Welcome to Week Four of professional pet photography blog circle Project 52. This week was seriously one of the hardest ones to do to-date.  Our topic this week was The Zone System, which is a system of determining exposure based on a scale developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer back in the 1930s. Basically, the Zone System applies certain values to colors based on their values from dark to light. The Zone System is typically shown in values of black, gray, and white with pure black being Zone 0 and pure white being Zone X. 

For modern day photography we don’t really need to follow the Zone System because of the built in light meters and histograms in our cameras, which help us get the exposure right or, at least, as close to correct as needed so we can finalize with our post processing. Since I shoot in RAW format, the images I take are finalized in the different software that I use to make all the color and exposure adjustments and whatever other finishing touches I put on them. Because of shooting in RAW, the images straight out of camera tend to look a little flat and kind of blah; that’s because they are unprocessed. Think of the RAW image file as the digital negative that still needs to be developed, as you would with print film.

At the middle of the Zone System is Zone V, which is middle gray. Photographers can meter for middle gray by using a gray card, which has the value of 18% gray. This helps to make sure that your exposure and white balance are accurate, so that your image doesn’t look too one way of anything (too blue, too yellow, too dark, too light). Look at the gray card as the preferred porridge of Goldilocks…just right. For this week’s topic, we were to practice our exposures by utilizing the Zone System and making our adjustments based on those values. Fortunately, I have a gray card (which I sometimes remember to use on my photo shoots) and I used that to help me make my exposure adjustments and figure out where things fell on the Zone System scale. As I frequently do, I packed up my camera and Mr. Bojangles and headed to our favorite neighborhood park, Pioneer Park in Montgomery. I found a spot that wasn’t too soggy and muddy and set up Mr. Bojangles and my gray card to practice my exposures.

Below is an example of the RAW image (on the left) and the adjusted or “developed” image (on the right). You can see the gray card in the middle bottom of the image. I exposed for the gray card in this one, which is why Mr. Bojangles is overexposed. In order to make your exposure adjustments, you can either move your shutter speed or your aperture (or your ISO, if you choose). 

I took this image through the process I use to finalize images, with the exception of adjusting the exposure as I wanted to compare it to the image I exposed for Mr. Bojangles instead of the gray card.

Here’s the finalized image where I exposed for Mr. Bojangles. You can see how the gray card appears darker, since I increased the shutter speed to let in less light so that Mr. Bojangles was more properly exposed. (Mr. Bojangles is Zone VII.) He still has a little bit of a hotspot on his face on the side that was towards the sun, but the exposure is balanced better than in the above image.

After I took several different exposures using the gray card as my starting point in practicing the Zone System, I decided to move to the wooded area of the park as the light was more even. 
The below image shows the before and after from the RAW image (left) to the adjusted image (right). This image is slightly underexposed for Mr. Bojangles, but still an acceptable exposure, especially once the finishing touches were in place.

Below is the final image with the finishing touches. This image was taken with a shutter speed of 1/320 at f-4.8. I used a constant ISO for all my images so the only thing I adjusted was either the shutter speed or aperture.

This next image was adjusted slightly to increase the exposure. The only thing I changed in this image was to decrease the shutter speed by 2/3 of a stop.

Here’s another before and after comparison followed by the finalized image.

This image had the exposure increased, again, so that Mr. Bojangles was still within an acceptable range of exposure, but a little lighter.


The final image was taken at the same settings as the above image. I used a different lens with a larger aperture for these last two images, so I used the aperture wide open at f-1.8 and increased the shutter speed to 1/1000. The difference from the first image in the woods taken at 1/320, f-4.8 to these last two taken at 1/1000, f-1.8 is a net increase in exposure of 1 full stop (if I did my math correctly, which is questionable as math isn’t my forte.)

So, as I said at the beginning, this week was one of the hardest to-date. Just the sheer amount of math in figuring out the different stops with the aperture and shutter speed is mind boggling (to me, at any rate). I am still not certain I’ve got the numbers all down, but I do have a better understanding of how the exposure works with the Zone System. Keep in mind, with the sophisticated equipment we have these days one doesn’t really have to use the Zone System, but back in the day when you were using film and had no live views or histograms to give us a sneak peek, the Zone System was great for making sure that you didn’t waste your film with bad exposures. While we may not really need it today, it does provide us with a valuable lesson on getting correct exposures that need very little adjustments in our post processing of the RAW images. You can see, above, in the RAW “before” images and the adjusted “after” images that while there isn’t much of a “wow” factor in the adjusted image, the exposures are generally acceptable. 

Now to get more into the Zone, head over to Pavlina Sanborn Photography, Sarasota and Tampa Bay, Florida Area, and then around the rest of the blog circle until you end up back here.

If you would like to book a custom pet portrait session with Pet Love Photography in either Greater Cincinnati or the San Francisco Bay Area, please use the hot pink “BOOK NOW” button to the right of this post (bottom of the page on mobile) or send us an email to suzi [at] petlovephotography.com or give us a call at 513-288-1650 for the Greater Cincinnati Area and 650-382-3242 for the San Francisco Bay Area (or elsewhere in California).

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