OneZone – A New & Better Exposure System for the Digital Era?

by Karin GottschalkLeave a Comment

Photography industry veteran Bob diNatale has released The Optimum Digital Exposure, his ebook on the OneZone Digital Exposure Method, to bring ETTR know-how to us all. I have just bought a copy. My verdict? Mr diNatale’s book is a must-have.

ETTR is the acronym for Expose To The Right, the practice that, according to photo industry luminary Michael Reichmann of website The Luminous Landscape, should be adopted when needing the maximum dynamic range in our images but without demanding technical tricks like layering multiple exposures or using High Dynamic Range Imaging — aka HRD or HDRI.

Reichmann first wrote about ETTR in Expose (to the) Right in 2003 then again in Optimizing Exposure in 2011. George Jardine followed in 2012 with Revisiting the Zone System… or, How I Learned To Love My Light Meter Again.

A number of authors have published books on how to wrangle digital photography into the Zone System or a form of it, including Chris Johnson, Lee Varis, Robert Fisher, Jeff Schewe and more. But are the time-technical demands of Ansel AdamsZone System appropriate to the world of digital imaging or is there another less demanding way of obtaining the optimum exposure for our raw images?

After all, digital is not the same as film. The Zone System for film is about exposing to the left (ETTL) – to get enough separation in the low values – then developing to the right (DTTR) – to avoid burnt-out whites. It was about making a negative through which you could read a newspaper. It was also about minimizing grain via the lowest useful exposure.

Exposing digital is different. More exposure results in smaller grain-like noise. More exposure gets you better tonal separation. Developing digital negatives in raw processing software is very different to massaging film by hand in the darkroom.


Time to press my venerable old Zone VI Studios Pentax Digital Spotmeter back into active daily service? Or shall I do it all with my GH4's built-in exposure meter? Bob diNatale shows us both ways in his new book.


As Bob diNatale writes:

For too long we have been accepting the “digital look” of our photographs. The compression of tones, especially in the dark areas, seems intrinsic to digital photography, but in reality it is the result of “non-optimum” exposure. With optimum exposure, you don’t have to compromise the film-like appearance with digital photography.

…initially the advantage of Exposure To The Right (ETTR), to separate the signal from the noise, is still true. However, as technology has advanced in both camera and especially software, there are more benefits to optimum digital exposure than less noise. More captured data means the images have more sharpness, more tonal data and less digital processing artifacts. The results of these benefits produce a more film-like quality to our images.

More sharpness, more tonal data, fewer digital artefacts and a more filmic quality – I know that is what I want out of my digital moviemaking and stills photography. And the way to achieve that is, according to Bob diNatale, by creating an optimum digital negative that “looks as if it has been dipped in skim milk”.

To achieve this diNatale demonstrates two different methods, one relying on a spotmeter and the other using your camera’s own exposure and image display system. Both of them work in combination with your raw processing software in emulation of the way the analog Zone System relies on the intimate relationship of exposure with processing.

At present The Optimum Digital Exposure is available as a PDF and soon it will be sold as a Kindle ebook and then a paperback as well. Mr diNatale is promising that videos of his workflow will be on their way after that. US$9.99 for the PDF and US$0.99 for the Kindle ebook are a bargain for the sort of knowledge that he is offering. I am looking forward to the videos – I always learn better by seeing then doing.

For an excellent introduction to what Bob diNatale is on about, head over to The Luminous Landscape for his article of the same name as his book – The Optimum Digital Exposure.

(cover photo credit: snap from Karin Gottschalk)

Karin Gottschalk

Karin Gottschalk

Karin is a documentary moviemaker, journalist, photographer and teacher who conceived and cofounded an influential, globally-read, Australian magazine of contemporary art, culture and photography. While based in Europe, contributing to the magazine and working in advertising, she visualised a future telling the same sorts of stories with a movie camera and audio recorder. Now back in her home base in Sydney, Karin is pursuing her goal of becoming an independent, one-person, backpack multimedia journalist and documentary moviemaker. Mentorless and un-filmschooled, she is constantly learning and sharpening up her skill set.
Karin Gottschalk

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