Exercise 1.8: Zone System in practice

For this exercise we are asked to produce three photographs which demonstrate an ability to use the zone system to render as much detail as possible in the brightest and darkest areas of the photograph. I confess I am an impatient photographer, I like to shoot and run rather than spending a lot of time on settings, and as such I tend to use auto-exposure, either on Av or Tv mode, and dial in exposure-compensation when necessary to get the result I want. Although I broadly continued with this approach for the exercise, I forced myself to spend a lot more time deciding where in the image I wanted to be “correctly” exposed – in other words how far I was willing to lose detail in shadows or highlights in other areas to ensure that the relevant part of the scene looked its best.

One of my assignment options is to shoot from designated viewpoints, so I carried out this exercise at Toys Hill viewpoint on a bright sunny day. The temptation was to use a graduated filter as the horizon was pretty much straight, but that would have defeated the point of the exercise.

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In this image the angle of the sun was such that the sky was not too much brighter than the foreground, so without extremes of light and dark the camera’s exposure reading (which I took from the brightest bit of the bench as this was my subject) was reasonably accurate. The sky retains its colour and detail, and whilst the shadow to the left is quite dark there is still some detail there on close inspection.

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This image was much harder to expose for, as the bench was in dark shadow and the sun was almost in front of me. Here I took my exposure reading from the trees in the middle distance because I knew that exposing for the bench would leave the sky blown out. However, I still had to dial in 1.3 stops of under-exposure to keep any detail at all in the sky. Nevertheless the highlights are blown out in the sky; however this was my favourite of my exposures because it keeps enough detail in the bench without losing the sky altogether. The very bright sky actually helps my intended impression because the sky becomes almost sublime in its absence of detail.

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This final image was again tricky because of the angle of the sunlight, but here for me the sky was most important – retaining details in the clouds turns the sky into the focal point for the viewer (and for the imaginary person on the bench). I took my exposure reading from the sky, and then stopped down by 0.6 to ensure that all of the detail was captured. The result leaves very dark shadows in the foreground but I think that there is sufficient detail nevertheless, and the darkness is atmospheric in contrast to the bright sky. Much as in the second image the distinction between shadowy earth and bright sky has a contemplative or perhaps religious feel (heaven and earth).

Two things occur to me from this exercise. The first is that the exposure is really only part of the question – printing these would no doubt reveal (or hide) detail in a different way to the screen. The second, and more important, is that I don’t really buy into the Zone System as a concept because it rather implies that there is a “correct” way to expose a picture. With high dynamic range like in this images it is the intention of the photographer that dictates the exposure, there is no inherently correct way to photograph the scene. If I was aiming for topographical accuracy then my last two shots probably aren’t the best balance of light and dark (I have other shots which achieve that better), but if my focus is on a particular element of the scene then it is that which should dictate how I expose the image.

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