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Image: Rod Lawton

The Manual on Manual

GET IN THE ZONE Scenes contain a range of tones, not just one

our camera’s auto-exposure modes give you a quick and easy way to get the exposure more or less right, but there’s another approach that can get you much closer to the picture you imagined. It’s based on the ‘zone system’ invented by the revered black-and-white landscape photographer Ansel Adams. He split scenes up into 11 different brightness values and worked out his exposures so that the right parts of the scene fell in the right zones. Ansel Adams’ method is pretty complicated and takes practice, but your Nikon D-SLR enables you to use the same ideas in a much simpler way using the exposure bar on the camera’s LCD.


Exposure compensation


Think of the centre position on the exposure bar as being an average grey tone, the -1EV setting as being a darker grey, and the -2EV setting as being the darkest areas where you can still see some detail. Similarly, on the other side of the scale the +1EV setting corresponds to a lighter tone and the +2EV setting is the lightest possible tone where

1 Most of the tones in the picture fall nicely between the two extremes 2 The steps needed to be as dark as possible, but still with detail – this corresponds to -2EV 3 These areas needed to be as bright as possible but with visible detail – this corresponds to +2EV

there’s still some visible detail, without being blown out. For example, if you’re taking a portrait shot you might decide your subject’s skin should be lighter than the average grey tone, so set your Nikon to spot metering mode (see our walkthrough below), place the autofocus (spot metering) point over your subject’s face and adjust the exposure so that the marker is at the +1EV setting. Or, if you’re photographing a dark-toned subject like a vase or foliage, and you want it to be darker than the average grey tone, set adjust the exposure so that the marker is at the -1EV setting. If you’re shooting a landscape where you want to be sure of capturing some detail in the sky, use a spot meter reading for the sky and set the exposure bar to +2EV. The sky will be bright, but not completely blown out. You can’t use this ‘zone’ approach for every scene – there may not always be time to take readings, or the contrast may be too high and would turn the rest of the scene black – but it’s a great way of visualising your exposures and making sure that objects appear with exactly the brightness you intended.

step by step setting the right tone

01 Average tone

02 Low key

03 High key

■ This subject has an average overall grey tone. Use your Nikon’s matrix or centre-weighted mode to take an exposure reading and it won’t be far off.

■ The tones here are dark. On its own, the camera would have produced a mid-grey image, so it needed a negative exposure value to correct this.

■ This shot’s airy feel is deliberate. Again, the camera would have produced a mid-grey tone – an increase to the exposure value was needed.

key concept Zones and tones Us spot metering mode to explore exposure values… Working out the exposure for a scene often means looking at different areas individually, and that’s where spot metering mode is so useful. It’s linked to the active autofocus point, so the simplest way to use it is to set the camera to single-point AF mode and choose the centre AF point. Now, with the AF point over your subject, as you adjust the shutter speed and lens aperture settings, you’ll see the marker move along the exposure bar. You don’t have to move it to the centre; for intentionally lighter or darker results, you can use an offset to give you the exposure you want.






Very bright but still some detail

Pale tones like caucasian skin

Average grey tone

Darker tones like foliage

Very dark but visible detail

August 2014