the zone system

Ansel Adams was a very great photographer. He was also a lecturer in photography, and in order to help his students understand basic sensitometry, he devised the Zone System in the mid-to-late 1940s. The Zone System is based on sensitometric research carried out by many before him, especially Hurter and Driffield (1890) and Jones and Condit (1940-41). There are two other free modules you may find useful on sensitometry: the one on density and the characteristic curve and the one on ISO film speeds.

Snow scene, Pyrenees

This is about as un-Zone as you can get, but we do not think we are flattering ourselves unduly by saying that it is at least as good a print as many Zone System adherents could make from 35mm. Frances shot Kodak T400CN in her Voigtländer Bessa-T with a 50/1.5 Nokton and a deep red filter, taking a spot reading of the mountains. The film was trade processed in standard C41-compatible chemistry and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. The only thing you can really fault is the differentiation of the trees against the distant mountains and this is rather clearer in the original print than on the web.

The basis of the Zone System is the division of the various tones of the photograph into Zones, as given below. This is a work of unalloyed genius as it creates a quick, easy frame of reference that anyone can understand after familiarizing themselves with the Zones. The original 9-Zone system is as follows:

I   The darkest black of which the paper is capable.

II   The darkest black distinguishable from Zone I

III   The darkest tone with texture and detail

IV   Dark mid tones

V   The mid-tone, defined as an 18 per cent grey

VI   Light mid tones

VII  The lightest tone with texture and detail

VIII   The lightest tone distinguishable from paper-base white

IX   Pure paper-base white

Labelling the Zones in the picture above shows both the advantages and the disadvantages of Zone terminology. It is a quick, easy way to describe tones, but as soon as you start applying it to a real scene you see how the Zones merge into one another.

The only areas of Zone I (not labelled because they are too small) are found in parts of the trees and Zone II is most easily seen just above the Zone II label. Around the Zone III label you can see II, III and IV; Zone V is pretty clear, and it's a snow-bank (which most people would think of as 'white'); Zones VI, VII and VIII are all seen in the snow -- 'whites' again -- with plenty of VII and VIII in the clouds; and there's a little IX in the clouds.

The steps between Zones  III-IV, IV-V, V-VI and VI-VII are one stop each (a density of 0.30) on the print. And, of course, the Zones are symmetrical about Zone V: Zones IV and VI form a pair, as do III and VII, or II and VIII and I and IX. The later 10-Zone version breaks the symmetry and is much less memorable; the 11-Zone system regains symmetry but is unachievable with most enlargers. We stick with the 9-Zone system because it is simple, memorable and accurate enough for all practical purposes. If you can get a little more, so much the better, but you don't really need to name ten or eleven Zones in order to do so.

zone system testing

Zone System testing involves a series of tests of exposure and development to determine the film speeds and development times that you need to use in order to get the results you like most. There are many books on the subject, from Ansel Adams himself and from many of his acolytes and adherents. There is no need to go into detail here.

Depending on which book you read, these tests can take anything from a few hours to a week or more: the more extreme versions involve shooting numerous pictures of grey cards on 50 or more sheets of cut film. As the Zone System antedates the widespread availability of affordable, reliable densitometers, it usally relies on a series of visual comparisons, usually with a standard 18 per cent grey card (free module). Phil Davis's 'Beyond the Zone System' updates the Zone System via more modern sensitometry.


Sunshade, South of France

Frances used her Alpa 12 S/WA with 35/5.6 Riodenstock Apo-Grandagon, shooting on Ilford HP5 Plus. Exposure was based on a spot meter reading of the wall on the lower right, so as to be sure of having enough detail there, but in printing she lightened that area by dodging and darkened the lower foreground by burning, thereby rearranging the print Zones as compared with the Zones in the original scene.


Zone I (maximum black) and Zone IX (paper base white) areas are too small to label -- but what do you do with dappled areas such as the sun-shade and its shadow, or the foliage? How do you try to assign Zone values to them?


As far as we are concerned, once you have you have the exposure and development more or less right -- which does not require exhaustive Zone System testing -- it is a question of printing until it looks right, regardless of what labels you use.


ten reasons why we do not use or recommend the zone system

Numerous excellent photographers use the Zone System, and if it suits you, do not let us dissuade you. If on the other hand you have been considering the Zone System, or (more still) if you have flirted with it and found it not to your liking, you may care to read the following.

First, the Zone System cannot be essential. There are at least as many great photographers who do not use the Zone System as there are who do use it.

Second, there are easier and (we believe) better ways to determine optimum exposure for negative film. If you want adequate shadow detail in the darkest shadow area, meter the darkest shadow area and base your exposure on that. If you can afford to sacrifice detail in the darkest shadow area, then meter the darkest area in which you do want texture and detail and base your exposure on that. The only question at this point is what film speed to use, and this takes only a few exposures: if you don't have enough shadow detail when you meter like this, keep lowering your film speed (in 1/3 stop steps) until you do.

Third, the kind of precise determination of development times that characterizes the Zone System is applicable only to single-sheet development, or to rolls of film with subjects of an identical brightness range. With 35mm or roll film the only realistic possibility for development times is a compromise that suits the majority of the subjects; you have to accommodate the rest via different paper grades or by dodging and burning. Again, an optimum development time can quickly be determined by shooting pictures of real subjects, developing the films, and printing them. Even if the development time is not perfect, you should still be able to make a good or excellent print on a harder or softer grade of paper.


Xaghra Mill, Gozo


The naming of Zones is the only part of the Zone System that is conveniently applicable to 35mm. This shot was one of 36 on a roll of Fuji Acros, shot indoors and outdoors with a variety of lenses from 12mm to 90mm (the camera was probably a Leica though it might have been a Voigtländer). All you can do in such a situation is to find a good, average speed index (about 64 for us) and a good average development time. Exposure was based on a spot reading of the underside of the stairs.

Fourth, if you have access to a time/gamma curve for a particular film (see the free module on density, D/ log E curves, etc), it is extremely easy to change your development time to compensate for subjects of different brightness range: there is no need for extensive testing to establish extended and curtailed development times.

Fifth, we find the testing tedious and of limited use. As we have a densitometer and can go beyond the simplifications of the Zone System to actual density readings, we see little point in comparing pictures of grey cards. In practice, even though we can use a densitometer, we don't unless we are doing film reviews, as we see no point: see the next two headings.

Sixth, we believe than the Zone System encourages many photographers to rate science too far above art in their photography. Photography is more like cookery or music than physics. You need to understand what you are doing, and then to make small adjustments to suit your own tastes and preferences. Part of the purpose of this web site is to help people understand the basic and fairly simple theory behind photography.

Seventh, we believe that the best way to learn to take better pictures is to take more pictures, not to spend a great deal of time searching for a precision that does not actually exist. For example, for consistency in development one must always work one-shot, discarding the developer after use, or with a fully seasoned replenished developer. Re-using a developer and extending development times to compensate for loss of developer activity makes a mockery of the precision on which so many Zone System users pride themselves.

Eighth, the Zone System is relevant only to conventional full-tone black and white using silver halide film, though it arguably has some use when printing electronically from scanned images. There are repeated attempts to apply it to colour but this requires such a fundamental reform of the very foundations of the System as to ensure that in effect nothing remains but the name. Our own cynical view is that anyone who tries to link colour and the Zone System is trying to cash in on a profitable trade-name. That, or they simply don't understand anything at all about sensitometry or exposure. The same goes for digital imaging and for silver halide lith printing.

Red Square, Moscow

The most basic rule in photography is 'try it and see'. It is a good idea to absorb as much fundamental theory as you can, but let's be honest: an awful lot of the best pictures don't really have much (or indeed anything) to do with the Zone System. Frances shot this with her 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor on a Nikkormat using Ilford XP2 (trade processed) and printed it on Oriental paper processed in Fotospeed Lith developer.

Ninth, there is a great deal of jargon in the Zone System. Within the context of the System it makes sense, but it is also complex and off-putting, and it is widely used by Zonies (a derogatory name, not applicable to all adherents of the Zone System) as a false demonstration of their superiority. 'Placing' a subject in a particular Zone, while letting others 'fall' into other Zones, is one example. This means metering an area of the subject and deciding (for example) that you want it to be a light mid tone, while the other areas will be in other Zones. 'N+' and 'N-' development is another. This means giving more development to increase contrast when you have a subject with a short brightness range (N+) or decreasing it (N-) to decrease contrast when you have a subject with a long brightness range. Then there is 'previsualization'. What does the first syllable add? How does previsualization differ from visualization?

Tenth and finally, we find many adherents of the Zone System very hard to deal with. They can be rather like religious zealots who fix you with a beady eye and try to persuade you that their own particular world-picture is the only one that has any validity. Clearly, as evidenced by the first point above, they are wrong. But it is worse. Depressingly many are convinced that the Zone System is the foundation of sensitometry, rather than vice versa. More than once, we have come across Zonies who allege "Ah, yes, you are using the Zone System but you do not realize it." Well, no, you are using basic sensitometry -- and so is the Zone System. And quite a few Zonies are rotten photographers, too: technically excellent, but aesthetically hopeless, often recycling (badly) the subject matter of the Master, Ansel Adams, namely faux-wilderness pictures. The worst of them are not even technically excellent, but merely sad obsessives.

the bottom line

You may feel that we are wrong. That is your privilege. You may say that we are not the best photographers in the world. We would be the last to argue with you, though we would be quick to point out that many greater photographers than ourselves have as little time for the Zone System as we do. Many, indeed, have even less time for it. But photography is a house with many mansions. If you wish to dwell in the mansion of the Zone System, the very best of luck to you. We (and many other photographers) find the accommodation more congenial elsewhere.

Waterfall, Slovenia

You can if you wish try to put Zone labels on this one; it actually goes from I to IX. Always remember on anyone's web-site that a great deal depends on how your computer monitor is set up: pictures on the web may look better or (more usually) worse than the original print.


Roger used a 200/3 Vivitar Series I with a Soviet-era 2.8x orange filter. The camera was an old Nikon F, mounted on a tripod, and the film was Ilford HP5 Super developed in Ilford DD-X. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. Exposure was based on a spot reading of the interior of the cave from which the river falls.

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© 2005 Roger W. Hicks