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WHAT IS THE ADAMS ZONE SYSTEM. WHY IT IS NEEDED AND HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY USE IT

Have you ever wondered how some photographers can create images that are strikingly different from what you can see with your eyes? Digital photography allows you to use your computer to process images so that they look surreal. Many digital cameras have features such as wide dynamic range (HDR), multiple exposure. But this article will not consider them, but more natural shooting technologies.

The Adams zone system is another necessary tool in the photographer’s skill set, and therefore anyone who wants to engage in photography at an amateur level should learn how it works and how to use it correctly.

The zone system has been around for many decades. This is a method for determining the optimal film exposure and image development parameters. The system was developed in the 1930s for black-and-white film by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer based on sensitometry, the science of measuring the properties of photosensitive materials.

The first thesis that you must understand is how exactly the camera’s exposure meter “sees” the world around it. Simply put, he sees everything in shades of gray, everything for him is a world of tones, a colorless world. The camera cannot distinguish trees from people, people from snow, etc.

Adams Zone System

Another important point is that your light meter wants to make everything medium gray, usually called 18% gray. Remember this!

Compositions containing a limited range of midtones do not pose a problem for modern cameras, especially when photographing them in soft, low contrast light. But such images often look boring and have to be further processed. Cameras cannot see in the same way as humans. This means that you see a frame different from what your camera will record.

Hard light and contrast always suggest that you need to work with exposure before you take a photo.

It is difficult to photograph a black cat on a black carpet or a white rabbit in the snow. Your light meter will “want” to display both of these scenes as 18% gray, because that is what it is programmed for. Your camera does not know that your subject should actually be black, and does not know that all this white color in the viewfinder is actually snow. If you leave 0 or Meter as Read (MAR) on the scale of the exposure meter, then your photo of a black cat on a black carpet will be overexposed, and the photo of a white rabbit in white snow will not be exposed enough. Both will be in a medium gray tone. And here you will need knowledge of the zone system.

Adams Zone System
Taken with zero exposure compensation. Black cat gray or Zone V

Adams Zone System
Compensation of 2 steps made the black cat turn black or Zone III

Any illuminated object is divided by the Adams zone system into eleven zones, which are designated as 0 and later by Roman numerals from I to X. Zone 0 is completely black, zone X is absolutely white, zone V is standard gray, and its reflectance is 18%. The transition between the zones is one exposure level (one “stop”).

Adams Zone System

Zone 0: pure black, no details. That would be the edge of the negative film.
Zone I: almost pure black with a slight tone, but no details.
Zone II: this is the first zone where details begin to appear; The darkest part of the image where the details are recorded.
Zone III: moderately dark tones.
Zone IV: landscape shadows, dark foliage.
Zone V: medium gray, as indicated by your light meter, 18% gray.
Zone VI: medium shade of human skin.
Zone VII: very fair skin of a person; shadows in the snow.
Zone VIII: The lightest tone with texture.
Zone IX: A faint tone without texture (e.g. bright snow).
Zone X: pure white with no details. It can be light sources or reflections of light sources.
The exposure meter will give you accurate exposure readings for the mid-gray area. This is why photographers often carry a small 18% gray card (zone V) with them. They can read color from a card in the prevailing lighting conditions and adjust their camera accordingly.

If the frame has a wide contrast range, adjusting the exposure to medium gray often leads to poor results. In this case, it is best to decide which part of the image will be most important, and adjust the exposure meter for it. Suppose you are photographing a white dress of the bride, very bright and with texture. According to the zone scheme, it falls into zone VII or VIII in tone, therefore, it is necessary to obtain exposure compensation in the direction of PLUS by two or three steps (the difference between zone V and where your object should go).

Adams Zone System
Snow shot at zero exposure compensation. Gray color or zone V

Adams Zone System
Shooting +2 stops. Details are visible on white. Zone VII

As an experiment, try photographing a sheet of white paper. First, make sure that exposure compensation is not added – your exposure meter pointer should be in the middle, at 0.

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