What is Creativity? The Zone System Explained


I’ve always thought it’s actually incredibly hard to remain creative in photography. We’ve all been guilty I guess of taking what are, in the cold light of day, quite dull photos-parked cars, plates of food, trees, ferris wheels, the walls of buildings, beaches. Even if these photos mean something to us, they don’t necessarily convey anything to others. The first thing a photographer usually tries to learn therefore is the art of composition-shadows and lines and framing certain things, using your focus setting rather than leaving it set at infinity to generate bokeh etc. The next step is to really think hard about good locations-derelict houses, industrial architecture, mountains and fields, the city late at night. More recently though, I’ve been trying to think of ways to take it further. My problem has always been that I don’t actually like many of the ‘lomographic’ ways of being creative. I don’t particularly like double exposures, cross-processed slide film, or extreme vignetting in my own work, though I can admire it in the work of others. Expired film holds little allure for me. As I’ve said before, I generally like a sharp image, usually via a Zeiss lens, and I find the greatest creative challenge in using a ‘normal’ high spec camera rather than something which washes everything with fuzz or blur regardless of conditions. I do find the actual processing techniques of someone like Toelmoum (http://www.lomography.com/homes/toelmoum) absolutely amazing and inspiring, but for that I’d also need a darkroom and chemistry. So I was probably starting to stagnate a little until I read an old cheap copy of Fred Picker’s book on the zone system. Picker popularized a system first developed by Ansel Adams for black and white photography, and reading about it the way Picker describes it, the penny finally dropped.
It works like this. Assume a typical black and white photograph. It’s probably best to think about using this method on a decent medium-format sized photo taken with an all-mechanical camera rather than an over automated point-and-shoot.

Credits: alex34

Let’s assume you meter the photograph beforehand-the meter is always right, right? Well, yes, no, and maybe. The meter aims for a ‘medium’ setting that will tend to make what we see as white on the day into, in the final photo, not white but ‘middle gray’-what Picker calls ‘Zone V’. Fine for an average day and an average photo, but not one that necessarily reflects what you see with your eye on a day with extreme light contrasts. Imagine therefore that there are ten zones, ranging from completely black (think undeveloped negative) to completely white (blank page), with Zone VI being skin tone. These zones can be thought of in general as separated by an f-stop. To ‘lift’ the photo (overexpose) towards, say, zone VI, you move one fstop up, opening up the aperture (this means moving towards a SMALLER number from a larger, remembering that the fstops are fractions, so say for example from f16 to f8). To make blacks in the photo blacker, towards say zone IV or III, you close down the aperture fstop. Obvious? Yes, but it was literally like a lightbulb going off in my head to realize that these are options about which one can make a creative choice-that one can literally ‘paint with light’ rather than always go for the meter’s ‘average’ result. This, together with a slow-dawning appreciation of filters, has literally transformed the way I think about photography, so that for B&W I now regularly use a yellow filter and typically shoot one fstop more open than the meter implies. Taken too far of course, and you generate photographs that are black or white mush- but a little knowledge and a little judgement is a powerful thing. With this system in my head, I’ll never look at my light meter in quite the same way again. I now see the meter as the START, rather than the FINAL ANSWER, to making a perfectly exposed and dramatic photograph-the rest is up to me!

written by alex34 on 2011-12-12


  1. dinospork
    dinospork ·

    A very interesting blog entry, thanks for posting it... I hope you don't mind if I respond to a couple of points just because I find the discussion interesting...

    "I don’t particularly like double exposures, cross-processed slide film, or extreme vignetting in my own work, though I can admire it in the work of others."

    Keep in mind that these are techniques, not effects. Double exposure is simply a way to superimpose two or more images. It's just representing two ideas, and hopefully some relationship between them. The same thing can be done by lining two objects up in the frame or by photographing a reflection. Vignetting is usually an equipment artifact, but again, it's a technique used to add a mood or texture to an image. Cross-processing is a technique to "paint" with the pigments of the film itself. It's about transforming the image by altering one element of the "natural" colors represented by the film.

    Taking photos with low-fidelity or otherwise limited equipment is a challenge. I think there's a different challenge to be found in shooting with high fidelity techniques and equipment. Either way, I really think the goal is the same: to, as you put it, "paint with light."

    "Expired film holds little allure for me."

    I think the biggest allure for most people who shoot expired film is that it's cheap. I can afford to shoot cheap new film or nice old film for about the same money. I like the nice film (well, OK, I like the cheap film, too. I'm just not picky). Maybe there's some other reason to shoot expired film that I'm not as familiar with...

  2. alex34
    alex34 ·

    @dinospork Thanks for your response! Some people pursue expired film precisely in search of its unpredictability-they love the weird colour effects or thick fuzzy grain that developing fifteen or twenty year old film can give. I'm not after that level of unpredictability myself, I like more control over my results, but I fully appreciate the work and vision of those who are after those things-photography is a huge universe, with plenty of room for everybody...

  3. neanderthalis
    neanderthalis ·

    Well said, Alex34. I tend toward precision photograph, but I feel that there is room for all sorts of photography. We should not criticize each other here, but share and appreciate the work/thought put into each shot.