Advanced Exposure: Using The Zone System (Camera Lesson 32)

Summary: Ryan explains what the zone system is and how you can use it to benefit your film productions.

Length: 4:19 minutes

Video Lesson

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Now that you know the basics of exposure, it is time to learn some advanced exposure tips. In this video we are going to start by taking a look at the zone system.

Zone System Origins: Ansel Adams

The zone system is an exposure technique that was developed by Ansel Adams in the early 1940s. It was his attempt at coming up with a system that would help to determine the optimal exposure for a shot using a given recording medium. By using this system, the resulting exposure would render the light and dark values as desired. It is a way to anticipate and control what the final result looks like.

In simple terms, what Ansel Adams did was to break up the tonal range from pure black to pure white and put it into 11 sections or zones:

  • Zone 0 you have pure black.
  • Zone 1 is near black–it has slight tonality to it, but it doesn’t have texture.
  • Zone 2 is textured black–so this is the darkest part of the image where you can still see texture in it.
  • Zone 3 is where an average dark object with adequate texture will fall.
  • Zone 4 is where a dark tree, foliage, or stone lives.
  • Zone 5 is middle gray or your mid tone values.
  • Zone 6 is where the average Caucasian skin tone is at.
  • Zone 7 is for very light skin or for the highlights of Caucasian skin.
  • Zone 8 is for the brightest highlights that still have texture in them.
  • Zone 9 is for your highlights that still have some tone in them, but they have lost their texture.
  • Zone 10 is for pure white light and specular reflections. So any highlight that doesn’t have any texture in it; it’s all blown out.

Knowing what zone a specific object lived in, or by determining for yourself where you want an object to live in the zone system, what you would do is…

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Depth of Field, Part 1: How Aperture and ISO Affect Focus
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 6: Five Tips For A Successful Shoot
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 5: Lighting Six High Speed Sets
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 4: Common Lighting Problems
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 3: Camera Operation & Workflow
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 2: Frame Rate
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 1: Introduction
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2 replies
  1. David
    David says:

    Could you explain is there any important relationship between the zone system and the dynamic range of a camera?

    If a camera has a high dynamic range, do the ten zones still map to the same IRE 0 to IRE 100?


    • Ryan E. Walters
      Ryan E. Walters says:

      The zone system, as it applies to todays cameras, is somewhat relative. The only fixed points are absolute black (no texture), absolute white (no texture), and then mid tone. The rest of the dynamic range falls within those zones, and is what creates the subtle gradations of values. And the zone system still maps to the same IRE values of 0 to 100 (or 109) [100 = broadcast safe white / 109 = digital white/clip].

      Quick Imaginary Example-
      Digital Camera A: 7 Stops of Dynamic Range. (DR)
      DR Stop 1 = Zone 0 / IRE 0
      DR Stop 3 = Zone 5 / IRE 40 – 50 (mid tone)
      DR Stop 7 = Zone 10 / IRE 100 or 109

      This camera only has about 2 – 3 stops of DR to describe zones 1 – 4, and about 3 – 4 stops of DR to describe zones 6 – 9. That means there isn’t going to be a lot of nuances in shadow detail, and there will be more–but not much–nuances in highlight detail.

      Digital Camera B: 14 Stops of Dynamic Range. (DR)
      DR Stop 1 = Zone 0 / IRE 0
      DR Stop 7 = Zone 5 / IRE 40 – 50 (mid tone)
      DR Stop 14 = Zone 10 / IRE 100 or 109

      This camera has about 6 – 7 stops of DR to describe zones 1 – 4, and about 6 – 7 stops of DR to describe zones 6 – 9. That means there is a lot more nuances in both the shadows and the highlights in this camera. So it will reproduce tonal values a lot better, and show you more nuances in values.

      Hope that helps. 🙂


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