GET IN THE ZONE
Scenes contain a range of tones, not just one
Your camera’s auto-exposure modes give you a quick and easy way to get the exposure more or less right, but there’s another approach that can get you much closer to the picture you imagined. It’s based on the ‘zone system’ invented by the revered black-and-white landscape photographer Ansel Adams. He split scenes up into 11 different brightness values and worked out his exposures so that the right parts of the scene fell in the right zones.
Ansel Adams’ method is pretty complicated and takes practice, but your Nikon D-SLR enables you to use the same ideas in a much simpler way using the exposure bar on the camera’s LCD.
Think of the centre position on the exposure bar as being an average grey tone, the -1EV setting as being a darker grey, and the -2EV setting as being the darkest areas where you can still see some detail. Similarly, on the other side of the scale the +1EV setting corresponds to a lighter tone and the +2EV setting is the lightest possible tone where there’s still some visible detail, without being blown out.
For example, if you’re taking a portrait shot you might decide your subject’s skin should be lighter than the average grey tone, so set your Nikon to spot metering mode (see our walkthrough below), place the autofocus (spot metering) point over your subject’s face and adjust the exposure so that the marker is at the +1EV setting. Or, if you’re photographing a dark-toned subject like a vase or foliage, and you want it to be darker than the average grey tone, set adjust the exposure so that the marker is at the -1EV setting.
If you’re shooting a landscape where you want to be sure of capturing some detail in the sky, use a spot meter reading for the sky and set the exposure bar to +2EV. The sky will be bright, but not completely blown out. You can’t use this ‘zone’ approach for every scene – there may not always be time to take readings, or the contrast may be too high and would turn the rest of the scene black – but it’s a great way of visualising your exposures and making sure that objects appear with exactly the brightness you intended.