What The Zone System Is Not

Amongst photographers the term Zone System stirs a great many ideas, many of which are wrong or misunderstood. The zone system is a simple teaching tool designed to help previsualize a photo and then using exposure and development, create the image that you have envisioned. Some books and web sites approach the zone system as if they have broken its secret and now they are willing to share this info with you. I have attended several workshops in which the zone system was covered. I don’t believe that any instructor took longer than 5 minutes in explaining the basic principles.

Maybe the main myth of the zone system is that it will help you to make “perfect” negatives. The idea of the “perfect” negative is just nutty. At least one prophet of the system advises that if your negative doesn’t make a “proper proof” then don’t even waste your time on this image. NUTTY!

Another misconception is that the zone system has only 10 zones and that it is possible to encounter situations in which the system will be of no use. The zone system has as many zones as is necessary.

Many seem to think that the zone system is an end in itself. Making a really good negative of a poorly planned subject will still yield a bad photograph even if all the zones are represented.

One of my favorites is that the zone system will only work with black and white film and a large format camera. Once you understand how the zone system works, you will be able to apply it to anything that you can think of photographically. Color, alternative processes, 35mm, 120, positive or negative, there are no limits.

I guess what this all boils down too, is there are no restrictive rules. That is probably the most common mistake of the zone system nay sayers, a belief that you must follow rules as handed down by Mr. Adams or the whole thing will not work. For me, the zone system is an approach to photography that I don’t even consciously think about when I am making a photograph. It has taken some time to get to this point but now frees me to make images that look and feel the way that I want.