What is Value in Photography - B&C Camera

Amateur photographers might not completely understand what value is in photography and why it's essential. However, value is crucial because it creates emphasis and the illusion of more light in your photographs. 


We need to fully digest the meaning of value in photography - and as always, I am here to help break it all down.



What is value in photography?

Value in photography represents how dark or light color and its hue can be. Values are comprehended with a visual like a gradient or scale. When your photograph has a lot of tonal variants, you will end up with low contrast. When you use shades within the same value, they create low contrast images. 


What are tones in photography?

Before we go any further, I want to make sure you understand what tones are in photography. Tones are typically grouped into whites, blacks highlights, mid-tones, and shadows.

• Whites - Pure white is the lightest portion of your photo with zero detail and texture.

• Blacks - The darkest portion of your photo with zero detail and texture.

• Highlights - These are the brightest areas of your photograph with detail and texture.

• Mid-Tones - As the name says, these are the tones in the middle.

• Shadows - This is the darkest portion of your photo but still has detail and texture.


A camera's histogram map shows you these tonal values in each pixel. This chart will go from black (0%) to pure white (100%). 


How does value give off the illusion of light?

Photographers can form a delusion of light by using different colors and tonal values, and it can also be responsible for giving off the appearance of texture. When you manipulate the value, you can help give the photograph illumination you crave.


How is the value measured?

Value in photography is measured by something called the Zone System. The Zone System was created by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer to assist fellow photographers. This photography technique is essential to calculate the exposure and development you need. Use the Zone System to anticipate the tonal value your photographs will have.


Ultimately, the Zone System splits the tones into eleven different zones. Each of these zones is defined by a Roman numeral. The zones start at 0 and represent true black, and the zones stop at pure white and are characterized by X. These zones equal one exposure stop. 

Zone System Metering Chart

Zone System Metering by Adams and Archer:

  • Zone 0 – The pure black region with no detail. Total black in print
  • Zone I – The near-black area, with slight tonality and no texture
  • Zone II – Textured black part. Represents the darkest section of an image with a small detail
  • Zone III – Average low materials and low values. Shows fine texture.
  • Zone IV – A mid-value. Dark skin or landscape shadows
  • Zone V – Middle gray: Average weathered wood.
  • Zone VI – Light stone: shadows on the snow in sunlit landscapes
  • Zone VII – A high-value tone: shadows in the snow with acute side lighting
  • Zone VIII – Lightest tone with texture and delicate values: textured snow
  • Zone IX – Slight tone without texture, approaching pure white: glaring snow
  • Zone X – The pristine white region: paperwhite with no detail


How should you properly use the Zone System?

The Zone System works excellent with the camera light system when you don't have an external light meter near you. 


Check out your scene to calculate how you want the end product to look. Scope out the darkest parts of your scene because you will need to maintain shadow. Take a camera meter reading and then place it in zone III. Your camera's meter will automatically go to zone V. Since these zones are each one exposure stop, increase the exposure to two stops darker. Next, take a meter reading on the brightest spot of your scene. This will need to be three stops over the exposure.


Accentuating Portrait Subjects With Value and Contrast

Photographers will frequently use high-contrast colors when they want to emphasize and put emphasis on specific areas of their photos. They will use low contrast to add texture and dimension.


Example: Your model or subject will pop in a photo when they are against a contrasting background, and doing this creates emphasis.


Thinking about the emphasis and value in your photographs will help you bring attention to your focal points. You will also be able to add beautiful depth and texture. Harness your creativity and let your pictures illuminate!


Related article: What is Emphasis in Photography

Related article: What is Bracketing in Photography

Related article: White Balance Photography: What is White Balance

Related article: What is ISO in Photography - When do I Use it?


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