Using “Zones” in Photoshop



The method / procedure described below is inspired
by the great Ansel Adams’ Zone System – –
consider this the post-processing “digital equivalent” for Photoshop
(see more here, near the bottom) …


Also, this blogpost is material straight from my
personalized online Small Group Workshop,
“The Power of Layer Masks in Photoshop”:




By dividing your image into separate “Zones” of contrast, color, density (brightness), sharpness, etc., you’ll have superior control, performance & flexibility over how your overall image looks. 


•  These “Zones” are created by shaping your Layer Masks, and you’ll usually have multiple Adjustment Layers in each “Zone”.


 •  As an example:  the image below is divided into 2 Zonesthe sky is the 1st Zone, and everything else in the image is the 2nd Zone. Also, in this example, each Zone contains 2 Adjustment Layers.  


•  By the way, when you see the color black in a Layer Mask Thumbnail (part of an Adjustment Layer), it “hides” the effects of the Adjustment Layer – conversely, the color white “reveals” the effects of the Adjustment Layer.



Click to Enlarge …


We need to employ Zones because the foreground is way too dark, & correcting for the foreground washes out the sky – and vice-versa …




  When do you need Zones? When there are differences in contrast, color, brightness, etc. in the image – sometimes subtle, sometimes major.  The best example would be a landscape with sky, such as the image above. 


  When do you NOT need Zones? (Depending on the type of photography, this is rare) – When there’s a uniform initial exposure throughout your image, mainly – OR, if you’ve minimized and/or eliminated these differences that were apparent in the original exposure by using the 4 Goals of RAW.


If you do need to use Zones (which I believe is a vast majority of the time), then decide on which “Strategy” to use and / or start with – more here:


Some Finer Points:


  Generally, 2 Zones are all that’s necessary in most images, but you’re not limited in how many zones you can use – you can divide your image into as many Zones as you want.


  By using “Zones” properly, it’s easier to avoid working with or “adjusting” pixels more than once in multiple Adjustment Layers –  which can cause pixelization & posterization, as well as improper borders & edges between Zones.


  Start with the easiest Selection area to initiate your 1st Zone (in a landscape, it’s usually the sky), and spend the necessary time creating that initial Selection as accurately as possible.


The 2nd Zone (or Layer Mask) is easy to createsimply invert the 1st Zones’ Selection.  In other words, the 2nd Zone will be an exact reversal of the 1st Zone, resulting in less problems with the borders / edges between the Zones.


   Take your time, as it’s like painting a house – – the prep takes the most time (sanding, taping, etc.), not the painting – in fact, if you do the proper prep, the painting is easy!  It’s the same when shaping your Layer Masks / Zones – avoid problems later, and take the necessary time to get your initial Selection right! 




Don’t forget: this blogpost is material straight from my personalized online Small Group Workshop, “The Power of Layer Masks in Photoshop”:




•  Want to see Zones in action?  Check out  my “Photoshop 101” series of FREE online & live Photoshop Meetups – available nationwide:


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•  By the way, this is all based on my Photoshop book designed for photographers, “Not just another Photoshop Book”available exclusively on Amazon:


Questions? Please contact me – also, feel free to comment and tell your photography friends!


Thx again, and cheers,


John Watts 🙂



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