Back in the early days of photography, photographers were known as Operators. They operated the camera without art ever entering into the equation or at least that was the general perception. Photography was very laborious at that time, coating the glass plate and making the exposure and then immediately processing the image. All of these steps were done manually and usually in a short period of time. Photographers or operators of that time learned their materials well, they had to or they would not successfully make images. Since that time, trial and error was the accepted approach to learning photography.
In the 1940’s, two teachers at the Art Center School in Los Angeles developed the Zone System. These two teachers were Fred Archer and Ansel Adams. Ansel defined in one of his books “ZONE SYSTEM. A framework for understanding exposure and development, and visualizing their effect in advance. Areas of different luminance in the subject are each related to exposure zones and these in turn to approximate values of gray in the final print. Thus careful exposure and development procedures permit the photographer to control the negative densities and corresponding print values that will represent specific subject areas, in accordance with the visualized final image.”
That sounds pretty simple and straight forward. Much of what is written today about the zone system associates a special magic and difficult to learn procedure with its use. This was never the intention of its creators. It was devised as a method of teaching students the basic sensitometry associated with exposure and development in a way to help in real world situations so the photographer may get the photograph that he not only saw but felt. To make it anymore than that is really counterproductive.
For me, the zone system is a very personal thing, refined into a personal vision. To say that I see the world in 10 zones would be to simplistic. The zone system is a language. It gives me a point of reference as I learn the many challenges of photography. Many people think there are two ways to learn photography, trial and error or the zone system. I have learned the zone system and it helps make sense of what am still learning by trial and error. It is not a choice of one or the other but using both approaches together to understand what is relevant to me about photography.