Very often, good photos are the result of a photographer being able to recognize the potential in a scene, and very often that potential is one based around manipulating tone. Learning to develop an eye for tone will not only allow you to get better shots, it will open up a realm of subject matter that you may not normally recognize. For example, consider this shot:



There’s a moment happening here but it’s lost a little bit in the busy composition – the eye is not immediately drawn to the man with the phone.

As I walked by, though, my eye was caught by the man’s red scarf thing standing out in stark contrast to the black wall. I quickly grabbed some sneaky shots and went on my way.

When I got home and reviewed the image I found that it lacked the profound contrast I had recognized at the time. It’s tempting to blame this problem on the camera’s meter and say that it didn’t render the blacks dark enough, but I don’t think that was the case. The sun was fairly low and this alley had a lot of light in it – the blacks weren’t terribly black – so I think this image is pretty close to how the scene actually looked.

My eye, though, recognized the potential of the tonal situation. It recognized that there was a nice contrast relationship in this scene, one that could be exploited to produce an image like this:



The shot is still not ideal – those posts are incredibly annoying, but the play of contrast between the scarf thing and the wall works the way that I wanted it to. I achieved this image by altering the tonality in Photoshop, but I could have done the same thing with in-camera underexposure. The point is that I was able to capture this image because I knew what the potential of the tones at the location were. The actual tones in front of me weren’t that interesting on their own, but I was intrigued by what could be done with them.

Colors have a tone – an underexposed color will be darker and more saturated than an overexposed color – which means you should keep an eye out for images that can benefit from strong plays in saturation control. Black and white shooting, though, benefits the most from an awareness of tone.

The light was not particularly great when I shot this building on Market Street in San Francisco:

grant street 1


I knew at the time that the play between the upper white part and the lower black part could be interesting. More importantly, though, I guessed that the tone of the sky and the tone of the building might share an interesting relationship of some kind. With some very simple post-production tone control, this image becomes an example of what can be done with very light tones.

grant st. building (1)

Black and white shooters don’t “see” the world in black and white – I can rarely look at a scene and visualize a perfect black and white representation in my head. Rather, good black and white shooters know how to recognize the tonal potential of a scene. Needless to say, living in a color world can make this tricky.

One thing to remember is that a particular color can be represented by any shade of gray, so when you see a scene that is dominated by a single color, remember that you can tone that color either light or dark.

For example, the only color in this image is green, and the green ground cover is broken up by rocks, which are a lighter tone:



With that in mind, I took the shot with the idea that I might be able to create a nice contrast situation between the grass and the rocks. Working with a Black and White Adjustment Layer in Photoshop, I choose to make the greens dark, setting them off from the rocks and creating a dramatic contrast.



Sometimes recognizing the tonal potential of a scene is as simple as spotting “bright thing against dark thing” as in this image. The woman was lit up and the area behind her was shadowy.



I could see a lot of details in that shadowy background but assumed that if those shadows were darkened the woman would stand out in a more dramatic way. I also knew that the white head scarf would provide a dramatic accent against the black background.



This house at sunset presented a similar situation:



The sunset-lit face was in obvious contrast to the shadowy trees in the background. While the subject matter wasn’t necessarily that interesting, I found the difference in contrast to be very striking. A simple adjustment in Photoshop exagerrated that contrast to produce a more compelling scene.



Modern digital cameras capture a tremendous range of tones and digital image editing tools give you a phenomenal level of power over those tones. To make the most of these tools, you need to train your eye to recognize when the tonality of a scene has potential. Fortunately, this is easy to practice.

First of all, make it easy on yourself and choose dusk and dawn to practice. The early and late light inherently produce more contrast than mid-day light, and so create dramatic plays of light and dark. When the light turns contrasty, take your camera for a walk and look for dramatic plays of light against dark. If you see a very dark wall or shadowy area, stop and watch it for a while. When things pass in front of it are they in shadow, or are they lit up? If they’re lit up you might have a very compelling contrat situation.

Try shooting into the light. This type of extreme backlight will produce silhouettes that can be very dramatic. As you get your confidence up start to look for plays of light and dark that aren’t as extreme. These will require more care in exposing and processing but you may find that, when viewed this way, the world presents you with more potential scenes than you normally see.

Tone is a critical tool in the photographer’s toolbox, so it’s worth learning to recognize when a scene has tone that you can do something cool with.


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