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Using the zone system in Silver Efex Pro

From: Nik Creative Effects Workshop

Video: Using the zone system in Silver Efex Pro

When creating black and white images, there is a tried and true system called the Zone System. Which is a fantastic way to analyze the overall gradiation of your image, from pure black to pure white. And verify whether you have all zones in range, meaning you have everything from black to white, represented within your photograph. Of course, there're going to be exceptions, where you don't have any black or any white in your photo. But for the most part, you'll find that most images look better if you do have a full range represented from pure black to pure white. Inside of Nik'sSilver Efex Pro 2, if you hover your mouse over the loop and histogram area in the lower right corner.

Using the zone system in Silver Efex Pro

When creating black and white images, there is a tried and true system called the Zone System. Which is a fantastic way to analyze the overall gradiation of your image, from pure black to pure white. And verify whether you have all zones in range, meaning you have everything from black to white, represented within your photograph. Of course, there're going to be exceptions, where you don't have any black or any white in your photo. But for the most part, you'll find that most images look better if you do have a full range represented from pure black to pure white. Inside of Nik'sSilver Efex Pro 2, if you hover your mouse over the loop and histogram area in the lower right corner.

You'll see a pop up overlay that comes up representing zones zero through ten, the 11 zones of the zone system. If you want to learn more about the zone system, I recommend you go to Wikipedia, and simply search for zone system, where you'll see a full description of each range of the zones. But in essence, zero is pure black, ten is pure white. If you go from one through nine, these are the different zones that represent ranges of data. Or ranges of information that should be represented in your photo, and will actually show some detail.

If you look at zone one, this represents something that is just ever so slightly lighter than pure black. It doesn't generally contain texture or details, but it will be slightly lighter than pure black. Similarly, zone nine is ever so slightly darker than zone ten, which is pure white. Zone nine also, like zone one, is generally considered to not contain detail. But will be for the brightest whitest parts of your scene, for example, glaring white snow. This leaves zones two through eight, which should contain the majority of the detail in your scene.

You'll notice as I run my mouse over these individual numbers, that we are seeing lines showing up on the photograph showing what areas of the scenes are represented by these zones. If you want to insure that every zone is represented, simply roll your mouse slowly over these numbers and watch for the lines showing up on the image, to insure that every single zone is represented within your photograph. Silver Efex Pro 2 does a pretty good job just at a default neutral setting. Which as you can see I'm at here, meaning that none of the adjustments have yet been applied. I've represented the image with full toner range, from zones zero through ten.

However, the image overall does tend to look a little flat at this point. So even though it may technically be accurate, it's probably not visually the most appealing image that I could get. So this is where we start to play with all the different presets, and of course, the sliders and adjustments in here. Let's just take a look at a couple of quick presets and see what happens to the zone range of our image. For example, if I take this first preset, Under-exposed, and again I scan through the zones. You'll see here that right away we have a lot of data showing up in zone zero. That again is pure black and has absolutely zero texture, represented in the final file. Zone one is ever so slightly lighter and will also contain almost no texture. This is probably too much, and if I want to look at both of these simultaneously all I have to do is click on the number and click on it again to hold on to that number and lock it into place.

And now I can see what part of the image is holding on to both zones zero and zone one. And as we can see in here, this is overall quite a lot of information within the photograph that's showing up in those extremely dark zones. Probably a little bit too much. So, I may want to lighten the overall image. Of course, there's lots of different ways we can do that. For example, I can take my shadow detail and brighten that up a little bit, and bring some of the details back into those zones. If I want to hide the lines, simply tap on the numbers again and those will go away. Keeping an eye on the Zone System as you adjust your image is a really good idea.

For example, now that I've adjusted that, let's take zones ten and nine and we can see that there's absolutely no detail in the ovferall scene. And ever so slightly a little bit of detail showing up here on the side of the barn. We may actually want a little bit more than that. But for this particular image that might be okay. It just depends on your photograph. Let's take a look at a couple more examples. This preset is called high structure. And as you can see, we're seeing a lot of fantastic detail coming out in the image. Overall its gotten quite bright, and perhaps a little too bright for my taste down at the bottom. Let's go ahead and go through the zones and see what's represented.

So again, zone zero, pure black, does have a little bit of representation and that's good. Zone one has a bit more, and that's pretty good as well. Then as we scroll through two,three, four, five, six, seven, eight. So we're getting a little bit of detail in the clouds up there, and that's good. And then nine we see on the side of the barn, so again that's going to be almost no detail there. And ten, the specular highlights. Zone nine may actually be a little too over represented here. Cuz there's going to be very, very little detail, if any at all showing up in here. So what I may want to do is select that zone nine, and let's grab zone ten while we're at it.

And have those shown up here permanentely, so we see the lines as we adjust. And now I can make the adjustments to my image while keeping an eye on this part of the scene. In fact, let's Zoom into that, click onto the Zoom button and just pan over to the side of the barn here. I want to darken the side of the barn. But I don't want to darken the whole image. So the way that we'll do that, is using of course, our control points. By adding a selective adjustment onto the image here, we'll make that zone a little bit smaller. I can take the overall brightness of this part of the scene down a little bit. Now, not only can I see more detail, but because all the hash marks have gone away, we know that we are within range.

We are somewhere below zones nine and ten. Let's go in and turn those off, and see what zone we are in. There we can see we're in zone eight. Zone eight is a great area for this particular part of the image to be in, because it is bright. Of course, it's a white barn with the sunshine on it, but we don't want to lose the detail on the texture in there. So, zone eight is probably as bright as you'll want that to be. If you're not looking at the zones, you may not realize when an image gets too bright or too dark. Let's take a look at the foreground here. I'd like this foreground to be a little but darker, but once again I don't want to make it so dark that I lose all the detail.

There's lots of different ways we can go about doing that. I could add another control point. But in this case, I think I'll go down to finishing touches in here. And I'll put on the Burn Edges, and let's Burn the bottom of the scene. What I want to do with this, is take the strength of this up and the size up a little bit to put a gradation in here. Now obviously this is too much, so I'm going to need to back this off a little bit. But I'll go ahead and turn on my zone monitors so I that can see exactly what's happening while I make the adjustments. So here again I've enabled zones zero and one, and now I'll make my adjustments here.

Let's take the strength of this down a little bit. We'll take it down until all of these lines are almost completely gone in there, turn this back off, and it's definitely a bit darker. Let's make that a little big bigger in there, make that burn a little larger. Maybe gradate the transition out a little bit more, and let's take a look again. This is looking a lot better to me. I don't mind having a little bit of pure black showing up in the bottom of the image here. After all these are shadows under blades of grass under full sun. So it's probably okay to lose a little bit of detail in there, that really might not have even been there in the first place.

However, over here, to the left of the barn, we'll see there's a large area that's still a little bit too dark. So, once again, I'm going to go ahead and grab a control point, add that to the scene, and see if I can brighten that up a little bit. This point needs to be quite small just to affect that area. I'll take the brightness up of that just a little bit. Maybe a little bit more. Make that just a little bit smaller there. And then Zoom into it to get a closer look. It's all about adjusting the fine details, and making a balance between what's a perfect range image and what looks good to you.

Once you've come up with an adjustment that you like, you should once again go through the zones and ensure that all zones are fairly represented. You may also find in some images that there's a range somewhere in the middle. For example, let's say six and seven, they're not being fairly represented in the image. And you'll probably want to go in and adjust your midtone ranges, to compensate for that. You probably don't want to have a big gap of range inside your image. So this is looking pretty good. Zones nine and ten appear to not be represented at all here at this point. You may have darkened the image too much. So of course, I can go in and start adjusting that again.

Maybe I want to make the clouds a little bit brighter. So, once again we'll add another control point up here to the clouds. I've got nine and ten turned on here, so I'll see those lines come in as I start to brighten up into that range. And let's brighten these clouds up a little bit. Maybe add a little bit of contrast as well. In this case I think I'll add a little bit of structure. The structure will bring out some extra detail on the clouds, which may really make them stand out from the sky. Blowing out the clouds just a tiny bit up here might be okay. Maybe I'll bring that down just a little bit, and I'll leave it about so. So here, as you can see, we now have an image that is a beautiful black-and-white rendition.

We have everything from pure white to pure black and everything in between. So once again, when you're making your black and whites be sure to follow the Zone System here. Take a look at every different range ,and continue to look at it throughout the processing of your image. And be sure that before you finally click on Save, you have taken a final look at your image, and make sure that every zone is fairly represented.

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Nik Creative Effects Workshop

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