Understanding Tonal Relationships to Improve our work.

I received a comment recently about why I choose to review images in monochrome, either on the back of the camera or within Photoshop. This is a little trick I learnt a few years ago, so I thought this would make a good topic for this week's post; Understanding tonal relationships to improve our work. This article is going to explore why I choose to view captures without colour, leaving me only to see the light, shapes and gradations in subjects.

Tone has several meanings, but as you’ll see when I discuss the subject below, I’m talking about luminance values in relation to different parts of an image, how they harmonise or conflict with one another, the visual weight and perceived lightness or darkness.

In photography, colour can attract your eye so readily that it can often distract, in my view from poor composition. By contrast, black and white photography is highly dependent on strong composition and the use of tones to be effective. Now I am not a B&W photographer, colour remains my preferred choice (I have been known to go so far as saying that B&W is what you throw at an image when the colours don't work; I now have different opinions so please don't hang me out to dry!), but being able to understand tones and their relationships to one another, has helped me to compose what I believe to be stronger images. Effectively, to properly understand tone and its role in our image making, I have needed to become colour blind, either out in the field or back in the studio.

Fortunately, these days most digital cameras have a monochrome setting, and I use this mode to review the image on the camera’s LCD. Although the image will appear in black and white, so long as you shoot in RAW, the file will still retain all colour information when opened in your raw converting software. If you shoot in Raw + Jpeg then once imported you will also keep a B&W image alongside as a reference. Shooting this way has now forced me to pay closer attention to composition, texture and the tonal relationships within the image.

When out shooting, the camera faithfully records the colours that you can see before you, but I believe it is hard when starting out, to visualize tones in a scene and how they are or are not working together. By reviewing in monochrome these relationships become much easier for us to see.

Tonal relationships are important for us to understand because they give us the power and choice to influence the viewer’s eye, highlighting what we as the photographer want to showcase in an image. At a basic level, a photograph is nothing more than a collection of tones and shapes. If we can look at an image and understand what the relationships between the elements are, then we can sculpt the image with more artistic intent. Understanding these relationships, I think, makes us more focused on what we are doing at the time of capture, what we may want to do later on with the image, and knowing what we want to say as artists. It's a more purposeful and complete journey from capture to the final print.

In an image, elements of similar tone can hold similar presence or visual weight and look related to one another, meaning that they are competing for the viewers attention. Our eye is forced to flick between these elements, back and forth, unable to rest on any one particular area. It’s a conflict and can become visually tiring.

Elements of different tones on the other hand can be regarded as unrelated, they can stand on there own and offer less competition for the viewer’s attention. Using this principle we can create depth to an image or highlight a particular subject just by varying the tonal differences between each element to emphasis individual areas. We are led to believe that our eyes are attracted to the brightest part of an image, but I would say that this is more so to the greatest contrast differences, or to an element that would be regarded as being the odd one out.

Reviewing in monochrome forces you to confront some of these more complex facets of image composition. It gives you the first insight into how the components are relating to each other and will create intent for that particular shot and a plan on how we may wish to process it. It is an attempt to try to move beyond the distraction of the colour “layer”, and see the underlying shapes and tonality. In monochrome, the complimentary and opposing colours that bring a colour image to life are all reduced to varying shades of grey. By looking for tonal contrast, you may find the part that stands out is not actually the subject you wish to portray, as your eye is led elsewhere. Removing the distraction of colour, concentrating on those tonal relationships, makes this all the more easier to see when capturing the image.

I mainly shoot landscapes, but I think this technique is equally applicable to architectural and abstract photography. Yes, there are some obvious times when colour may be the most important part of your images, but in general I believe this practice to be beneficial to my photography. Should you not be convinced, try it out for yourself. First, shoot your scene as you would normally with colour preview. Then shoot it again with a black and white preview. You might be surprised with the difference in your results and the immediate impact in how you perceive the scene.

My style of photography is evolving into what could be described as simplified landscapes; I am reducing my compositions down to more basic and limited elements, so in turn I am forced to look at tonal relationships in more detail than when I began, as the objective then was to simply put on my widest lens and cram as many subjects as possible into the frame. I honestly believe that black and white, to be successful, is much harder to do ‘well’ than colour photography. Maybe a lot of you will disagree? If so let me know, but what I have found with colour is that it's possible to have lots of tonal inaccuracy, and getting away with it is easier as you’re distracted by the colour elements. With black and white, you’re only dealing with one thing and although that may seem much simpler, it actually means that any errors you get in tonal relationships are blatantly obvious.

Regardless of how you preview and shoot, remember this technique is just one step in the whole image making process, and I never expect to get everything perfect in camera. I try as best I can in the moment, but I do regard Photoshop as a very close friend! Editing is an integral part of the process, and learning even a little bit more about the underlying theories of photography like tonal relationships makes editing easier, and the whole process more rewarding.