Using an Abbreviated Zone System for Editing Black and White Photos

Mark Wallace shares his own interpretation of Ansel Adams’ legendary Zone System for achieving beautifully high-contrast black and white photos.

Decades after Ansel Adams and Fred Archer pioneered the Zone System for black and white photography, the technique remains an effective way to achieve contrasty and moody monochromes. Since it was developed for shooting, processing, and printing in film, Mark Wallace decided to come up with his own abbreviated version for digital photographers. So, if you’ve wanted to achieve those punchy and contrasty monochromes, this quick video is a must-watch for you!

In his video tutorial for AdoramaTV, Mark Wallace explains how we can use a variation of the Zone System by dividing the scene into five zones (instead of the original 12 zones in Adams’ version): black, shadows, midtones, highlights, and whites. Watch below to learn how to use these scenes for your post-processing work.

The goal of this take on the Zone System is to create high-contrast black and white images by manipulating the tonal values. The blacks should be absolutely black, and the whites should be absolutely white, with everything else adjusted according to artistic vision. The process goes like this: adjust midtones, set black and white points, adjust shadows and highlights, make color adjustments, and do some fine-tuning.

Mark proceeds to show us how to do this on Adobe Lightroom using three sample images, so you might have to figure out how to make the adjustments if you’re using other software. What you need to do first is to set your midtones or exposure in black and white mode. Following Ansel Adams’ instruction, you need to choose where the middle gray is and work your way from there, making sure not to lose any of the details to the shadows.

Next comes setting the blacks down to see which areas they should appear in, but also making sure they’re not bleeding into the shadow areas. For the whites, pull it up to the right until you see it appearing in the histogram and the white clipping warnings showing on the image. For the shadows, you should bring it to the right to bring it more to the midtone area, and until you see more details. Then, bring down the highlights to retain more of the details. Lastly, make some fine-tuning with the sharpness or even use the adjustment brush to pull up more details that get lost in the shadows.

Mark also mentions another route that takes advantage of how colors affect black and white photos. But that’s for another post!

Do check out the Adorama YouTube channel for more photography tips, tricks, and tutorials from Mark Wallace and other expert photographers.


Screenshot image from the video by Adorama TV