What are zebra patterns?

Written By: John
Updated:

Zebra patterns in photography are a tool used to help photographers and videographers ensure proper exposure in their images. They are not actual patterns on the subjects being photographed, but an overlay feature found in many digital cameras and external monitors.

Zebra patterns visually show areas of the image that are approaching or exceeding the brightness level that the camera sensor or film can accurately capture. They do this by displaying alternating black and white stripes over those areas, resembling the pattern of a zebra’s coat. This feature is useful in high-contrast situations where getting the exposure right is crucial for avoiding blown-out highlights or overly dark shadows.

The way zebra patterns work is by setting a threshold level, typically represented as a percentage. For instance, a common setting is 70% for skin tones in a portrait, showing that areas of the image reaching 70% of the maximum brightness the camera can record will show zebra stripes. This helps photographers adjust their exposure settings—like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO—to ensure that important details are preserved in both highlights and shadows.

Photographers often use zebra patterns in combination with other tools like histograms and exposure compensation to fine-tune their exposure settings. Videographers, in particular, find zebra patterns invaluable for achieving consistent exposure across different shots, ensuring that the final video looks cohesive.

Remember, while zebra patterns are a powerful tool for managing exposure, they are just one part of a broader toolkit. Effective use of zebra patterns requires understanding how they fit into the overall process of exposure management and how they interact with the camera’s exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO).

The Creativv
American digital marketer and founder of TheCreativv.com with over a decade of experience in event, travel, portrait, product, and cityscape photography.