Ansel Adams zone system

Posted on by

Home Forums Lighting Ansel Adams zone system

  • Creator
  • #201222
    rama lingam

      Dear master Roger have you ever applied in any situation Ansel Adams zone system for your movies. Do you really believe his theory could work for motion pictures.

    Viewing 9 replies - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
    • Author
    • #201415

        In the most general sense, the concept of “visualization” (or “previsualization”) of how one’s exposure and development choices would translate to the finished product has some loose application in cinematography, but in the specifics, it’s very hard to apply a system that was based on taking single still images rather than a sequence of moving images for a scene that all have to intercut. It’s similar to why it is hard to use ETTR (Expose To The Right) still photography approach in cinematography except for one-shot scenes or visual effects shooting, or just as a general idea of “get a good exposure, just don’t clip detail”.

        Ansel Adam’s idea was that knowing the intended contrast of the print, one could expose and develop the negative so that tonal values fell into the areas that one wanted in the print. With the motion picture photochemical approach, this was hard to do because we couldn’t adjust the gamma of the negative on a shot-by-shot basis and we didn’t have a lot of control over the gamma of the release prints either, unless we did something like skip bleach or ENR, and then the whole reel had to have that same technique.


          With digital post, it’s sort of the opposite — we not only have control over the gamma (contrast) of every frame, we have control over portions of the frame.



            Since we’re talking about how still photography concepts compare to filmmaking, is there a rule like the Sunny 16 rule for how powerful a light you need in more common filmmaking scenarios indoors and outdoors?

            For example, let’s say I’m shooting 35mm stills. If I walk outside on a sunny, cloudless day, I’ll probably want to overexpose by two stops for a backlit portrait. What’s our rule of thumb for the power in watts that I’d need to fill in an actor’s face in that same scenario?

            We tried shooting some test scenes with a lone actress outdoors at golden hour with an Aputure P60c (60-watt) LED panel. I had no idea how much power we would need because I’d never done it before. We had zero budget, so we tried the most affordable, portable rental option possible. I learned that power was not enough for what we were trying to accomplish.

            That same P60c was perfect later that night when we tried filming a test scene backlit by street lights and shops but poorly lit from the front.

            Do you get to a point where you can “intuit” the minimum amount of light power you’d need to handle a given scene? Or do you math it out or test it most of the time?

            M Ryan

              If you’re fighting the sun something like a 12k hmi or 2 (or 3 or more) might be something you would usually see.. not very portable or low budget 🙂 In this scenario a simple collapsable reflector can be a great solution 👍👍



                I think the zone system is it still applicable in part in cinematography too.

                Specially the first part about metering and where to put each part of the scene in the “negative”.

                It’s been long time but if I can recall right Ansel Adams zone system is a 3 part process. The metering, the negative and the print, I may still  have his books some where. As David said the negative and the print process is hard to apply in cinematography for the said reasons, but the metering is very much interesting to learn.

                I’m coming from a photography background, where I shot a lot of large format too so to understand how to meter, understand the zones inside an image and how to expose for desirable effect was already knowledge I had thanks to know the “zone system”.

                If I was starting today I’ll probably won’t learn the zone system as it makes no sense nowadays but I would make sure to understand how to meter and expose consistently and for any desirable effect I would want with any camera/sensor.


                Roger Deakins

                  I use my meter and my eyes. If you are thinking about zones and studying every aspect of the exposure range across the shot then you might just miss the shot. Ansel Adams was working to his own schedule and, for the most part, taking shots of landscapes that were static. That is hardly the same as a modern film set and you can’t but envy him.


                    Dear Roger,

                    Just out of interest, how do you meter when using your Leica for street photography?

                    Many thanks


                    Roger Deakins

                      There is an in camera meter, which is pretty good.  Sometimes, I just guess.


                        Curious what everyone here thinks of the EL Zone system that Ed Lachman created a few years ago, seems applicable to this thread!


                        I haven’t used it on a project yet, but recently attended an event where Ed explained his reasoning behind creating it and how he personally uses it.  I think it definitely has a place as a useful tool that could/should replace false color.

                        Ed is currently trying to get manufacturers like ARRI and Sony to add it directly to their camera systems, seems like a no-brainer to me!

                      Viewing 9 replies - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
                      • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.