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Using Ansel Adams analogue zone system in a digital digital world

Today it is common practice among photographers to use Ansel Adams' zone system to deliver a balanced photo. It was a rule he followed to make sure there was detail in every part of his work and, in his “analog” world, the print he produced. To quote his book “The negative”: To arrive at that scale, he first created middle grey zone 5 and continued from there. He further explained that clear texture, however, is from zone 2 to zone 8. He wrote that dynamic range is from zone 1 to zone 9. A print was made of each zone, 11 pieces, from zone 0 (black) to zone 10 (white). Something like this posterized gradient:

Figure 1: Posterized gradient

The digital photographic age has come, the zone system still in use, but on our screen it looks different from what AA saw in his dark room. Light is gradual and this is how we create a dark to light gradient today.

To create a full scale of zone masks today there are a lot of actions on the market, also you can easily create your own set like I did. (at least that way I have the freedom to create the LM I really need in my workflow)

On the website from Tony Kuyper (he was the first ever to create LM), in his blog, you can find in detail how to do this.

When I create a new document in Photoshop and draw a gradient, this is how it looks:

Figure 2: zone masks one a linear gradient

I divided it in the AA zones, Top numbers is the brightness and bottom numbers is the RGB indication

Now when I use the TK panel ( but it could be any other panel) and create a zone 5 mask. White is selected, dark is not, you can see that the mask starts somewhere in Zone-2 and ends somewhere in zone 8.

Figure 3: Zone 5 mask

As fine art photographers, we know every detail is important, and therefore, sometimes, this is not what I want, I want something that is more focussing on zone 5 and exclude most of the other zones. The digital zone system is a gradient and not 11 separate blocks.

I used the rulers to determine the area I want to judge as my own zone 5 mask. In this case we start at zone 3.5 and want to end at zone 6.5. Of course you can place the rulers where ever it suits you

Figure 4; rulers define the intended boundaries of my asymmetric zone 5

No how am I doing this to make a mask targeting this specific area?

- I need to block out most of zone 0 to zone 3.5

- I need to block out most of zone 7.5 to zone 10

- Because the linear gradient we will have soft transitions

Step-1: To block out zone 0 to zone 3.5 I’ve create a Lights 1.5 mask with a black point 6. BP 6 excludes zone 0 in total. This is how I did it:

1: Go to: Image/calculations and enter the data as on fig-5. You created a 16-bit - L1 mask

Figure 5:create a 16-bit lights-1

2: Go to Image/adjustments/Levels. Change the BP to 6 and bring the gamma slider to 0.75.

Figure 6: Putting the gamma slider to 0,75 changed your mask to L-1.5. The BP is now on 6 excluding zone 0

Step-2: To block out zone 7.5 to zone 10 I’ve created a Darks 2.5 mask. This is how I did this:

1. Create a D1 mask

Go to Image/calculations and fill in the data as in fig 7

Figure 7: Create a16 bit D1 mask

2. Change to a D2 mask

Go to image/adjustments/levels and bring the gamma slider to 0,5. I created a 16 bit D2- mask. (If you do this again you get a

D3 mask and so on)

Figure-8 change D1 to D2

3. Change from 2 to a 2.5 D-mask

For the second time go to Image/adjustments/levels and bring the gamma slider to 0,75. I now changed the mask to a D2.5 mask

Figure - 9 change D2 to D2.5

Step-3: All we have to do now is to calculate the 2 created luminosity masks:

Go to Image/calculations and enter the data as shown in fig-10. Blending mode is multiply.

Figure - 10: create your asymetrical zone 5 mask

You now have created the asymmetric luminosity mask of zone 5. In my workflow I created such masks for each zone from 3 to 8, being the zones in the textural range defined by Ansel Adams. I also created one covering the full textural range. Another set is covering more extended areas (on the right side) en one covering more area’s on the left side) but still asymmetric masks. Like I wrote before you can play with the bounderies for each mask.

Step-4: No doubt you are now asking the question, should I do this and if so how do I use this?

First answer: Yes, if you want to bring your photography to the next level, just do it! They can be used to correct very specific areas in your image and this with surgical precision!

But.. what mask should I use in what position?

To define this we use the info panel in photoshop. To find this “info panel” Goto: window/info or just press F8 en next go to info panel options

Select “Panel Options” and then “First colour read out” select” LAB colour”. For “second colour read out” select “RGB “

Now scroll over the image to see the different values, in the LAB read out L stand for Lightness. This read out is not fully correct as mid grey value for LAB is 119 as for RGB it is 128 (we will talk about this later in a different blogpost) But it gives a good indication the zone you are in and what mask to select. L indicates a value between 0 and 100, so if you have a value of e.g. 56 then you are probably in zone 5. This works wel for me. But of course, more accurate is the RGB read out as you are working in a RGB mode. The value for every zone is in figure 2

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