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Using Ansel Adams analogue Zone System in a Digital World by Noel Baldewijns


It is common practice among photographers to use Ansel Adams' zone system to deliver a balanced photo. Adams created the system to perfectly control the contrast in his black and white photos. His base rule was: “Expose for the shadows; develop for the highlights.” To create the system, he first generated the middle grey zone 5 and continued from there. Clear texture was available from zone 2 to zone 8, and his dynamic range is from zone 1 to zone 9. To wrap up creating the scale-based system, he made a print of each zone, 11 pieces, from zone 0 (black) to zone 10 (white), which would have looked like this:

Figure 1: Posterized gradient

Creating a zone system to enhance your digital images

In the digital photography age, the zone system is still in use, but on our screen, it looks different from what Adams saw in his dark room. We use gradual lighting to create a dark to light gradient today. If you need a full scale of zone masks today there all kind of actions on the market, you can buy one, or you can easily create your own set like I did. When you create it yourself, you have the freedom to create the LM you really need. Tony Kuyper, the first to create a digital LM, explains in his blog how to do so. In terms of my methodology, I start by creating a new document in Photoshop and draw a gradient, like this:

Figure 2: zone masks one a linear gradient

I then divide it in the AA zones, the top left numbers indicate the brightness and bottom left numbers are the RGB indication

Now when I use the TK panel (but it could be any other panel) and create a zone 5 mask. White is selected, dark is not, you can see that the mask starts somewhere in Zone-2 and ends somewhere in zone 8.

Figure 3: Zone 5 mask

As fine art photographers, we know every detail is important, and therefore, sometimes, this methodology does not get me what I want. Let us say, for example, I really wanted something that is more focussed on zone 5 and excludes most of the other zones. This requires a zone system that is a gradient and not 11 separate blocks.

To accomplish this, I used the rulers to determine the area I want to set as my own zone 5 mask. In this case I start at zone 3.5 and end at zone 6.5. You are, of course, completely free to place the rulers wherever it suits you, based on your vision.

Figure 4; rulers define the intended boundaries of my asymmetric zone 5

To create a mask targeting this specific area, I need to

• block out zone 0 to zone 2.5

• block out zone 6.5 to zone 10

• maintain soft transitions between the zones

a. Create a L-1 mask

Three steps to creating a digital Ansel Adams-inspired zone 5

Step-1: Block out zone 0 to zone 2.5 I have created a Lights 1.5 mask with a black point 6. BP 6 excludes zone 0 in total.

a. Create a L-1 mask

Figure 5:create a 16-bit lights-1

Goto:<Image/calculations> and enter the data as shown in figure 5

You can save the L1 mask as L1.5+BP6 but you are not there yet

b. Next, we change it to an L1 + BP6 

Figure 6: from lights1 to lights 1.5+BP6

Goto: <image/adjustments/levels

Change the BP to 6 and bring the gamma slider to 0.75.

You now created a L1.5 +BP6 mask

Step-2: To block out zone 6.5 to zone 10 I have created a Darks 2.5 mask. This is how I did this:

a. Create a D1 Mask

Figure 7 Create a 16bit D1 mask 

Go to <Image/calculations> and fill in this data You now created a D1 – 16 bit mask

b.Change a D1 to a D2

Goto <Image/ adjustments/ levels> and bring the gamma slider to 0.5 I created a 16 bit D2 mask