Photography Cheat Sheet: Using the Zone System for Ideal Exposures

Still confused about the Zone System Ansel Adams co-developed and popularized? Today’s photography cheat sheet will help. 

The Zone System and its variations continue to guide and help photographers get their exposures right, especially for punchy black and white photography. While it was developed for shooting, processing, and printing in film, digital photographers can also learn a thing or two from it to achieve ideal exposures. If this is your first time learning about the Zone System, we found a handy photography cheat sheet and tutorial to help you understand it better.

The Zone System, as Esmer Olvera described in her tutorial, is a method that takes a scene as it appears to the eye and exposes an image based on lightness and darkness values. This method is great for achieving the highest dynamic range possible in an image, as well as the basis for properly compositing several exposures into a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. While it’s typically used for black and white photography, the guide below shows us how to apply it to color photography as well.

Olvera created the scale into 11 zones, from pure black to pure white. However, it can actually be reduced to 10 since tonal clipping on digital sensors renders pure white from Zone IX. To apply this method, look carefully at the scene and determine which objects fit into Zone V, the middle value. Anything you decide to meter on will be considered by your camera as Zone V and provide you with settings for that reading. So, the key to this method is to match what you see as Zone V with what the camera will capture as belonging to that zone.

For example, when you meter on a dark object that falls into Zone III, your camera will read it as Zone V, so it will be effectively overexposed by two stops. To get the correct exposure, you will have to compensate by stopping down twice. This way, you’ll be able to “move” the Zone III object into the correct scale, rendering it as dark as it should be.

The Zone System method can be applied to color photos, so Olvera included a color version of the scale as well. This should come in handy when you’re photographing a scene that is predominantly in one color.

Want more useful tips and tricks like this to improve your photography? Don’t forget to check out our growing collection of photography cheat sheets so far!