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Book Review – The Practical Zone System: For Film And Digital Photography by Chris Johnson

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If you work with photography for very long, you will hear about a technique for determining optimal film exposure and development called the Zone System. It was developed in 1941 by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. It provides a systematic method of precisely defining the way you visualize a subject and the final results that are obtained. It originated with Black and White Sheet film, but it has evolved to both Black and White roll film, color film, both negative and reversal as well as digital photography.

Over the years, the Zone System has gained a reputation of being impractical and hard to learn. Chris Johnson, in his book The Practical Zone System says that this is wrong. If approached in the proper way, the Zone System can be very easy to learn. Chris Johnson studied photography with Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Wynn Bullock and is a Professor of Photography at the California College of the Arts.

The Practical Zone System breaks down into 10 chapters and 21 appendixes covering 284 pages. The authors goal, as was in the prior three editions, is to teach you the Zone System without going into all of the science behind it. He plans to teach you the principles and the logic, and how it applies to real life.

"Chapter 1, "Will it Come Out?" begins by explaining what the Zone System is by using a series of questions and answers to explain the system, explain why photographic technique is so important and to dispel some myths about the Zone System.

Chapter 2, "Print Quality and Negative Contrast", explores subject contrasts and how they are affected by the types of photographic papers that are being used. Here the definition of contrast is defined, as are the concepts of overexposure, underexposure, overdevelopment and underdevelopment.

Chapter 3, "The Control of Negative Contrast", explains the rule of "Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights". Here you learn the techniques of Normal-Plus and Normal-Minus development.

Chapter 4, "The Zone", gets into what the Zone System really is. It is a visual ruler that allows photographers to measure between normal, low and high contrast subjects. It is explained by using a Zone Ruler. It explains the black zones, white zones as well as the textured zones.

Chapter 5, "Exposure", begins by explaining the light-meter and how the can be used to measure the light on a subject. It explains the problems with finding the correct exposure and the concept of previsualization; the act of determining what you want the final print to look like.

Chapter 6, "Development", shows that once you have set your shadow area on Zone III, you now have to consider the effects it has on the other values of the scene that you are photographing. Here you must now figure your highlight area, and how does this affect development.

Chapter 7, "An Overview of the Zone System", summarizes the Zone System method of exposure and development. It answers several questions such as what if you have to shoot quickly, what about flash, and is it valid using digital technology.

Chapter 8, "Zone System Testing: Method 1", explains that once you learn the Zone System, you must test the system with your equipment, film and paper. Method 1 is derived from the more classic works on the subject.

Chapter 9, "Zone System Testing: Method 2", continues with the testing concepts, but is geared for more experienced photographers who want reliable guidelines as starting points and allow you to work from there.

Chapter 10, "The Zone System and Digital Photography", the largest chapter, takes what we have learned about the Zone System and now applies it to digital photography provide a clear and simple method for obtaining the best possible quality in your photographs while providing a broad understanding of the concepts that underlie digital image processing.

Appendixes A-U, cover a wide range of topics from color management/spaces, what are pixels, bit depth, film processing, contrast control, ASA/ISO numbers as well as other suggestions tips and suggested reading for more information on the Zone system.

The Practical Zone System is probably the easiest to understand book on the Zone System. It does not try to get caught up in a lot of technical details; rather it gives just enough detail to guide the reader through the basics of the system. It removes the calculations and gives you what you need to know to successfully use the Zone System.

The Practical Zone System while coming from a traditional film based methodology; Johnson tackles effectively the use of the Zone System within the digital world. In the book he remarks that Ansel Adams predicted the eventuality of the digital image as early as 1984 and that if he were around for it, he would have embraced it as he did every other photographic technology.

I have to recommend The Practical Zone System for anyone who wants to go deeper into the photographic method in an effort to get more professional results from your images. While you may not use the Zone System to take all of your photos, the knowledge will transform the way you work.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.