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Author Topic: Zone System for Digital Photography  (Read 19608 times)
Jonathan Wienke
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« on: August 19, 2005, 12:45:29 PM »
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The Zone system as originally conceived is not exactly applicable to digital imaging. Exposure with digital should be done as described in http://www.visual-vacations.com/Photogr....ies.htm to achieve the lowest noise and greatest dynamic range.
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Graeme Nattress
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« Reply #1 on: August 27, 2005, 12:19:35 PM »
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I must admit, coming from an image processing / video background, that I cannot make any description of the zone system make sense in my head, and it makes even less sense with digital photography. I truely believe that when you take a digital photograph, you should be aiming to capture as much (high quality) information as possible to allow you to manipulate the image to achieve your artistic goal for the picture. By aiming to expose your image so that no highlights are clipped, but are as bright as possible achieves this goal. The histogram on the camera is your primary tool for achieving this.

I wish that cameras had an iterative exposure mode that took image after image, analysing the histogram and applying micro changes to either apperture or shutter speed to maximise the dyanamic range. I mean, we do this by hand by looking at the histogram after we take a shot, but it's a mechanical process that the computer in the camera should be able to do with ease.

Graeme
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Jonathan Wienke
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« Reply #2 on: August 28, 2005, 10:49:33 PM »
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The biggest reason the Zon System is obsolete IMO is that you can darken tones with digital and not lose any image quality, but not lighten. With film & darkroom processing, one loses quality by moving tones too far either way in post. With digital, quality is only lost when moving tones up the luminanace scale (unless you've blown the highlights), so it makes sense to expose digital differently than one did with film & chemical prints.
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dbell
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« Reply #3 on: August 29, 2005, 02:46:35 PM »
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I always felt that the point of the zone system was to help photographers understand the relationships between luminance values in their images and how to manipulate them. When you decide how much exposure you want to give to a particular area (what zone you're going to put it on) the system lets you visualize what the other values will look like and know what will fall outside the range of your film. It's basically a tool for understanding and predicting the consequences of your exposure decisions. I'd say that this part of it still applies to digital capture. Sure, the histogram lets you know right away about how good your guesses are, but I don't see anything wrong with being able to do the mental exercise, especially if you still shoot any film.

The zone system is predicated on the use of B&W negative films. On those films, low-density values must be controlled by exposure. When you develop, you can then give more or less development to control values in the high-density areas (low values are significantly less affected by development time on thick-emulsion B&W films).
Digital sensors don't respond to exposure the same way B&W films do, but they do behave a lot like transparency films. Ansel's advice in "The Negative" about how to apply the zone system to slide films is still useful stuff. IMO, so is the general emphasis on understanding the relationships between the luminosities of various areas of an image.
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Dave Ward
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« Reply #4 on: August 19, 2005, 10:47:38 AM »
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Does anyone have any experience on using the Zone System (or part of it) with digital photography. I use a Canon 1Ds and although it's metering system seems pretty good, I like the idea of bringing some of the traditional methods into digital work. I heard that digital should be treated more like transparency film with its shorter 'latitude' and easy of exposing incorrectly, so a modified ZS may be beneficial?
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Wills
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« Reply #5 on: August 27, 2005, 10:57:01 AM »
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This is a good article on the Digital Zone System http://www.erickahler.com/articles/zonesystem.html
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AJSJones
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« Reply #6 on: August 27, 2005, 05:48:55 PM »
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Dave,
The histogram on a digital camera nearly makes the original implementation of the zone system obsolete.  As I understood the zone system, it put numbers on the following concept: you explored various parts of the image, particularly the highlights and shadows, to see what would happen if you tried to capture them both within the range of zones available on your film.  Would the major items in the shot be too light or dark for your previsualized image, would you need to alter development etc, or would you need to sacrifice shadow detail or highlights, if there was too much range etc. (Not trivializing, just simplifying).
The available range in a single digital capture seems to be a matter of discussion and isn't simply stated, and has improved quite a bit as sensor and processor technologies have evolved.  It's probably beyond slide film, however.  Once you understand the histogram (together with bracketing/blending/HDR tools to extend the DR beyond a single capture) the need for the zone system per se goes away.  It's kinda built into a histogram.  In other words, the histogram IS the new zone system

I have a Sekonic for my 4x5 and when I got the 4x5, I religiously metered my shots as all the best books described (and the Sekonic graciously merged them into a single exposure recommendation which matched my own "placements")  I also used my Canon digital SLR to take shots of the same scene - adjusting the exposure based on the histogram to expose slightly less than what would have blown the highlights ("Expose right" in digital terminology).  Sheet after sheet I did this and there was rarely a difference of more than 1/2 stop and the trannies look great.  It was frequently "meter for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may" - the latter being determined by the subsequent scan quality.  I will now only override the histogram if I know I want to sacrifice the highlights to get better shadow details (or vice versa)

If you can get you mind around the 2-dimensional distribution of tones in the image on the focusing screen and its transformation to a histogram of the same tones now ordered by luminance, you'll see that the histogram is simply the result of many millions of single pixel spot meter measurements, placed on a scale of the range available for capture - it's done all the work of gathering readings and placing them in zones (many 000's of them).  Only under severe conditions will you need to get the spot meter out to determine which particular blown highlights are in which location in the image.

I still carry, but only rarely use, the Sekonic. I think you'll find a histogram helps you implement the original ideas behind the zone system, only with more precision

Andy
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dbarthel
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« Reply #7 on: August 29, 2005, 12:12:59 PM »
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The concept of the zone system on film was to either overexpose and under develop or underexpose and overdevelop to either expand or contract the image into 9 zones from pure black to pure white. While not directly relevent to digital, it is interesting to think of this if using the new CS2 exposure merge capability. You would spot meter your darkest parts with some detail and make sure they were at least 2 stops above black, and then for the brightest values, make sure that they were at least two stops below pure white. You now have zones 3 and 7 safely exposed. Then figure out how many intermediate exposures you need in one stop increments to go from the first to the last exposure. Then off to photoshop to combine all the images. (Ansel is rolling in his grave at this point  Cheesy ). This does exactly what he did with chemicals - maximize the range with either compression or expansion.
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pcg
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« Reply #8 on: August 29, 2005, 04:09:31 PM »
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If you still want to explore this further, you may want to look at some software by Reindeer Graphics (see http://www.reindeergraphics.com/). They make a PS filter that allows you to view the histogram as a classic zone values graph. I've found it interesting, & if I'm really stretching to pick up all the values between both shadows & highlights, I'll use it as a cross check. 'Worth a look. And I believe there may be a free download that's limited in time so that you can play w/ the software.
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Dan Sroka
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« Reply #9 on: August 30, 2005, 09:22:54 AM »
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While not directly relevent to digital, it is interesting to think of this if using the new CS2 exposure merge capability.
I agree. While the techniques of the zone system do not necessarily translate to digital, the lessons it teaches do. When converting a digital image to black and white, it is useful to think in zones, and assign areas of interest in the photo to appropriate zones.
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tshort
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« Reply #10 on: November 14, 2005, 01:41:47 PM »
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The concept of the zone system on film was to either overexpose and under develop or underexpose and overdevelop to either expand or contract the image into 9 zones from pure black to pure white. While not directly relevent to digital, it is interesting to think of this if using the new CS2 exposure merge capability. You would spot meter your darkest parts with some detail and make sure they were at least 2 stops above black, and then for the brightest values, make sure that they were at least two stops below pure white. You now have zones 3 and 7 safely exposed. Then figure out how many intermediate exposures you need in one stop increments to go from the first to the last exposure. Then off to photoshop to combine all the images. (Ansel is rolling in his grave at this point   ). This does exactly what he did with chemicals - maximize the range with either compression or expansion.
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Sort of.  First you meter your ZIII area, as you describe - the darkest area where you want full detail to be visible (you could also start with ZII - which is some detail).  Then you visually determine what the brightest area is that you want full detail to be visible in.  Then you meter that area, and calculate the difference in stops between it and the ZIII area.  Let's say it was a four-stop difference.  Knowing that gives you info to make two decisions:

1. the exposure settings to make the exposure - which, btw, would be two stops below what your meter reading was (meters always read Z V).
2. your development time.  In this case, you'd be using your N+1 development time, in effect pulling your neg, to expand the contrast of four-stop brightness range across five stops of contrast.

In order to know what your development time was, you would need to have conducted parametric analysis of your film/developer combination using densitometry.  Once you did that work you would then have your development times nailed, from N-3 to N+3, giving you the ability to create negatives of uniform density and contrast.  In theory. ;-)

And that, in a nutshell is the Zone system (as I understand/practice it).
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-T
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djgarcia
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« Reply #11 on: November 16, 2005, 09:40:46 PM »
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For me the greatest contribution of the Zone System, which I studied using The New Zone System Manual by Minor White et al., was the conceptualization of an image in terms of its tonal content and placement in the final print. It's the kind of knowledge that becomes a subconscious part of your photography, and influences your work regardless of medium used. It was a huge help to me.
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drew
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« Reply #12 on: November 17, 2005, 06:41:05 AM »
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The zone system was originated by Ansel Adams (aka St Ansel to afficionados of the zone system) at a time when film and print materials were much less well developed than they are today. No variable grade printing papers for example (let alone multigrade) and so he had to evolve a technically rigorous method for extracting the maximum technical quality from the materials available to him. For him, this yielded spectacular results at a time when the bromoil print was a standard in fine art black and white photography. If Ansel Adams were alive today, I am certain that he would be shooting mostly transparency film or digital in colour in common with most working professionals in his genre and he would have abandoned most of the tenets of the zone system. The bits about previsualising tones in the scene still has some relevance and it is important to be aware of the dynamic range of the medium to which you are shooting e.g transparency film about five stops. However, a digital SLR comes with a very accurate evaluative metering system, it gives you a small preview of your image and you also get a histogram of brightness against tone. There is only one caveat of this and that is that the histogram is predicated on JPEG output and if you shoot RAW, it is possible to recover some highlight tonality beyond the right side of the histogram.
A modern large format shooter will often shoot a number of sheets of transparency film at the same exposure and then test develop one and push or pull process the remainder depending on the outcome of the test sheet. However, a modern DSLR is a very accurate exposure meter and can be used instead of a handheld meter to optimise exposure with a film camera.
So does the zone system still have relevance today? Well, not much would be my answer. Life is just too short for the majority of us to go down the road of sensitometry and densitometry. Also, the zone system is really pseudo-science as there are far too many variables in the bucket chemistry that is developing film. I started reading the Eric Kahler piece and yes he does have some nice pictures of leaves, but if the 'digital zone system' is what led him to this 'life's work', then I really do not want to go there thank you. I only read about a quarter of it before I started loosing the will to live.
A friend of mine, Lee Frost who has written a number of books on photography has a nice word for all of this. KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid!
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tshort
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« Reply #13 on: November 17, 2005, 02:39:58 PM »
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If Ansel Adams were alive today, I am certain that he would be shooting mostly transparency film or digital in colour in common with most working professionals in his genre and he would have abandoned most of the tenets of the zone system.

snip

So does the zone system still have relevance today? Well, not much would be my answer.

snip

 KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid!

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Wow - that's pretty black & white ;-)

On your first point, I'm less clear he would have abandoned shooting b/w.  Augmented it with these other media, yes.  But dumped it?  Doubt it.

And as for dumping the zone system - he probably "dumped" it while he was still shooting.  I'm guessing that he was able to guesstimate intuitively both the exposure and the requisite development time for his shots (read about how he shot Moonrise Over Hernandez some time - he said did it "from the hip" so to speak).  The zone system is effectively a set of heuristics designed to enable a rank amateur to get pretty good exposure and film development results virtually from the start, without having to shoot and process several hundred (thousand?) frames before they understand their film/developer combination.  Does it have holes and gaps? Yes.  Does it work?  Yes!

Think about how you are taught a foreign language, versus learning your own.  Dramatically different approaches are used.  Learning how to "see" in b/w and shoot it effectively is a bit like that, in my opinion.  The zone system provides a way of speeding up the learning process - teaching you how to "see" a new way.  Once learned, the mechanics of it can be (usually are?) discarded.  But the lessons and cognitive wiring of it "stick", and continue to inform one's shooting, at least that's what I've found.

How do you teach someone what "expose for the shadows" means?  The zone system provides a coherent way of taking that thought from initial composition through the finished negative (and into the print for that matter).  Gotta walk before you can run.
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-T
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Anon E. Mouse
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« Reply #14 on: November 17, 2005, 05:48:42 PM »
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The Zone Sytem is simply applied sensitometry. It is just a applicable today as it was then. It works for digital just as well as film - how do you think the manufactures are able to get good pictures from a camera - the are in effect using the Zone System (sensitometry). True, as photographers, you have little control over the sensor response and so the Zone System does not help you maximize the amount of information captured like you can do with film, but the sensor response is fixed on the very same concepts used in the Zone Sytem.
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digitaldog
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« Reply #15 on: November 18, 2005, 08:48:20 AM »
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Keep in mind that RAW data from our sensors is linear encoded data unlike how we see or how film captures tones. The Histogram on the back represents the rendered data (non linear encoded data). IF you’re shooting JPEG, fine. If you’re shooting RAW, the Histogram isn’t producing anything that remotely defines the RAW data and the role of exposure on this data.

In a 6 stop range 12 bit file, the first stop is totally devoted to the first 2048 steps of data (leaving a mere 64 to define the shadows).
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Andrew Rodney
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gmitchel
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« Reply #16 on: November 18, 2005, 09:28:35 AM »
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Andrew does raise an important issue. The histogram you see on the back of your DSLR is generated from a JPEG. Even when you shoot RAW with a Canon DSLR, it is the embedded JPEG that is used for the histogram.

RAW images have more dynamic range. Settings you use for setting white balance and dynamic range in your RAW converter are applied to the linear data before the RAW data is converted. Different choices about colorspaces can involve different gamma curves being applied. Etc. So the histogram you see on the back of the DSLR can be different from what you will see when you load the image in ACR and then into PS.

Ansel Adams did not use a histogram on the back of his camera for his zone system.  (OK, he did not have the luxury.)

IMHO, you have to rely on technique out in the field. LCD displays can easily fool you into believing you nailed the exposure only to find out later you did not. I use the histogram for ETTR and watch the clipping highlight. But beyond that, I only use the histogram and LCD as quick reassurance that I got the dynamic range I was hoping to capture and the image was in focus and did not ghost.

I share the reluctance I believe Andrew is expressing about using the histgram out in the field to make fine grained decisions about exposure. Unless you shoot JPEG, it is not exactly measuring what we typically think it is measuring.

Cheers,

Mitch
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drew
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« Reply #17 on: November 18, 2005, 02:18:19 PM »
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Wow - that's pretty black & white ;-)
Well no, it is not. tshort you need to reread what I wrote. I did not say Ansel Adams would either have abandoned or dumped black and white photography, but in the current market coming into it as an unknown, it is very likely that he would, out of commercial necessity, confined it more to personal work. Maybe I should have altered 'fairly certain' for something more equivocal, but I wanted to be a bit provocative.
The bits of the zone system that still have relevance today are to do with previsualisation in relation to exposure and the final values in the print. However, these are not really particularly unique to the zone system and trying to give it some kind of mystical value or comparing it to a foreign language is not particularly helpful. These concepts are not rocket science. The bits that are to do with sensitometry and densitometry are not particularly relevant or applicable to working photogs. I do not know any photographer that either owns or uses a densitometer.
Anon E Mouse, I doubt that any sensor manufacturer consulted 'the negative' before designing. BTW, at the start of this forum, you used to be able to post anonymously, but MR quite rightly decided that contributors should not be anonymised. I would much rather discuss things with someone who is prepared to be recognised.
To return to the start of this thread, provided you understand the histogram and its limitations and the limitations of sensor response, that is much more useful to a digital photographer than any in-depth knowledge of the zone system, apart from its historical context.
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BJL
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« Reply #18 on: November 18, 2005, 03:32:45 PM »
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AA succesively adopted 4"x5", medium format and 35mm without abandoning the earlier larger formats; he adopted color film and even polaroid but still used mostly monochrome film. So I doubt he would have gone 100% color or 100% digital.
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BJL
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« Reply #19 on: November 18, 2005, 03:39:34 PM »
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Olympus has an intriguing but vaguely described new metering option in the E-500; something to do with using the new 49 zone light meter to assess highlights and shadows. If that tries to set exposure to hold highlights and shadows, and then selects a contrast level/tone curve to spread the measured shadow to highlight range suitably across the final eight bit output, it is a descendent of zone system thinking. Tone curves in "RAW development" replacing the development controls of the zone system.
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