The Zone System was invented by legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams. He hit upon the idea of splitting the full range of tones in a black and white image into eleven distinct brightness zones, which he then went on to define very carefully. I’m paraphrasing this from the Wikipedia entry:

  • Zone 0: Maximum black, no detail
  • Zone 1: Near black, no useful detail
  • Zone 2: The darkest tones in which some textural detail is visible
  • Zone 3: Very dark areas but with recognisable detail
  • Zone 4: Dark areas but with perfectly visible detail
  • Zone 5: Mid-tone
  • Zone 6: Light tones, such as caucasian skin or light stone
  • Zone 7: Bright tones, but with clearly visible details
  • Zone 8: Very bright tones with some visible texture
  • Zone 9: Near white, no useful detail
  • Zone 10: Solid white, no detail

Ansel Adams’ approach was two-fold. He’d measure the tones in the scene to choose a suitable exposure – and a film development time – to capture the full range of tones. Then, in the darkroom he would use careful printing, and plenty of dodging and burning to get each area of the image in the zone he wanted. That’s a simplification, but you get the gist.

Few of us have a traditional ‘wet’ darkroom any more, but it is possible to replicate many of the processes of the Zone System digitally, using Silver Efex Pro, and here’s how it’s done.

Silver Efex Pro Zone System

I’m starting with this somewhat flat-looking landscape, as rendered by Silver Efex Pro’s ‘Neutral’ preset. I’m going to work on this manually to try to get some punch back into the picture.

01 Zone display

Silver Efex Pro Zone System

Start by opening the Loupe & Histogram panel at the bottom of the tools panel, then click the Histogram button. If you move the mouse pointer down to the base of the histogram, you’ll see a series of eleven zones appear at the bottom, on a scale of black  to white. If you hover the mouse over one of these zones (I’ve circled zone 0 here), any corresponding areas in the image will show up with a hatched overlay. If you click the zone button, the hatching persists even when you move the mouse away.

02 Adding zones

Silver Efex Pro Zone System

So far you’re probably thinking this looks just like the clipping alerts in other programs… but there’s more. If you click another zone, you see hatching for both zones. Here, for example, I get to see all the tones in zones 0 and 1. It’s like a clipping alert you can customise.