1.8 Zone System in Practice

TASK Demonstrate your awareness of the principles of the zone system and your ability to take accurate light readings by producing 3 photographs taken in relatively high dynamic range. The exposure should render as much detail as possible in the brightest and darkest areas of the photograph. Collate these and any reflections.

My reflections on the zone system:

The system sounds simple but in practice is quite complicated because much depends not only on the extreme white and black points where detail needs to be preserved, but the overall balance of dark and light tones that affect perception of clipping and also the desired key of the image for aesthetic reasons. This means that quite a lot of experimentation is needed to select the metering point that will give the desired result.

In digital photography, the important point is the preservation of detail in the image that will be available for post-processing rather than any ‘correct exposure’ in the unreliable LCD screen. It is therefore best to have the highlight clipping warning turned on, and also to review the histograms as one works.

In practice with images of the type of dynamic range I found on the sunniest day in winter, I could adjust both highlights in images exposed for the shadows and shadows in images exposed for the highlights equally easily to regain detail where I wanted them.

The zone system is certainly a useful guide, but will require a lot of practice to gain real confidence. Alternative methods are auto-bracketing, or using the camera’s matrix metering system together with the highlight clipping warning and exposure compensation where necessary. These two are arguably quicker unless I get really confident.

The Images

These images were taken along the river Cam on a sunny day. All the images had both slight black and slight white clipping and were just outside the Dynamic Range of my camera. I used Spot metering and experimented with different metering points to try and reflect the image I had in mind.
Image 1: Graffiti


In Graffiti my interest was in maintaining detail in the sunlight on the silver graffiti rather than the dark bridge.

Graffiti 1

My first attempt took as mid grey the bright grass at the back assuming this was a mid-tone. But this image was much lighter than I wanted with too much clipping on the graffiti and very washed-out. Although the grass was mid-tone for the image as a whole, it was not mid-tone for the image I wanted.

Graffiti 2My second attempt took the lighter path as the mid-tone. This then pushed all the other tones darker, giving me more detail on the graffiti.

In post-processing in Lightroom I found though that there was not much difference in what I could do with the image – adjusting the highlights, shadows, exposure and contrast I could achieve pretty much the same effect with either image.

Image 2: Bridge

In this image I wanted to highlight the dot of the duck and I was also interested in the white detail and reflections of the V shapes. Again I was not so interested in the shadows except as background contrast.


This second image was also just outside the dynamic range of my camera with both slight black and white clipping. But because the very white area takes up less of the image, choosing the grass as mid grey worked better because the smaller area of highlight clipping is less noticeable. I took further shots using the water, but that lightened the image too much. Metering from the lighter sky at the back became too dark.

Image 3: Wier

In this third image the dynamic range was not as great as it first appeared except for some bright sparkles on the water. The blacks were just within range. The image on the left was spot metered on the water, pushing everything too dark – the spot metre picked up the very tiny bright sparkles rather than the larger grey areas between. The second image I metered on the white water bottom left giving a wider tonal range.

weit 1 weir 2

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