All About Tone

 

Colossal head of ConstantineWhen a photograph is converted to mono and the colour removed, what remains is tone. Tone is in fact one of the reasons black and white photography has continued to be popular after the advent of colour.   It was the tonal quality of Paul Strand’s work that inspired landscape legend Ansel Adams to make a career change from classical pianist/bobby photographer as a hobby to full time professional.  It was the“full, luminous shadows and strong high values, in which subtle passages of tone were preserved” in Strand’s photography that Adam’s found so compelling.

Tonal range refers to the range and distribution of tones in an image from the darkest to the lightest values.  An image with a wide tonal range will include very dark (black) and very light (white) elements, whereas as one with a narrow tonal range will be limited to a more restricted area and will have less contrast.    Lighting conditions have a great impact on tonal range.  On a misty day in Oxford, UK the difference in brightness between the lightest part and the darkest parts of the scene will be relatively insignificant, but under the harsh light of the mid day sun in Arizona the range will be much greater.  Extremes such as that aside, images with a wide tonal range tend have both greater contrast and greater appearance of drama and depth. A narrower tonal range makes the image look flatter, though this may be by design.  Tonal range is influenced by the amount of and quality of light (harsh or soft) and the reflectance of the subject.  The addition of a polarising filter, something I use extensively, improves contrast and can thus help expand the tonal range.   Tonal range is different from dynamic range which refers to the ability of the camera’s sensor to capture shadow detail from the darkest values and highlight detail from the brightest values in the same shot.   Dynamic range is maximised in RAW format which records all the image data the sensor is capable of recording, and is one of the main reasons this format is used.  Cameras.about.com describes the the tonal range of a digital image as “the number of tones it has to describe the dynamic range”, which helpfully describes the difference between the two.

Tonal contrast is created when light tones and dark tones are adjacent to one another – it has the effect of directing the viewers attention to the contrasting area and is the basis of the success of many black and white images.  It is an essential element of composition, but is not as well known as other compositional rules such as leading lines, the rule of thirds, framing, and diagonals.

A tonal curve is typically applied to the image by the camera by default as the image data from the photo sites is linear (the values are directly proportional to the light received), whereas human vision is non-linear.    The process is known as  (tone curve correction aka gamma correction) and makes the pictures look right to the human eye on a screen display. This process generally lightens the midtones.  This default tonal curve can be adjusted in the curves tool of RAW  conversion programs (such as the ageing but excellent Aperture, which I still use).  The Aperture user manual describes the use of the Curves tool quite well:

“You use the Curves adjustment controls when you want to manually set the tonal values of the shadows, midtones, and highlights in an image using a tonal curve. Unlike the Levels adjustment controls, the Curves controls do not reapportion the luminance values in the image by constraining the white and black points. Instead, you use the Curves controls to precisely remap the position of the midtones relative to the white and black points. Because the human eye’s perception of light is logarithmic rather than incremental, a curve is necessary to distribute the luminance values across all tonal ranges in an image in a way that matches how the eye perceives light in nature.”

Continue reading “All About Tone”

Photographers on Photography

These are some of the most interesting thoughts of photographers on photography, expressed as quotes.  Some of them I agree with, some I don’t – but they are all thought provoking.  I restricted myself to one quote per photographer, which in many cases, such as Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson, was difficult.   In the next post I will collect the thoughts of other creatives such as artists, film makers and writers on the same topic.

Ansel Adams –  Landscape Photographer

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

William Albert Allard – Documentary Photographer

“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer. ”

Diane Arbus – Documentary Photographer 

“I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”

Richard Avedon – Fashion & Portrait Photographer

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”

David Bailey – Fashion & Portrait Photographer

“If anyone gets in my way when I’m making a picture, I become irrational. I’m never sure what I am going to do, or sometimes even aware of what I do – only that I want that picture.”

Brassai – Photographer, Sculptor, Writer & Film Maker

“Chance is always there. We all use it. The difference is a poor photographer meets chance one out of a hundred times and a good photographer meets chance all the time.”

Andri Cauldwell – Photographer

“To see in color is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul.”

Robert Capa – War Photographer

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Continue reading “Photographers on Photography”

When Photos Looked Like Paintings – Pictorialism

Waterloo_placeIn the earliest days of photography it took a mastery of optics, chemistry, and an arcane workflow to take and process a photograph using the cumbersome cameras of the time.  To read more about this, see my post on Fox Talbot and Early Photography.   This time-consuming hybrid discipline restricted photography to a small and skilled group of people.

The introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888, an inexpensive handheld unit, changed all that, and is one of the more important milestones in the history of photography.  Like many important events, it spawned changes that its inventor could not have envisioned. The Kodak introduced a system of photography based on flexible, lightweight roll film.  In addition, it simplified camera operation by providing fixed focus, a single shutter speed and pre-loaded film.  The need to work with chemicals was dispensed with by the introduction of film processing as a service.  Together these refinements made photography far more accessible.   In 1892, the year George Eastman’s company was renamed The Eastman Kodak Company, Eastman Kodak coined the advertising slogan, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”.  What Eastman could not have foreseen was the backlash to this popularisation of photography.

The production of a vastly increased number of spontaneously shot, realistic but unremarkable ‘snapshot’ images, prompted a protracted public debate about whether photography could be considered to be art or was purely a utilitarian medium produced by a mechanical recording device.  Inspired by Peter Henry Emerson’s book Naturalistic Photography (1889) and rejecting the notion of photography as solely a documentary medium, a small group of photographers set out to show that photography was indeed fine art.   Some of the better known are Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946); Edward Steichen (1879-1973); Edward Weston (1886-1958); Paul Strand (1890-1976);  Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79); Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901); Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936); Robert Demachy (1859-1936) and my personal favourite, the Belgian Leonard Misonne (1870-1943).   These photographers formed clubs and salons such as The Linked Ring, Photo-Secession, The Royal Photographic Society and The Photo-Club of Paris and created a movement known as Pictorialism.   Pictorialism was also the product of photography and the world of art coming closer together at the end of the nineteenth century.  Artists such as Manet and Gauguin used photographs to capture images that would be rendered as paintings back in the studio, whilst some pictorialist photographers (such as Henry Peach Robinson) had been trained as painters. Continue reading “When Photos Looked Like Paintings – Pictorialism”