A full range of tones

I have on my white board of weekly exercises a sub heading, called “Breaking the Rules”. Under it are so many classic rules of photography that are just begging to be broken. We will work through many of them methodically.

Now before we can break them, we do need to understand them. So each time I give you a rule to break, we will simultaneously work with it. Trying to understand it. Figuring out how it works, and finally when to break it and how.

So this week we are going to experiment with setting black and white points. Creating photographs with a full range of tones, and then creating ones with a very limited range of tones.

I know I nearly always post examples in monochrome. But please remember colour may be your preference, and these exercises are definitely not biased towards one or the other. Some of my exercises are clearly biased towards colour.

When we capture a photograph we are often left with a scene that has a shorter latitude than your camera. This is a great thing, and something we often strive for. When we process one of these photographs, we are told to take the time to set the black and white points. This gives your photograph more punch. See the examples bellow, open them on your computer at full size by clicking on them. You can see the two different ways I have set the black and white points. One is via the Black and White sliders, the other is with the curves (this is my personal favorite way of playing with this).

To help me see the black and white points, I click on the small triangles in the histogram. They are turned on when they have a white line around the box and off when it is gone. When on, they show the pure white areas as red, and the black areas as blue. In the example bellow I may have gone a bit too far. This photograph will print with a clear white sky. This is a creative decision.

A white sky… I pushed the white sky a bit further than the one above, to show the point clearly.

In this photograph, my original starting photograph, the histogram is short at both ends. It doesn’t have any whites nor does it have any blacks.

In this version of my photograph, I have set the black and white points by moving the blacks and whites sliders. The warning is on, and you can see the dancing ants of white, and the dancing ants of black. Officially, in this version of the photograph the black and white point is said to be set correctly.

In this version, I have set the black and white points by moving the ends of my tone curve. This is my preferred way of playing with my photograph. If you haven’t done it this way yet, now is perhaps not the right moment unless you have a fair bit of time to work on understanding how this works. I would say this is for advanced lightroom or photoshop users. I will make the tone curve a full tutorial at another time, so we will come back to this.

Notice how setting the black and white points, or stretching out the histogram so it hits the black and white ends changes the feel and mood of the image.

Have a really good look at the histograms of each of the photographs on this page. Look to see how it hits the end, or not, at both ends, one end or none.

You don’t need to set the black and white points. It is just another general rule. But, many photographs are improved once you do.

Some are great without setting one, the other, or even both. See the example bellow.

In this image I have actively reduced the size of the histogram, so it is well short of black and white. This gives the photograph a much more realistic feel that is congruent with my feelings when taking the photograph. I have done this by manipulating the tone curve.

This photograph shows my usual way of setting the white point. The black point in the photograph was spot on and did not need changing. Here I have lifted the whites and made the mid-tones darker by dragging the curve downwards in the middle.

This photograph shows an example where I haven’t touched the black and white points. This is because I wanted to keep the flat lighting that I was in, when I took it in the mist.

In this photograph I have opted to not set the black or the white point. So as to retain the misty feel.

A photograph of my ceiling, white plaster with only the shadows, from natural subdued lighting. Ready to play with. Showing how to create an image with a short histogram.

So, this weeks exercise is to work with photographs that have a full range of tones and ones that don’t.

Initially select one of your photographs, or go and create ones that have a short (squashed) histogram. If it is misty out this is easy. Another place to do this is indoors away from direct light. A white egg on a cream table cloth will work, as an example.

You can try with the one photograph, making two versions. One with a full range of tones, where the histogram touches both ends, and then another version where it doesn’t.

Remember ‘To season to taste’ as Micheal Richeman used to say. Meaning, it is up to you to decide how you want your work to look. There are no right answers.

You either have set your black and white point or you haven’t. Which you prefer is totally up to you.

You do need to know how to do this consistently.

I think three different photographs, and an example of each one, full and not full to be posted.

That means you should post six photographs. Three could be described as flat and the other three will be described as rich tonal range.

The final third image, start with a photograph that already hits both ends, and see if you can reduce the contrast, and the black and white points to intentionally make it look flat.

One of my assistants used to always set her black and white points as a light grey and a medium black. She did this on purpose to make her work look old and faded like film. The first time I saw one, I pointed it out. After a few of them, and her pointing it out, she was working on a definitive look with her work.