Digital Zone System, Part 6 – Beyond Capture

Previous parts of this series addressed

Visualizing your image followed by

Exposure during capture to match your vision

Now it’s time to finish the job

Digital post-processing

A critical & challenging step when developing film

Just as critical but easier in digital


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Pre & Post


This section will be repeated in each part of this series –
A useful reference
At the heart of the zone system is the zone scale which divides the tonal space from black to white into eleven zones.

Above & below – Wikipedia


Post-processing (development)

We’ve completed the first two steps – visualization & capture

The final step, post-processing, finishes the job

What’s involved?

Post-visualization (recalling your vision from the 1st two steps)

Using post-processing to match the capture to your vision

This final step was a huge undertaking with film

It involved choice of chemistry and paper among other things

This was a large part of what the Zone System addressed

With digital post-processing the task is much easier in every respect


Matching the capture to our vision

The capture may not match our vision completely

Recall Ansel Adams’ Aspen photo from the Visualization post

He handled the important part of his tonal vision, shadows,

By metering during capture

The brighter tones, in particular the important aspen leaves,

Fell tone-wise where ever the shadow metering dictated

Placing the leaf tones where Adams visualized was

Left to later in the wet-darkroom

You can’t get all tones to match your vision during capture

At least not always


What tonal values are most important?

All else being equal, most important are the tones that are

The ones most difficult to recover in post-capture

Film shooters exposed for shadows and

Left the highlights fall where they may

Highlights were easier to deal with during development

The opposite is, in general, true for digital

Expose for highlights & recover shadow in post


Adjusting tonality in digital post-processing

Photo processing programs offer a myriad of tone adjustment options

We’ll look at some in the next post but first a reminder –

The tones you think you see may be an illusion

If you think you’re seeing gray

and you want to make it white (lighter)

but it’s actually already white

That’s a problem!

Three suggestions for dealing with the problem –

1. Practice by shooting a lot (AA’s advice in the visualization post)

2. Find a program that can display where each piece of your image falls tone-wise

Even better if it shows in which of the Zone System’s 11 zones various image areas lie

3. “Wing it”

I can’t help with the first suggestion except to remind you that practice is key to almost everything in photography

As for the 2nd, the next post will demonstrate how AA may have felt Silver Efex Pro 2 was the answer to his prayers

And – #3, I’m sure that’s what happened in many darkrooms

If it looks & feels good….


Tomorrow – Showing where (which zones) the areas of an image are located


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