Understanding Tonal Range in Photography & Why It’s Essential For Creating Exceptional Photos

tonal range

Tonal range is one of those fundamental basics of digital photography that is often overlooked or misunderstood… let’s face it… it’s not a sexy topic!

Whether you’re a hobbyist or pro, we are all guilty of skipping the basic building blocks of photography at some point. Light and it’s luminance values in particular.

Light is the most essential element for any image. Without it, it’s like shooting with the lens cap on. Master light, and you’ll be able to shape your subject to tell a story, add depth, increase interest, and make your friends, family, and clients say “WOW!”

Tonal range is an ingredient of light. If you wish to create exceptional photos, then understanding the tonal range will help you master light.

Table of Contents

What Is Tonal Range In Photography?

The tonal range in photography is the range of tones between the darkest and brightest areas of an image or the luminance. 

The darkest area represents pure black, and the brightest is pure white. In-between includes the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights.

This tonal range can be visually seen with a black to white gradient. The transition from one side to the other is the tonal range. An image with a wide range of tones will have pure black and pure white elements in the image. A small or narrow range of tones will include a smaller range from shadows to highlights. In other words, no pure black or pure white.

The brightness levels within your photos also determine the extent of contrast.

If you capture an image with a small range of tones, the overall contrast will be flatter vs. a larger range. In post-processing, you can increase the range of tones to add more contrast by stretching the image to the outer edges… by adding pure black and pure white.

In photography, the tonal range is divided into 5 luminance (brightness) values; black, shadows, mid-tones, highlights, and whites. Let’s review each with a photo example.

Black Points

Pure black in an image is a result of zero luminance. It’s void of any detail. However, an area doesn’t have to be void of texture to be considered pure black. Check out the image below.

The blue overlay mask represents pure black. The areas around it also appear to be void of detail due to the luminance value. However, those areas contain small amounts of texture too.

Pro Tip: Your histogram is a good source of finding detail in areas that appear to be pure black or pure white. With this knowledge, you can edit the image accordingly to make it visible.

Shadows

Shadows consist of luminance values that are brighter than pure black. This lends these values to display the textures and details of that part of the image.

Sometimes, shadows can appear to be closer to black. But, by reading the histogram, you’ll realize there’s more detail than meets the eye! At the same time, if you over-edit your image, you can push the shadows to pure black and lose texture in the process. Use those clipping masks in Adobe Camera Raw and or Lightroom to avoid over-editing!

The initial edit resulted in the shadows blending in with the black points. This created no separation between the couples’ pants and the structure in the back. By boosting the shadows in Lightroom, I was able to add separation. This didn’t affect the full tonal range of the image since only the shadows were adjusted.

Midtones

Not too bright and not too dark. That, in a nutshell, is the mid-tones of your image. Midtones are an essential part of any image. However, if only the mid-tones are captured, it results in flat contrast.

The histogram shows that the mid-tones dominate this image. White and black points don’t even register! If it wasn’t for the shallow depth of field, the foreground foliage would blend in with the background.

Click image to left to see histogram.

Highlights

Highlights, the opposite of shadows… much brighter. Like with Shadows, your histogram can tell you if there’s more detail in this range.

For this engagement image, I captured a lot of highlights: clouds, face, and shoulders of both the statue + couple and the dude’s shirt. The black point is in the mouth of the tiger, where information is not needed. This created the full tonal range I wanted to capture.

Whites

Whites, the opposite of blacks… pure white or 100% luminance. If your highlights are “blown out,” then you’ll have complete, pure white. Over editing can cause details to be lost due to shifting the highlights too far.

Like with the black points, white points can also appear to be pure white with no detail. For example, the sky in this image appears to be pure white in some places. However, there’s a small amount of texture throughout the sky. Pure white is actually located on the bride’s dress. The range of tones from whites to blacks is part of the full tonal range of the light at the time of capture.

Luminance Values?

To have or not to have pure black and pure white in your image? That is the question!

The answer depends on who you ask. Some photographers insist that photos should always have a pure black and white point. This way, the image will have the full tonal range of light captured. Others will disagree.

Who is right? Both! Actually neither! So, which is it?

It doesn’t matter what other people think. 

What do you think? What do you like? What story are you trying to tell? 

All that matters is your personal preference and the creative vision you have for that particular image.

This image contains a full tonal range from pure black to pure white. Inside the firehouse is the location of both! There’s a teeny, tiny light bulb at the top that contains the white point, and it’s surrounded by black points.

Limitations In Our Digital World

All digital cameras have a similar flaw in the inability to capture the full tonal range of a scene. The darkest point to the brightest point might be too significant for the sensor to capture all the details.

Even if you’re able to capture the full tonal range, you could end up with disastrous results from editing. Let’s explore both to learn how to avoid these limitations.

Dynamic Range?

Dynamic range is another digital phrase you need to know. It’s often confused with tonal range. But they are entirely different! Dynamic range refers to the ability or limitations of your camera to capture the full range from the brightest to the darkest areas of a scene.

If it’s too bright and your camera’s dynamic range is hindered by technology, your image might end up over or underexposed.

Dynamic Range Solution

Understanding the dynamic range is beyond the scope of this article. Which is why I recommend studying what dynamic range is next.

Banding?

Ever have “banding” in your image? The most common occurrences of banding are seen in skies and backgrounds of a solid color.

Banding occurs when there aren’t enough tones to create a seamless transition from one color to another. You can visibly see this since the shade of one color ends abruptly and is followed by a new color… creating a stair-step effect. This is often caused because your digital file doesn’t contain enough colors (tonal range) to smooth the transition.

For example, an 8-bit file consists of 16.8 million possible colors. A 16-bit file, on the other hand, has up to 281 trillion colors! More colors equal a smoother transition from one color range to another. Trillions of colors will also reduce the chance of banding during editing.

Banding Solution

The solution is to use a higher bit depth. If you shoot in JPEG, then you’re limited to 8 bits since nothing higher is supported. On the other hand, Raw shooters can record anywhere from 8 – 16 bits, depending on your camera, of course.

My Nikon Z6 offers two-bit depths for Raw recording, 12, and 14 bit. For my photos, I’ve chosen a higher bit depth. 

The downside is the file is about 30% larger vs. 12 bit. It’s a trade-off I believe is worth it since I’m able to capture trillions more colors and banding is practically non-existent.

You’ll also notice that if you shoot in 12 or 14 bit, for example, and open the raw file in Adobe Camera Raw, it will be converted to 16 bit! That is if you set up preferences to switch to 16 bit.

What Now?

Now that you know what the tonal range in photography is and it’s limitations, you’ll be able to create exceptional photos. This can be achieved by capturing the full range of tones at the time of capture. Or if need be, by fixing it in post-production.

Like this article? If so, please share!

Photography Challenge + Contest

Knowledge is not power. Action is! 

There is no better way to learn your craft than by doing. Participate in our photography challenge to earn rewards, and/or prize (s) and get feedback on your photos.

$10 Amazon gift card for the photo with the most likes…

Be sure to read the rules below to participate.

RULES

  1. The following hashtag must accompany your photo: #tonalrange
  2. Up to 2 images per day can be submitted for this challenge.
  3. Follow the instructions below to submit your photos.
  4. This promotion is in no way sponsored, endorsed, administered by, or associated with Amazon or Facebook!

 

How to submit your photos…

  1. Read the above article.  Spending time on this page and reading it is a great way to support our blog!
  2. Share the article to grow the prize amount (doubles after 100 shares)… please, and thank you!
  3. Please submit your photo to our photography group. It’s free to join and participate.  If you want constructive feedback, include #CC.

 

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Parker
Parker
A 30-year photography pro with a desire to help you achieve your creative vision! Facebook | Youtube
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Hello! My name is Chris Parker and I run this place. But, more importantly, what’s in it for you? Well, my passion is to help you achieve your creative vision.

With 30 years experience I believe I can help you do just that. So, if you’re ready… let’s do it!

 

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