The Practical Zone System, 4th Edition

Review by Mario Georgiou, February 2007
Author: Chris Johnson
Publisher: Focal Press/Elsevier
300 pages
ISBN: 0-240-51652-4
US$ 29.95 £ £18.99 EUR 28.95

The Practical Zone System - Front Cover

One of the things that Focal press does well is create very approachable books on highly technical subjects, and Ansel Adams Zone System is certainly one of the most technical concepts a photographer will ever deal with. The Author, Chris Johnson, was a friend and student of Ansel Adams. He is also a Professor of Photography at California College of Arts and Crafts.
In this book Chris provides photographers with the information, so that they can understand and effectively use the zone system in their daily shooting process. It enables the photographer to apply it in the darkroom, in the studio and also out in the real world.

It also provides the reader with an understanding of how to test and calibrate their equipment, so that they can more effectively control their results using their workflow. For the visual photographer this is the book to buy, by stripping away the heavy technical covereage found in other books and visually bridging the concepts and he makes the ideas in the Zone System very approachable.

One of the most important parts of this system, is to be able to pre-visualize the images and expose accordingly. The method of previsualization is explained and clues are given via illustrations and diagrams which help the reader understand how to make valid decisions in this process.

If however you are a more technically savvy individual, you might want to begin with this excellent book and then move on to a more in-depth and technical title. I did find the 100 plus pages of appendices very interesting and full of useful reference and technical info relating to both film and digital image capture and processes.

The practical Zone System is filled with useful tips, development and film charts for traditional photographers and useful tips for digital photographers. My only gripe is that the photographs and examples suffer from being printed using standard printing, rather than a hifi process, which would do justice to the examples provided. As a result many of the images come off lacking detail in the highlights and shadows.

Cons - Some of the examples could have benefited from better examples and printing.

Pros - Well written and easy to follow. Excellent use of Charts and references throughout.

The Practical Zone system is a great starting point for photographers of all types to get an introduction to one of Ansel Adams key theories on photography. It is a book, which is let down, only by the quality of the printing, but, which should, nonetheless, be in the library of any photographer who wants to understand, the use and control of tonality, in black and white images. It will also enhance, the readers understanding of their work in colour. Chris Johnson very effectively deals with both film and digital processes. His coverage of workflow and digital output helps provide the groundwork for anyone with even a modicum of technical ability, to be able to produce images that meet and do justice to their creative vision. Highly Recommended.