David Osborn Photography, London, England

Black & White Photography: How To Think About Tone

Improving Your Landscape Photography At The Fundamental Level.

David Osborn Photography, London, England

Black & White Photography: How To Think About Tone

The Art Of Black And White Photography

The Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

The Art Of Black & White Photography

The black and white photograph is the ‘engine’ of all photographs. The tonal values create the foundation design and structure of all photographs along with creating the core components; creating the three-dimensional illusion, conveying the light, form, texture, and spatial distance. The color component is more of an artistic overlay responsible for emotional, not structural qualities. When making a color photograph, the color information can often confuse your judgment and hide basic structural flaws. The ability to turn off the color information and view the image only as tonal values will magnify any structural flaws; making those problems easier to recognize and therefore correct. All good color photographs will convert to being a good black and white photograph because their underlying structural components are correct. You will never create any great color photography if you don’t know how to create good black and white photography first. Learning how to create good black and white photography must be your first priority to learn because there is nowhere to ‘hide’ with the black and white photograph. Learning how to create good black and white photography means learning how to create a rich palette of gray tones and understanding how to control tonal relationships. This job is made much easier if you understand the function of the three major tonal zones first.

The Darkest Range Of Tones

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The darkest range of tones forms the foundation and structure of the image. The darkest tones give the picture strength and design. Using a building analogy, they are the building’s internal steel structure, the very core of what gives the building its strength. Of the three major tonal zones, shadows are the most important but hardest to get correct. Unless intended for stylistic reasons, if the shadows fill in and block up, they lose separation, detail, life, and substance, and all realism; being perceived as lifeless dead areas. If too light, they are too easily readable, they lose strength and any feeling of mystery. The good black and white photograph will only contain a couple of pure black pixels, the shadows are in fact dark grays, not black. An additional problem we must overcome is that when taking the photograph, the camera response curve will convert all the dark tones of the subject into compressed, muddy, and dead shadows without separation and detail while containing a high percentage of noise. We must overcome this technical defect of digital cameras first, before going on to create the rich shadow tones and detail we desire.

The Middle Range Of Tones

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The middle range of tones forms the three-dimensional quality of objects. The middle-gray tones create all of the object form, shape, roundness, volume, spatial distance, and the general emotional ‘tone’ of the photograph. Using the building analogy, they create the concrete walls built around the internal steel structure that make the building functional and set the general ‘look’ of the building. The middle-grays set the emotional atmosphere; the bright and happy photograph has a higher percentage of brighter middle-grays, the dark and moody atmosphere, more mysterious and secretive in feel, has a higher percentage of darker middle-grays. Backgrounds comprised of generally darker middle-grays are ideal background canvas’s to paint on the very brightest tones to create a more dramatic effect. The middle-grays probably make up the highest volume of tones in the average photograph. The camera has recorded this important tonal range pretty realistically in terms of contrast and separation, just darker. Middle-grays can easily look flat and lifeless; this zone needs the most control of local contrast to keep them alive.

The Lightest Range Of Tones

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The lightest range of tones gives light and life to the picture. The lightest tones breathe life into the photograph. Using a building analogy, they are the glitz and sparkle, the neon lights that make the building vibrant and alive. The electricity that brought Frankenstein’s monster to life, the dazzling highlights of jewels in a crown. Like shadows, if you let the highlights blow out, they lose all detail, substance, and life; any realism, being perceived as lifeless dead white blocks. If too dark, they become psychologically heavy; they must be pushed right to the very edge; delicate, light, and airy like stretching an elastic band, stopping just before it breaks. Good black and white photographs also contain only a couple of pure white pixels, the highlights are in fact very subtle light grays, not whites. The camera has added about fifty percent more contrast to the lightest range of tones. This means you get increased highlight separation and detail compared with the subject. The more sparingly the very brightest tones are used, their effect is made more dramatic, they give the picture life and richness by conveying a momentary event caught in time.

The Actionable Takeaway

Photography is being able to manage a conflict between global and local contrast. The conflict photographers have is fitting the dynamic range of the subject we see, into the narrow dynamic range the camera can record. As the camera compresses the global contrast of the subject, it also compresses all the local contrast in the photograph, making the subject tonally flat which sucks the life and readability out of the photograph. To put back the life and readability in the photograph, we must selectively increase the local contrast in different areas of the photograph with precision, while being constrained by the narrow dynamic range of the photograph – hence, the need for good retouching skills. Photoshop allows the greatest control to limit those local contrast changes very accurately to small specific areas and objects, without creating any retouching artifacts. There are also Photoshop techniques I teach in the workshops, which greatly increase the pallette of subtle gray tones available. The essential skill for creating a beautiful black and white photograph is a beautifully rich palette of tones combined with high local contrast. Photographs that show rich shadows within the shadows that combine together to communicate the mood, atmosphere, and emotion you want to convey. The ability to turn on and off the color information when making a color photograph allows you to concentrate on the critical underlying structure and form of the image with clarity. Get the underlying structure and form correct and the color photograph also looks beautiful.

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