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How to Use the Zone System with Your EOS 6D

Sometimes, a properly exposed image can be difficult to obtain. Digital sensors cannot capture the same dynamic range of tones that the human eye can perceive. When you photograph a scene with a wide dynamic range, your EOS 6D does its best to create an acceptable image. However, you may find that you end up with muddy shadows or blown out highlights if you accept the camera’s exposure settings for a scene with a wide dynamic range. When this occurs, you have to take control and tell the camera which part of the scene is the most important and manually meter that area.

Master photographer Ansel Adams and Fred Archer developed the Zone System, which assigned a number for 10 levels of brightness that could be reproduced from negatives and slides in the darkroom. Zone 0 was comprised of the darkest parts of the scene (shadow areas) and Zone 10 was the brightest parts of a scene. Digital capture doesn’t give us such wide latitude. When applying the Zone System to digital photography, the darkest shadows are Zone 3 and the brightest parts of the scene are Zone 7 (see the following figure). Each zone represents one stop, which means you can capture five stops of brightness with a digital camera.

Use the Zone System when photographing scene with a wide dynamic range.
Use the Zone System when photographing scene with a wide dynamic range.

To use the Zone System:

  1. Press the Metering Mode button and then rotate the Main Dial to select spot metering mode.

    The Spot Metering mode icon is a solid dot on the LCD Panel (see the following figure). Spot metering uses a small area in the center of the frame to meter the scene.

    Switch to Spot Metering mode.
    Switch to Spot Metering mode.
  2. Hold the Auto-focus point button and then rotate the Main Dial until a single auto focus point appears in the middle of the viewfinder.

  3. Rotate the Mode Dial to M.

    This enables you to manually set the exposure.

  4. Press the Shutter button halfway and then position the auto-focus point over the part of the scene.

    When you set the exposure manually with the Zone System, your job is to determine which part of the scene is the most important and manually set the exposure to correctly expose that part of the scene. If you’re photographing a scene with bright clouds, the clouds are in Zone 7. To meter the clouds, position the autofocus point over the brightest cloud. As your move the camera over different zones of brightness, the exposure level indicator in the viewfinder moves.

  5. Adjust the shutter speed and aperture settings until the exposure level indicator is at the desired zone.

    Zone 5 is the middle hash mark on the exposure level indicator. If you’re exposing for bright highlights (Zone 7), increase the exposure by two stops. You don’t have to do the math, just look at the vertical hash marks on the exposure level indicator. Your camera has a +1 mark to indicate one stop of exposure and a +2 mark to indicate two stops of exposure. Adjust the shutter speed and aperture setting until the exposure level indicator aligns with the +2. Your camera is now set to expose the area over which you placed the autofocus point as Zone 7. Use Zone 6 (+1 EV) for bright highlights like sand or brightly colored rock.

  6. After setting the exposure, move the camera to compose the image.

  7. Press the Shutter Button halfway to achieve focus.

    The green focus indicator lamp appears in the viewfinder.

  8. Press the Shutter button fully to take the picture.

When you use manual metering with the Zone System, enable Highlight Warning to display a blinking overlay (affectionately known as “Blinkies”) over any part of the image that is overexposed. Your goal is to create an image that faithfully depicts the zone for which you metered. If you metered for Zone 7 and you notice “Blinkies,” decrease the exposure until the Blinkies disappear to correctly render the brightest tonal range in the scene.

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