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Updated: 1 hour 56 min ago

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography

Thu, 11/01/2018 - 14:00

Understanding tonal range in photography can be the last thing on a photographers mind.

As we progress on our particular paths, there can be times when even the most mindful of us take some things for granted. The simple elements are sometimes overlooked first – such as a sloppy tripod setup or assuming our cameras settings are where we last left them.

In the same vein, the steadfast technical concepts of our photo work are misunderstood, misinterpreted or worse – completely forgotten. This malady spans every level of skill and afflicts both pros and hobbyists alike.

Take as an example the most basic building block of any photograph; light. In our weirdly flexible digital age of post-processing, we can sometimes forget what is happening with the luminance values of our images.

Our photographs are displays of contrast between light and dark, but the distance between the two are virtually limitless.

A Brief Word on Tonal Range

All that we’re talking about here today is the measure of brightness from complete dark to complete light. The range between the different brightness levels within our photos determines its degree of contrast. Take a look at this tonal scale:

We move from complete darkness on the left (black) to complete light (whites) on the right. This scale applies for both color and black and white photographs. Now, let’s talk about each of these values and how they relate to your photography.


Traditionally, I’ve always thought of highlights as the brightest portions of an image, which is not the case. At least not the case to the utmost extent. In truth, highlights can be considered the areas of a photograph which consist of high luminance values yet still contain discernible detail. Here’s an example of highlight luminance values:

Notice that even though these areas are bright, there is still some discernible texture and detail to be made out within the bright spots. If we were to increase the exposure, in camera or with post-processing, it would become so bright that it would lose detail entirely, which brings us to our next point.


If we increase the brightness to the extent that our highlights become ‘blown out’ (where details are invisible), we have complete white.

Even if the white area doesn’t appear white, it may be considered a total ‘white area’ due to the lack of detail. The following is an example of luminance considered total white:

Depending on your photograph, it may or may not be desirable to push the exposure to the point of white-out. We’ll talk more about this as we discuss the relevance of tonal range in regards to constructing your images.


A mid-tone is precisely that – all luminance values that are not dark or light are considered to be mid-tones. Most of the time our camera meter will attempt to expose for this average brightness when in ‘Automatic Mode.’

While mid-tones help to ensure much information is contained in an image, a photograph consisting of only mid-tones lacks dynamics.


Areas that appear as shadows are closely related to highlights albeit in the opposite direction. Shadows are the areas of a photo that are dark but still retain a level of detail.

The above photo is a perfect example of more information in the shadow areas, so let’s use it one more time:

These darker areas still possess information seen by the viewer. However, if we darken them to the point where that detail gets lost or ‘burnt out,’ then…you guessed it, they become a completely black luminance value.


Any portion a photograph that has zero luminance is considered to be black. Much like the complete white areas earlier, these points within our images don’t have to be utterly devoid of color to be regarded as pure black.

Let’s look at some shadows that are completely burnt out and retain no detail whatsoever:

Completely black areas are so dark that you can see nothing. Consider them the ‘dark abyss’ within a photograph. Having these areas within your image isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so let’s talk about that now.

Luminance Values and You

If you ever open a conversation among a group of photographers about the suitability of brightness levels within a photograph, you’d see that the schism is split. Some photographers feel that images should contain no areas of complete black or complete white – that all portions of the photograph should present some level of detail for the viewer.

Still, others contend that it’s perfectly fine to either burn or blow out some luminance values for the sake of contrast. Doing this means that there is an area of complete black and complete white so that all the other luminance values fall somewhere between those two absolutes.

While it’s true that it is often desirable to deliver the maximum amount of visual information to your audience, this is not always the case. There are times when a crushed and burnt out shadow or a super-bright highlight are just what you need to bring a photograph home.

Final Thoughts

I’m happy to profess my opinion that there is no such thing as a set technique for each photograph you make. It might seem like a simple thing to remember, but it’s easy to overlook the importance of how different levels of brightness affect an image. Let’s take a quick run back through what we’ve learned about luminance values:

  • Highlights – Bright areas within a photo that still maintain detail
  • Whites – Areas of extreme brightness where there is absolutely no information(detail) remaining
  • Midtones – These are neither shadows or highlights but rather a middle value of luminance
  • Shadows – Darker areas of the image that still maintain detail
  • Blacks – Completely ‘burnt out’ portions of a photo that contains absolutely no detail

Like most concepts in photography, it’s essential to have a full understanding of the tonal range falling within your photos. You should use this knowledge to strive for technical excellence and also so you know when to break the rules in favor of fulfilling your creative vision.

How do you make use of tonal range in your images? Share with us your thoughts and images in the comments below.

The post Understanding Tonal Range in Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School.

6 Tips For Photographing Better City Scenes

Thu, 11/01/2018 - 09:00

Towns and cities can be noisy, busy, stressful and congested but provide excellent subjects for photography. Taking great photographs of cities is not easy so here are six ideas to help you capture city scenes:

1) City Skyscrapers

Urban photography offers a great opportunity to document a cities environment.

On a sunny day, most photographers choose to head out into nature, where the coast or a rolling landscape is usually only a short drive away.

However, if you opt for urban landscapes, there are a whole manner of worthwhile subjects where you can point your lens. Skylines, architecture, famous landmarks and bridges are all beautiful examples of city elements worth capturing.

Cities dominated by skyscrapers are visually exciting and provide a wealth of interesting buildings to view and photograph. You could find strong patterns, symmetry, dramatic lighting and different textures amongst high-rise buildings.

Look for architectural or urban features that create interest and use a wide angle of view to convey a grander sense of the scene.

Shanghai, China

2) A Nocturnal Cityscape

Cities are becoming more popular as destinations for short breaks. Overnight stays in cities provide an opportunity to photograph a nocturnal cityscape.

One key advantage of shooting a city at night is you can work in all kinds of weather such as rain, snow or light fog.

It is possible to do this because you are mainly focusing on elements that are characterized by darker tones with a few spots of color and light.

When capturing cities in the dark, you don’t need to concentrate on the usual shadows and tonal gradations that are relevant in the daytime. You work purely with light.

I suggest that you set yourself up before it gets dark so you can see what you’re doing and experiment with the changing light as it shifts from light to dark.


3) Reflected City

Many buildings and city landmarks are so photogenic that they can be too familiar a subject to photograph.

Instead of shooting the usual perspective of just buildings, concentrate on reflective surfaces that mirror back the surrounding architecture.

You can find reflections in a pool of water, a polished surface or shiny glass (reflecting abstract patterns) and the bonnet of a car parked on a rooftop.

Photographs of reflections are visually pleasing when executed correctly. To be most effective, select the maximum depth of field and aim to achieve an image that’s as sharp as possible.

4) City Scenes by Night

City centers become great light shows at night.

They give an array of color from buildings to lights of passing cars. One tip I recommend is you capture the energy and excitement of a nighttime scene by including a human element.

Doing so will make your images more dynamic and dramatic.

Radcliffe Camera

If you are shooting at night, you will need a slower shutter speed to capture the scene. Use this to your advantage by recording flowing traffic such as buses and taxis or colorful clouds.

These can add motion to your city scenes or a splash of color to supplement the buildings in the background.

Piran, Slovenia

5) An Urban Landscape – Day Shots of the City

Another way you can capture striking images of cities is to photograph the urban landscape.

Perspectives can be obtained from ground level or by capturing the city from above. Overlook a city from a tower or a rooftop. Find interesting patterns, contrasting buildings or views of street life to photograph.

University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin viewpoint

When shooting from high elevations, if you have to lean out for your shot, make sure it is safe to do so. Secure your camera strap around your hand or neck to keep it safe.

6) City Streets or Cityscapes From Afar

City streets provide intriguing and picturesque subjects such as human interest and variable light.

You may find yourself walking past a location every day and not realize its potential. Until striking shadows from the sun transform it into a great composition that brings it to life.

You don’t have to take pictures of city scenes only from close range. Take a step back and capture a wide shot of the urban landscape from afar. Seek out a viewpoint that allows you to obtain more context from an unusual angle.


Use these tips to go out and capture your best shots of city scenes and share your images in the comments below.

The post 6 Tips For Photographing Better City Scenes appeared first on Digital Photography School.