Telling a story is the goal of art. It’s no different in photography. This article builds the knowledge to enable you to use brightness and darkness to tell you story.

Make sure you know the concepts on how to control exposure. The preferred technique would be Manual mode and Spot metering

Luminance and Zones

This is one concept, once learned, will affect every step of your photography. It’ll change the way you plan, take, and edit you picture.There are different ways to think about and measure how bright something is. It’s part of the Zone System but it works to just think of this in terms of tones.

Building our tool

Luminance between white and black has infinite choices or tones.

Ten stepped breaks, where each is double the brightness of the previous, does something convenient.

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 1.05.15 AM

10 breaks with stepped changes.

By convention give it this numbering system.

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 1.05.31 AM

These are Zones.

Zones Each zone changes luminance by a factor of two, otherwise known as a stop of light.

These stops show up everywhere

In Life

Look up right now and find something to take a picture of. Find something that you would want to be bright but still with detail. Thats VIII. Find something that you would want dark but still with detail. Maybe thats Zone II. Once you learn this you’ll see it everywhere. Having this happen will improve your ability to take pictures.

train fernandino photo

“Crossing Tracks” Fernandino Beach 2013

On your Camera

You can see this on the EV display on your camera. You’ll eventually use the vision of the final image to guide the setting in your camera. It’ll be added to how you compose the shot as much as other creative  decisions like DOF choice or positioning the camera.

Photo Editing

You can see this on the histogram. It’s almost always broken down into these 11 zones. If not it’s very close. Thinking in terms of Zones while editing really does improve the final image as you carry the vision to final product.

"Innocence Found" envisioned to final product with tones in mind

“Innocence Found” Fernandino Beach 2013

The Method

Simply put…

  1. Find something in your scene that should be middle grey. (or any other zone)
  2. Make sure your camera metering mode is set to spot meter.
  3. Fill the circle (Canon) or square (Nikon) with that object
  4. Adjust Shutter Speed, ISO, and Aperture until the EV is 0 (or other appropriate zone)

Numbers to know

Average Caucasian skin is a VI. That means it’s one stop above V. An average African’s skin would be a IV. Reflective light meters meter light for 18% grey, which is V.

Wrap up

What good does it do knowing that the world is broken into these Zones.?

For Landscape Photography it gives you control to capture an capture an entire scene accurately. This can’t happen with normal exposure techniques that meter the entire scene and give you feedback to make an exposure different than what you eye sees.

For portraits it teaches you a rule which gives you power. That rules it showing people at their appropriate zones which gives there skin a tone or luminance that looks right.

In either case you’ll have the choice to break the rule to say something. Attention will be drawn to the broken rule and help you tell your story. And after all, it’s all about telling your story.

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