Using the Ansel Adams Zone System for Inkjet Print Visualization

Jay Em No. 3
Jay Em No. 3 was a tough photograph to make if I hadn’t had the proper visualization, due to the midtones of the wooden building, low tonal values of the trees and high window structure values.

Readers have really appreciated the tutorials I’ve written about how to perform advanced black and white printing on the Epson Stylus Pro 3880 and SureColor P800, so I’m back with the a more detailed look into visualizing your black and white capture process to your paper and printer capabilities. This isn’t as novel an idea as it might sound; Ansel Adams was fanatical about understanding how his visualized images would need to be translated on paper. This process will involve three key stages: 1) Understanding the Zone System; 2) Understanding the histogram display on your camera; and 3) Understanding how the both the Zone System and histograms allow tonality translations to paper and inkjet printing.

Why is this helpful? It’s simple: once you understand what your printer and papers will do, you can do a better job of planning the tones of a black and white image while you’re in the field.

One caveat: This still applies to black and white printing, so my apologies to the color crowd. I’ll return in future articles to help you out, too.

Visit Red River PaperBefore I continue, I’ll say this up front: When you choose to purchase printing papers such as Hanhemühle, Red River, Epson, Canson or Moab, please do so using the links on this blog. Dick Blick Art Materials provides all the papers listed except for Red River, which provides its paper direct. Whenever you purchase by clicking through from this blog to these sites, it helps pay for all the materials, ink, time and technology I need in order to provide you with these posts. Thanks in advance.

Also, I prefer to disclose that I’m a brand agnostic; if I choose to use a company’s materials or equipment, it’s because I’ve found them to be up to my own high standards (just ask my students), and I don’t stick to just one brand. I think that’s important for my readers, too, as it’s never any help to read someone’s work that is a parrot voice. If there’s a problem with something I’m reviewing, you’ll know about it. As one writing professor in my undergrad said about all life, perfection is something for which we strive, but seldom attain. The same is true for any product.


Zone System Basics

Adams and Fred Archer developed (yes, that’s a pun) the system to allow accurate visualization in the field for how a print would perform once it moved to paper, and with the new digital systems, this is a much easier process to understand. Some will argue the Zone System has no application in the digital world, but I respectfully disagree, since giclée printers tend to perform poorly in darker areas, and at the same time should not use the white of the paper in its raw form as part of a finished image (e.g. there should always be some tonality in even the brightest whites).

The Zone System Diagram
The Zone System Diagram

Here, I’ve used the Gradient tool in Photoshop to create a Zones diagram (You can do this yourself, too, but it’s easiest to just download the one I’ve provided). This is the image you can use to test your printer, and since we’re only dealing with tones and not details, the 72 dpi, 500-pixel-wide image is more than sufficient.

You’ll notice that the zones move from pure black (Zone 0) to pure white (Zone X). For beginning photographers, there are really three key zones: III, V and VII. Why? Because in general, older inkjet printers can have a difficult time in differentiating zones I through III (and some with zones VIII and IX). Zone V is middle grey, and as it appears lighter, the near-blacks and near-whites also become lighter. What does this tell us? In simplest terms, it means in the field we must look carefully at the darkest areas requiring detail and meaning for our image. Conversely, we must also look at the near-lightest areas requiring meaning as well, and also ensure we don’t block out those to a blank white blowout. The system is a tool for visualization and metering. So for now, just keep in mind we’re going to use this diagram to determine the “how grey can you go before turning black” for our printer.

Uh-oh, you may say. I do everything in Program mode (P is for “Perfect,” right?) on my camera, you think. How can I even hope to learn something as complicated as tonal visualization? Well, don’t worry–even if you use Perfect mode, you can easily learn to use a histogram to check where your lowest and highest zones fall in an image.

Using a Histogram and Paper Type for Visualization

Aperture Histogram
Histogram with Proper Exposure

A histogram is essential a bar graph of the Zone System, but broken into 256 parts instead of 11. When reviewing an image in-camera, the histogram can be found usually by selecting the DISP or INFO button (depending on the camera platform). The left side of the graph represents darker tones, and the right side the brighter tones–yes, just like the Zone System diagram above. The trick is knowing how to read a histogram in a way that allows you to ensure you’re getting the most information in the image file when you click the shutter. That means we’re going to need to make some general suggestions about how to record the image from here out.

  • In order to have the best control of the image in post-processing, you should shoot in RAW or DNG format (depending on which platform you’re using). You’ll have better range of available tones in this format, and less clipping (see below).
  • Although it depends on the scene you’re photographing, we will generally want to overexpose by about 1/3 stop. This is because digital cameras don’t do well with dark areas and detail when we lighten them in post-processing (they show an increased amount of noise, an undesirable situation in general). This doesn’t mean dark areas should be lightened all the time, since dark values add drama to a photograph. You may also read elsewhere to “Protect your highlights,” and this isn’t wrong. I just prefer to protect, well…both.
  • At the time of making the shot, I also ask myself a very important question. Which tone is the “information” tone? Although the most famous Ansel Adams quote refers to “using all the available tones,” inevitably, some are more important that others in every print. When trying to answer the information tone question, I think about:
    • Do I visualize the bulk of the critical element of the image as a wide-zone contrast (say, a Zone VIII layered on a Zone II)?
    • Do I visualize the main character of the image as an “anomaly zone” (like a Zone II among a wider Zone V)?
    • Do I visualize the critical point of the image as a subtle, analogous-zone area (such as all Zones IV–VI)?
    • What parts of the image are most important; the details of the image, the textures, the smoothness, or the tonal values?

Each of these questions helps me visualize in the field about how I see the print on paper. Is it a textured print, expressive but needing less detail? (Abstracts can be like this.) Is it a portrait with cross-lighting to highlight skin texture? Is it a landscape, broad and dramatic? What I’m getting at is that you should be thinking about the paper you’ll use to print as you make the image, because you’ll have a better sense of what you’ll have in the end as you commit the image to your storage media.

Blocked Blacks
Blocked Blacks

However, the most important thing to remember is you show avoid any data bumping up against the left side (blocking out blacks, or “clipping”) or the right side (blowing out the whites, also called “clipping”). Moreover, try to keep the data on the left side farther away from the edges than on the right side (it’s easier to recover data from Zone IX than Zone I due to noise).



Blown Whites
Blown Whites


Take a look again at the first histogram I included in this section, and note the left and right areas are mostly clean, ensuring I captured as much information as possible during the initial exposure. This means that we can edit with the greatest range of options for mastering the image and getting the proper output from the printer, regardless of the type of paper we’ve visualized in the field.



To Help Visualization, Print Before You Shoot (What?)

No, I’m not losing my mind (at least, no more than usual). Essentially, we’re doing what we called a test strip in the old darkroom days: a check to see how our tonalities are set up with the media and image parameters. That way, I know how my printer and possible papers look before I shoot anything (I do this any time I consider moving to a new paper for my images).

One of my Zone-RGB-Lab printing cards. This one is for the Epson 3880 and Hahnemühle Museum Etching 350gsm.
One of my Zone-RGB-Lab printing cards. This one is for the Epson 3880 and Hahnemühle Museum Etching 350gsm.

I keep a reference library of 4×6″ Zone System cards on a multitude of different papers (see the example on the left as a soft proof for easy viewing on monitors) in a manila envelope in the studio, as well as one in my office at school (I print with an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 in the studio, and Canon PRO-1 at the college, and each has a different tonal response on different papers). I try to review those cards fairly often to keep them in memory. Why?

In the end, no printer can replicate the range of tones our eye sees, so we need to have a “target zone” on a specific printer and specific paper in mind. As I’ve written before, I don’t trust soft proofing, so the hard proofing method (using actual prints) gives me an exact idea of how each tone will respond to each paper.

What we’re looking for in an image is one that still includes detail in the blacks, and detail in the whites; this means we’re trying to determine where our printer begins showing differences in tones between low zones, and the high zones. In the case of the sample here, there are strong separations between each zone, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve been so loyal to Epson and Hahnemühle for my finished work–I know I’m not sacrificing tonal values or details in the end print.

(UPDATE: Reader Ruth had a nice point about using NIK Silver Efex Pro 2 for seeing zones, as the program has a zone readout on the bottom-right of its main dialog. I’m torn on using this in a “final print” mode, as it doesn’t necessarily correspond to how the paper will display the final zones. I’ve written about this before: It’s the “hard proof – soft proof” debate. But, it’s a good tool for novices learning how zones match up to tones. Thanks, Ruth!)


I realize this post is a lot to take in for many of you. The LCD on the back of your camera has been your reference point up to this moment, more than likely. What I’ve given you is a new method for using your mind’s eye to “see” what that final print will be, allowing you to visualize the entire photographic process as you’re capturing the image in-camera.

It takes practice. Print. Examine. Visualize. Shoot. Print. Repeat.

A frustrated former assistant once asked me why my black and white images turned out so dramatic, and hers didn’t. I explained this process to her, and worked with her so that she could begin seeing the tones as they would occur on paper. Soon after, she bought an Epson 3880 and began printing.

And made her first national show.

As always, I hope your next print, is your best print.



Questions? Comments? Please leave them below so we can all learn from the conversation.

2 thoughts

    1. Ruth, that’s a good point. I do use Nik Silver Efex Pro in development, and I think it’s a nice learning tool to help others see the zones, too. Thanks for the contribution!

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