only used the ½ inch nails and would only do five or six rows of thread. By adding more depth in the physical dimensions (the nails), we were able to create images with ten to twelve rows of colored thread. Eventually, I designed a coffee table that stood, three feet tall with inlayed glass. This creation was 24 layers deep.

In pondering my reply, I realized that there is very likely a whole generation of photographers out there who have either never heard of the Zone System or may have heard of it, but don’t understand how it applies to images today. Let me see if I can simplify this.

About the Author Award winning writer/photographer Tedric Garrison has 30 years experience in photography ( As a graphic art major, he has a unique perspective. His photo eBook, “Your Creative Edge,” proves creativity can be taught. Today, he shares his wealth of knowledge with the world through his website.

Since Adams and Archer were shooting mostly black and white, the second half of the system had to do mostly with “pushing” or “pulling” of development times. Most color films are not that forgiving with changes in development times; however, digital media and digital photo editing software (like Photoshop) can put you back in the Zone. If you learn to how use your “exposure compensation” on the camera, you too can expose for the shadows. If you shoot in RAW mode, the information you need to pull out the highlights will still be there.

If you follow the steps above, you get the details in the shadows that most people miss. The next step would be to transfer your image to you computer and start playing with the sky. Obviously, this will vary depending on what type of software you are using, but by being both camera smart and computer smart you will have an edge over 99 percent of the tourists that just point and shoot.

Below you can see an older video by Wallace looking at the effects of color on B&W images.

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