The Practical Zone System, 4th Edition, by Chris Johnson, ISBN: 0-240-51652-4

Reviewed by: Mario Georgiou, February 2007
Published by: Focal Press/Elsevier
Requires: N/A
MSRP: US$29.95, UK£18.99, EUR28.95

One of the things that Focal press does well is create very approachable books on highly technical subjects. Ansel Adams' Zone System is certainly one of the most technical concepts a photographer will ever deal with. Author Chris Johnson was a friend and student of Ansel Adams. He is also a Professor of Photography at the California College of Arts & Crafts.

In this book Johnson provides photographers with the information needed to understand and effectively use the zone system in their daily shooting process. The explanations enable photographers to apply zone system techniques in the darkroom, in the studio and on location during photography shoots.

Just as important as the fundamentals of applying zone system techniques, Johnson also provides his readers with an understanding of how to test and calibrate equipment, so that photographers and photo processors can more effectively control results using their workflow. For the visual photographer this is the book to buy. The author strips away the heavy technical coverage found in other books and visually bridges the concepts. He makes the ideas in the Zone System very approachable.


One of the most important parts of the zone system is the photographer's ability to pre-visualize the images and expose accordingly. The method of pre-visualization is explained and clues are given via illustrations and diagrams which help readers understand how to make valid decisions during this process.

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 reproduced with standard printing methods, rather than a high fidelity printing process which would do much better justice to the examples provided. As a result many of the images come off lacking detail in the highlights and shadows.

If you're already a more technically advanced photographer, 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.

Cons: Some of the examples could have benefited from better source material 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 a worthy 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 every photographer who wants to understand the use and control of tonality, in black and white images. The book will also enhance readers' understanding of their work in color. Author 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.

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