While I maintain the Zone System is less relevant today when applied to digital sensors on cameras, particularly taking into consideration the capabilities of modern digital sensors’ wide dynamic range, I thought it was still important to practice familiarising myself with my camera for landscapes. This meant getting the exposure as optimal as I could ‘in camera’ which became more difficult the higher the dynamic range I attempted to capture.
While in the past, with early digital sensors or analogue cameras the capturing the correct tonal values was paramount to a successfully exposed image in the eventual photograph in accordance with what the photographer had envisaged, this has somewhat shifted recently. The ability of modern digital sensors to store more information (particularly) in the shadows of RAW files the camera produces than is immediately apparent makes it less crucial to achieve optimal exposure ‘in camera’. In fact it could be argued especially for landscape photography that by exposing so the highlights aren’t ‘blown out’ (because they are less recoverable than shadows) but instead leaning towards underexposing the initial exposure and then brightening the shadows in post processing, a final exposure can be produced which encapsulates the full spectrum of tones, with minimal noise penalty of lightening the shadows. This could be seen as a kind of practical photographic vision, where the photographer uses an expanded Zone System compared to the traditional one, so that these ‘blocked’ shadows present in the initial exposure are incorporated into the photographer’s thinking during shooting for what the final image will look like relevant to where the tonal values fall within the traditional Zone System when processing the image.
For Photograph 1 I chose a location full of reflections, shooting on the bridge of St. James’s Park with the Sun reflecting on the lake in front of the camera. The reason I chose this location was primarily because of all the reflections and the relatively high contrast light this produced. Also I was shooting into the Sun so I had to be careful not to burn out the highlights in the clouds. Therefore I shot the scene darker than I intended for the final image because the shadows were more easily recoverable from the RAW files then the highlights. In order to meter the scene I utilised the exposure compensation on my camera to -0.7 compensation until the highlights were all in the tonal range of Zone 9 or lower (not burnt out) and checked the LCD histogram afterwards to make sure this was the case. Then in post processing I gently lifted the shadows of the trees while maintaining a bit of contrast in the lake highlights but not so much that the tonal transitions between the lake and the trees was too harsh.
For the second shot I want to photograph a shiny object to test whether I could meter for such a reflective object. I found a particularly shiny object (the side of a building in harsh sunlight) beside the Monument in London. Because the Sun reflected off the building so harshly I had to be warty not too overexpose the highlights. Meanwhile the shadows were quite blocked on the LCD screen image review because of this so I had to trust my knowledge that the camera’s sensor would have enough dynamic range for me to be able to lift the shadows later in post processing. I metered similarly to Photograph 1.
Finally, with Photograph 3, I happened upon this very high contrast scene. The factors that made the scene such high contrast were the sunlight glinting off one of there high-rise buildings in the distance (to the right) and the overhang of the bridge above casting deep shadows in the foreground (to the left). I knew the Sun reflecting off the high rise building in the distance was too strong for me to meter for while still producing recoverable shadows for this handheld shot. Therefore I made a compromise and exposed for the Sun reflecting off the building so that it did still burn out but the tonal transition from Zones 10 to 8 weren’t too harsh and then the rest of the image wasn’t too much in shadow. The darkest parts of the final image were not blocked (Zone 0) but rather in Zone 1.