THE ZONE SYSTE M FOR D-SLRS
Take control of your exposures using your camera’s built-in spot meter
The simplest approach to the Zone System concentrates on highlights and ignores shadows. Start by picking the most important highlight – not a tiny spot, nor something that lacks detail. Pick the brightest significant part of the scene that needs to have detail and texture. Then decide what zone that highlight should be. If that sounds hard, it’s not, because there are only two choices. Zone 5 isn’t a highlight, it’s a midtone. Zone 8 is washed out – too light for an important highlight. So that leaves Zone 6 or Zone 7. Use Zone 7 for objects that are white or nearly white, like white water, snow, light sand, or very light rock. Use Zone 6 for any other highlight, including tans, yellows, light greens, or something that you would describe as a light or pastel colour.
Next, take a spot meter reading from the highlight you’ve picked. Make sure the whole spot is filled with a consistent tone; you don’t want a mixture of light and dark areas. A very small, narrow-angle spot meter is invaluable. If you’re using your camera’s built-in meter, try zooming in or changing to a longer lens. When using a hand-held meter make sure you compensate for filters. Add one-and-a-half to two stops of light for a polariser, or hold the filter up against the meter and take readings right through it.
Adjusting the exposure
To make the highlight Zone 6, increase the exposure by one stop from your meter reading. To make it Zone 7, increase the exposure by two stops. If you don’t do this – if you just use the meter’s recommended settings – the highlight will render as a middle tone, or Zone 5. Because of this, you need to lighten the image to make that highlight Zone 6 or Zone 7. For example, if the meter indicates 1/125 sec at f/16, lower the shutter speed to 1/60 sec to make that highlight Zone 6, or 1/30 sec to make it Zone 7.
You actually don’t need to make these calculations with an in-camera spot meter. While you’re pointing the meter at the highlight, just turn either the shutter speed or aperture dial until the exposure scale indicates two stops of overexposure for Zone 7, or one stop of overexposure for Zone 6.
Not all Nikon’s spot meters read the same proportion of the frame: DX cameras meter a 2.5% spot and FX cameras meter a 1.5% spot.