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The PhotoNotes.org Dictionary of Film and Digital Photography.

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Zone system.

A method for determining correct exposures of negatives, developed by American photographer Ansel Adams and his colleague Fred Archer.

Zone metering involves dividing up the scene into a set number of discrete light levels - typically 9 or 10, but some photographers advocate more, especially for colour film. Zone 0 or I represents pure black and zone IX pure white on the final print.

The photographer then meters the scene, imagining (“previsualizing”) in which zone each section of the scene will fall. Adams’ mantra was for this style of photography was “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights.” Since film has a much wider dynamic or tonal range than does paper this system is useful for ensuring images are adequately rendered in the final print.

The zone system has its adherents and critics; the former who appreciate the utility in the system for determining accurate negative density for quality prints and the latter who decry the fairly rigid approach required to use it effectively. It’s also clearly meant to be used for photography of static of slow-moving subjects. So it’s great for Adams-style landscapes but really bad for sports or fashion photography.

Entry last updated 2002-04-27. Term 1325 of 1487.


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