El Capitan, Ansel Adams & The Zone.

Yosemite 3B&W FB Yosemite 1a copy FB Col

Above, my converted B&W El Cap image from the original colour image. Not as good as Ansel, but i like it.

During my time in the USA over the Christmas period I spent 5 days in the Yosemite National Park area and despite the lack of snow and mist, I made the most of my time hiking and photographing the area.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting some images of my time in the USA, together with some info on locations and lens suggestions, but I thought I would start with “In The Footsteps Of Ansel Adams”

During our time in Yosemite, Fran & I were fortunate to participate in an Ansel Adams Galley Photography workshop. The workshop included an insight in to Ansel’s life and his philosophy, whilst also visiting some of the locations where he took some of his iconic images, together with opportunities to take photographs ourselves. I enjoyed the workshop and was shown some locations that I would have otherwise missed if I had tried to do everything myself.

Although I was very aware of the Zone System, this was taught and put across very well throughout the workshop,

The photographer Ansel Adams and his black and white photographs of Yosemite and other American National Parks have become timeless and recognizable across the globe and have captivated me since I was a child.

Ansel Adams was known for his black and white landscape photographs and Fred Archer was a portrait photographer of Hollywood and between them, they developed a method to improve photography known as The Zone System.

The purpose of the Zone System was to determine a framework and systematic approach for determining correct exposure capturing tone and texture. Fundamentally, they wanted less trial and error when it came to their photography.

Although the Zone System was developed for black and white photography, it can still be applied for digital photography.

There are numerous books and articles about the Zone System which can explain the concept in far more detail than I can, so I will aim provide a basic insight in to the zone System.

The Zone System divides the tones from white (with no detail) to black (with no detail) and all of the grays in between in to 11 Zones (counting 0). This process can also be applied to the colour equivalent of the gray tone. Neutral Gray is the middle zone, which is Zone V (5). Roughly 18% grey which your camera reads as a mid point for exposing the shades in-between black and white.


Historically the original 11 zones are:

Zone 0 (0)– Black, no detail or texture

Zone I (1)– A slight step above pure black, again no texture or tonality.

Zone II (2)– Black but with first hint of texture.

Zone III (3)– Very dark tones that shows visible texture. Includes black, dark brown, navy, and includes detail. Foliage in the shade, dark wet wood, dark rocks in rivers/streams, dark fur in animals. Will read -2 on in-camera meter.

Zone IV (4)– Royal blue, purple, burgundy, dark red, and dark green. Evergreen trees, deep blue sky, fairly dark skin, dark stone, landscape shadow. Will read -1 on in-camera meter.

Zone V (5)-This is middle gray. 18% Gray card, average blue sky medium red, green, blue (think primary colors), dark orange, most grass, medium skin tones. Reads “0” on in camera meter.

Zone VI (6)– Average Caucasian skin tone, most pastel colors, fog, light blue sky. Will read +1 on in-camera meter.

Zone VII (7)– White with detail, white fur, white clouds, white sand, snow, whites in running water. Will read +2 on in-camera meter.

Zone VIII (8)– Whites with little detail, bright white snow in bright sun, highlights on Caucasian skin.

Zone IV (9)– White without texture, approaching pure white.

Zone X (10)– Pure white. No detail or texture.

Current digital cameras do not have the dynamic range to cover the original 11 zones. However, if put your camera in manual mode. You can use your shutter dial, ISO and aperture to adjust you cameras meter to take meter readings. When the hash marker on your cameras meter is on the zero, this tells the camera that the tone is a mid tone (18% grey) If you then took a spot meter reading off of a white sheet of paper or a white sheet, the hash marker on your cameras meter would move and read plus 2 (+2) Understanding this basic concept of taking meter readings will enable photographers to make better exposures and know what, when and how to take better meter readings and achieve better exposures.

Although our cameras really meter in black & white, our eyes see the world in colour, so by looking at the colours in the below chart, you will be able to see which zone they fall in to, in relation to the original zone system. All of the colours on the V level are mid tones (18%)


You can walk around the house and try this method out, by metering off of various colours. If you zero (0) out your cameras meter on a midtone, (colours on line V) when you take a picture the image should be exposed correctly.

More images and info over the next few weeks.


Author: Fletcher K2Photographic

Fletcher is a Freelance photographer with images featured in Yachts and Yachting, Yorkshire Life Magazine and Equine Health Thoroughbred Owner and Breader. Commissioned work has included the Land Rover Burghley International Horse Trials; Bramham International Horse Trials; Hickstead Derby; The Motocross Nationals; Roger Albert Clark Rally; and the Pirelli Rally. Photography is his passion which is demonstrated through his work.

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