Using the zone system can seem daunting but in this post, we break it down into digestible, easy to use bites. We’ll walk you through different situations, showing you how to expose black and white film to get a good dynamic range between your blacks and whites in your photographs. Shooting film can be very accurate and precise and we hope this video helps you get a better understanding of how to expose your film for good results.

What is The Zone System?:

The zone system, not to be confused with zone focusing, was developed back in the 1930’s by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer as a way to standardize a way of working to get proper exposures and prints. There are 10 different zones, which represent the darkest areas of your photo to the brightest, whitest areas of your photo or print.

When using a light meter, the reading it gives you is middle grey, or zone 5. In the video above, we walk you through how to intentionally expose your photos, placing your blacks and highlights where you want them.

[Related Reading: Ansel Adams On Pre-Visualization & Photographic Education]

Using the Zone System:

Each zone is represented by a number from 0, being the blackest parts of a photo with no visible detail within that zone up to zone 10, the whitest area of the photo, with no detail in that zone. So as you move towards the middle, each zone will have a bit more detail.

ZoneSystem Chart

Zone 0: The blackest black that photographic paper can produce – no detail

Zone 1: Also completely without texture and detail. Dark recesses or tiny cracks.

Zone 2: Near black, texture and detail are barely visible in this zone.

Zone 3: The first black zone that is where texture is fully visible. Important for shadow detail.

Zone 4: Average dark gray with full texture, showing detail

Zone 5: Middle Gray – clear blue sky, the most neutral tone in your image. All texture is fully visible.

Zone 6: Average caucasian skin, light stone, shadows on snow or sunlit landscapes

Zone 7: Light gray and fully textured. Very light skin, still retaining all detail

Zone 8: Textured white. Objects such as paper, snow, painted white walls

Zone 9: Pure Untextured white. Detail is lost

Zone 10: No detail and the purest white in your image.

Some Examples:

Below are a few photos showing the zones for certain areas:

Zone System Example 1


Zone System Example 2

Final Thoughts about the Zone System:

Some argue that the zone system is an antiquated system. Sure you could just meter your darkest shadow and expose for that….but what if you want areas of your photos to be black, vs just gray? Knowing the zone system helps you make decisions and understand why you are making your exposure choices vs just guessing.

We really hope this made a seemingly complicated topic a bit more digestible and that it helps you make better decisions on how you expose your frames.