Thoughts on achieving natural tonality

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Riddle of the day: what do a good magic trick and a good photograph have in common – or by extension, a good prestidigitator and a good photographer?

The answer is of course both of them distort your perceived reality. The magician makes you believe you saw something that’s physically impossible, or at very least completely unexpected. The photographer presents you with either something you may not have expected, or could not previsualize. Both are technicians in a sense, but the best of both professions are more than that – they’re also psychologists. At this point, you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with tonality. Read on to find out.

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Firstly, we need to define what exactly we mean by the term ‘tonality’: I suppose it is really the relationship between input and output luminance and color, in addition to the smoothness of luminance transition between spatially adjacent areas. Note that I’m very careful not to use the word zone because it has come to mean something very different from a photographic sense – the zone system is a way to describe the tonal thresholds in an image for proper exposure and printing. Tonality is therefore also related to contrast: high contrast/low contrast may describe the overall distribution of luminance within an image across all of its areas, but says nothing about whether the transition between these areas is smooth or not.

contrast patterns

What we have above is a chart of all the possible options (from top to bottom, left to right):
– Moderate contrast and smooth tonality; high contrast and hard tonality
– low contrast and smooth tonality; no contrast and smooth tonality
– low key low contrast smooth tonality; low key high contrast
– high key low contrast smooth tonality; high key high contrast.

Note again that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to these options; every photographic scenario is different, which means that some presentations may be suitable for some subjects/images, and completely unsuitable for others. It’s also a function of the quality of light: if you’ve got an undiffused pointlike and highly directional source, you will get hard shadows and high contrast; if you have diffuse light from multiple sources, then you cannot have high contrast. But both situations can be low key or high key. In summary: contrast is a property of the light; high key or low key is a property of the exposure choice. So where does tonality come into it?

Tonality is what we need to worry about at the transition points: the spatial zone where shadows turn into highlights and light bits into dark. The gradient of luminance change over spatial distance (or angle of view) is what we think of as contrast. And it is this very important portion of the image which I believe makes or breaks the difference between a very strong and coherent looking image and an amateurish one.

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Remember that contrast is one of the things that cause us to sit up and take notice: and area with high contrast (luminance or color) is an area that’s immediately attention-grabbing to the audience because this is the way our brains are wired; it’s a holdover from when we needed to determine if an animal was brightly coloured and therefore poisonous, or where the land abruptly fell off into a possibly deadly fall. The psychology behind design, typography and advertising still relies on these principles to catch (or not) your attention. Think of camouflage: an object so covered does not contrast at all with its surroundings, and therefore does not stand out. Photographically, we want our subjects to stand out, and therefore some contrast is always desired – but not necessarily always maximum contrast. We just need the subjects to have more contrast than the surrounding area so they differentiate themselves.

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Let’s take this a step further: if we have excessive contrast in an unintended area, then we are also going to be drawing attention to something that should probably not be singled out – this in turn removes the viewer’s focus from the intended subject and weakens the overall image. However, this is also something that has to be managed behind the scenes; if your eyes go precisely to the intended primary subject first and then only the secondary contextual items and not to some unintended elements in the rest of the frame, then chances are you won’t notice the well-managed contrast and tonal transitions unless you’re consciously looking for it. Remember the magician: the reason magic tricks ‘work’ is because they direct your attention elsewhere whilst the giveaway switch is being performed right in front of you. If a naked person ran through a restaurant, chances are you won’t notice the cockroach that just ran across your table.

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This is relevant to photography because we often have to cheat a little when it comes to tonality; there is almost no situation in which the input dynamic range (i.e. real world) is less than the capture dynamic range (camera capabilities) and again less than the output dynamic range (i.e. screen or print). This means that we almost always have a situation in which there is more information than we know what to do with – i.e. tones to allocate. There are two obvious solutions to this problem: the first is to just discard any data that spills over the sides, which results invariably in clipping (abrupt transitions to black or white). The second is to use high dynamic range (HDR) techniques to map input to output dynamic range but allow for some overlap in the transition. Unfortunately, most of these tone-mapped HDR results look unnatural because it’s clear to see that you have areas or elements in the image which should be perceptually brighter than others, but aren’t. Again, in both situations, the unnatural contrast is the giveaway that something isn’t quite right – and in turn distracts from the subject.

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Things get more complicated when you throw color into the mix, because we’ve now got to think about clipping and dynamic range across three channels; what the camera makers don’t tell you is that dynamic range isn’t the same across all three channels because of the nature of the filter packs, and because of the Bayer algorithm (or layering, in the case of Foveon) – there are always more of one color of photoreceptor than the others. On top of that, the native tonal response of the sensor may have been deliberately optimized for color or contrast or transitions in a nonlinear (and not always predictable) way. It’s also possible that for some colors, one or even two clipped channels do not matter so long as you don’t do too much tonal work there to emphasise the clipping – so long as there’s still some visible change in luminance, the eye does not perceive this as clipped. You also need to remember that our eyes read color differently at different luminance values: saturation and detail both decrease as things get darker, because our vision transitions from the high density and color-sensitive central region to the sparser luminance-sensitive outer region of the retina. It is therefore also important to adjust our output images accordingly – especially since unlike real life, they are usually presented with the same reflective or transmissive luminance across the entire tonal range.

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But relax, because there is a solution for all of this. No matter how big the gulf between capture and output dynamic range, one very important thing has to be remembered: the eye notices contrast first, and everything else later. What this means in practical terms is that so long as your transition to complete black or white is smooth and gradual, chances are, it won’t be seen as clipping or a digital artefact, and neither will it draw unwanted attention to that area of the frame. A little judicious dodging and burning of the midtones is all that’s required to keep these transitions in check. By a similar token, even if you do have a smooth transition and the image has no overexposure, we must also remember that excessive luminance differences within areas that the eye can perceive at the same time might come across as clipping anyway due to the limitations of our eyes. In this case, a little bringing down (burn) of the highlights or bringing up (dodge) of the shadow areas can help immensely. HDR looks unnatural only because the adjacent zones we perceive were never mean to be adjacent or that close in luminance. Some differentiation is required – just enough to tell our brains that one area is meant to be brighter than the other. And if this differentiation matches our expectations (e.g. daytime sky lighter than area in the shade), it doesn’t even enter our consciously observing mind.

In conclusion: it’s all in the transition. The images in this post have all been chosen deliberately: they are images that have tricky tonality (very subtle) or high contrast and unavoidable over/underexposure. They of course look better at original sizes, but even at web size and with flickr’s horrible resizing algorithms, the transitions don’t stand out. Remember to take care of the areas of an image that aren’t your intended focus – in the opposite way to how the subject should stand out (light/contrast/color/texture/motion) – they should not stand out. MT

We go into significantly more detail on both capture and post processing for maximum tonal control (smoothness is up to you) in the Photoshop Workflow II and The Monochrome Masterclass workshop videos, as well as subject isolation in Making Outstanding Images Ep.1


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  1. Thanks for the post, I don’t follow many “blogs” but I do appreciate yours. To present so much of your knowledge in a non-ideological, and analytical fashion shows great confidence in your craft. I wish I could say that this make tonality easier to grasp , but I’m starting to notice some holes in my photography knowledge. I have your intro to photoshop which has been very helpful in bringing files to print for me. What would be a good next step in understanding some of these concepts such as DR, tonality ?

  2. Jorge Balarin. says:

    For me the tonality of the first photo is absolutely superb; I would be realized if once in my life I achieve something close to that. Also I like very much the nun photo that you did in Prague.

  3. John Nicholson says:

    Let me just add to the chorus of thankyous and appreciation! I really learned something by reding and looking here – also why some of my photos were better than I planned!!

  4. I think this area became more clear to me in the last workshop – adding contrast in the area where you want the eyes to be drawn and then transition out over the rest of the photo. Then work on the smoothing out in the mid tones. Hard to get right as you always overcook it first time but satisfying when you nail it!

  5. Incredible article…I think you’re one of the best photographer on this planet, you are an incredible inspiration for me. I’ve been following you for many years and I am among this silent majority that forms your followers. You completely outclass most photography web sites by the depth and honesty of your articles. Your photography of that woman in Prague is extremely engaging and one of the best I ever seen. You already mentioned that it is not possible for you to render and control things in LR compared to PS. This being said, would you anyway consider doing “LR Workshop” video series in order to help us getting the best from LR ?

    • Thanks Claude. Not sure about the ‘best photographer part’ – I’m sure plenty would disagree with you, myself included! Wouldn’t make sense to do a LR workflow since it wouldn’t be representative of anything…I don’t use it because it doesn’t give the results I want, and I think you’d just be disappointed. That said, maybe the software will mature enough that I wouldn’t rule it out in fixture.

  6. Very worthwhile post. It will influence how I shoot and especially post process. Thanks.

  7. Interesting article Ming! Count me in the 10% you say are interested in your non gear review posts! 🙂
    Need to get your Mono video soon!

  8. Wish to add my thanks to those already posted. Your style of explanation resonates particularly well with me. Don’t want you to think your efforts are unappreciated.

  9. Rich Southgate says:

    A an excellent article Ming, written and illustrated with exceptional clarity. Thanks as always.

  10. once again great article. Maybe (?) it is possible for you to explain a bit workflow methods..

    • I have tried but cannot adequately explain or demonstrate in text. And knowing the Internet, people will complain because they cannot get the same results. There are however several videos I’ve produced which demonstrate and explain my workflow in detail, available from my teaching store.

  11. Ah ha! The midtone dodge/burn has never been so succinctly explained. Thank you!

  12. Ming,

    The original tonality post plus the Monochrome video really helped me crystallize my intuitive feelings about tonality and realize how to translate my originally vague intuition into a tangible process. This really helped me process my images more inline with how I imagined them.

    The other thing that really was an “ah-ha!” moment was someone pointing out the seemingly obvious (by that I mean the sort of thing that after hearing makes one say “duh! that’s so obvious!”, even though getting to that elegant solution is not at all straightforward or easy… ): When spot metering, the camera tries to meter that region to middle gray, so to expose for the highlights (for instance), spot metering on the highest of the highlights wastes lots of dynamic range because anything above that is not needed. Thus, one way would be to meter on that highest of highlights and then dial down the exposure (among many other ways of going about the same task).

    These two lessons, one in post-processing tonality and the other in “tonality acquisition” (so to speak) really helped me improve my technical execution.

    Haven’t had the chance to get through PS Workflow II, but its on my list 🙂


  13. Thanks, Ming for this excellent and very instructive article. You wrote precisely what I needed to learn.

  14. I really enjoyed reading this post! Like others have commented, it is very much a signature of your style – one that I try to emulate. This type of instructional/informational article is just not shared elsewhere by pros, and in such a coherent style with examples. Thank you so much for not only taking your time to write such great pieces, but also for being willing to share your knowledge that makes your work distinguishable and enjoyable. I never shot RAW before I started reading your blog over a year ago which you inspired me to do. And with post processing practice my images have improved! This article shows a different way to see when shooting and to visualize the final image after processing. Thanks again, Ming!

    • Thanks. Well, it seems these articles are appreciated by barely 10% of the people who come (usually for reviews) so that’s probably why – people don’t think they’re worth writing because there’s no traffic and no ad/referral revenue attached to it. But one would think surely it’s important if you actually want to make images and have control over said images? 🙂

      • I’ve been following your blog/work long enough to see that gear reviews are the most popular and the “understanding” and “how to” are barely read. Being passionate about the art, it is disappointing. However, it’s really not surprising. I love cars. I read reviews about cars in the same way I like to read about photography gear. I have a mediocre understanding of the technical details and know enough to appreciate horsepower, braking power, suspension upgrades, max G-forces in cornering, acceleration, and how they are achieved; both new and old car technology and design is cool. But I don’t read articles on maximizing corner entrance speed, upshifting and downshifting techniques, and other similar articles in order to push the technical “envelope” of my bmw. I don’t go to the track and have rare opportunities to go open throttle. It’s the same for most who own 911 Turbo’s, Ferrari’s, and Maserati’s – really large technical envelope but most drivers barely utilize it’s real potential or really even care to. They care that they have and can boast of that potential. For us “barely 10%”, thank you sharing with us! You are building one of the best photography encyclopedia’s in the world and that is something to be proud of!

        • Thanks Bryan. I suppose I am in the 10% who does know how to fiddle with tire pressures and camber/toe angles to control the way the thing turns in or exits…but unlike photography, bad things happen if you push the limits in public 😛

      • ..ha, I did stumble onto your site while searching for a review as well, but keep coming back for various reasons.
        While it’s definately challenging (english not being my first language, plus often rather complex matter) I really enjoy your articles, and appreciate it very much that you share them on here.
        I did study art (painting), so basically a lot of what is dealt with here I already covered in another field, still it’s a whole other thing to create the image with cameras / film / sensors and post..

        Once again, thank you very much for sharing your findings!

  15. This is a fantastic article. You have explained clearly and concisely something which plagues a plethora of images, my own included.

    My income is paltry in comparison to much of your readership but I have decided that some portion of it each month will be set aside until there’s enough to buy some of your videos – they are clearly a worthwhile investment.

    Now, can anyone give me some pointers on moving from Lightroom as catalogue and raw processor to Bridge and Photoshop without losing my keywords and raw edits?

    • Thanks!

      You can actually continue to use LR as your raw catalog and raw processor – ACR operates nearly identically to LR – but you then take that file into PS for completion rather than have the LR output as final.

  16. Brett Patching says:

    Thanks for an excellent article with wonderful photographs, Ming!

  17. Ming, am I correct in assuming that this topic is covered in one or more of your processing/workflow videos? If so, which one(s)? I expect I’ll end up buying your A + A2 + C videos in the not-too-distant future and am wondering which, if any, cover this interesting, if somewhat subtle, topic.

    I must admit that I didn’t find it obvious that the techniques you’re discussing here were applied in the example images, as you don’t really say where in the examples to look (though maybe I’m just being obtuse). I guess examples of the techniques could be the transition from full sun to shadow on the middle-ground building in the image with the deep blue sky and the similar transition on the cobbles in the arch image, but for some of the others, I have no clue. An example of one where I have no clue is the very dark one just before the arch image.

    It might be interesting and illuminating to show a pair of treatments of a single image – with and without the dodging and burning (if that’s what we’re talking about here) – to illustrate the effect. Maybe with a cropped detail of a relevant area of the image shown at large scale?

    Despite not fully understanding your examples, I love the balcony/plant and arch images! But, as far as I can tell, I love them for the content/composition and not the processing magic you’ve done.

    I’m a devoted follower of your site and greatly enjoy this type of post. I’m not among those who cares much about equipment reviews as I’m happy with my current kit and am not likely to jump to something else any time soon.

  18. Thanks for this great lesson, Ming, and wonderful accompanying photos to illustrate!

  19. Joseph Reagle says:

    One of my favorite posts of late!

  20. Amazing information beautifully illustrated by your images . . . thanks so much!

  21. Richard May says:

    just to say thanks for your…. what? excellent photos and the ideas and technique behind them….and all that in a very practible way..dear, you are a great teacher Mr Ming Thein, thanks. missed you by a week in KL , may be some other time…best

  22. The “Arches of Prague” is astonishing…”How did he do that!?” 🙂
    Great post, very helpful – thanks!

    • Thanks – right place, right time, know my camera well enough to expose to just hold on to the lowest shadows and let the highlights fall where they fall…

      • Exposing for the shadows sounds contrary to ETTR. What if you would have ETTR’d when you shootout photo? Would it have turned out differently?

        • It depends on the tonal response of the sensor. The 810 has a very smooth/gentle highlight transition to overexposure, and that top left corner is so far out of proper exposure there’s no point in sacrificing the remaining 80% of the image to hold it. It also has somewhat
          flat shadows if pushed, so in this particular case I prefer to expose as much as possible. I suppose it is ETTR, but disregarding the bits I don’t care about losing.

      • Seeing the scene, evaluating the light and shadows and quickly setting the dials, and then nailing the focus, subject, and timing for a perfectly balanced shot. This one reminds me the drill bit bursting through the rock. It couldn’t be more perfect.

  23. tonality demystified.
    i think this is one of the key elements which makes your photos great.
    many thanks for this great article and sharing, sifu.
    much appreciated.
    regards, ken

  24. Gerner Christensen says:

    Your images and teaching articles have always been kept high in my camp. This extremely good article is one of those.
    Ming, do you recall my first email I sent to you a good year ago where I said **I want to be able to make my images having the look like yours. How?** Kindly you answered **Well it’s about using dodge and burn as a means of controlling local contrast and tonal transitions**. I didn’t have a clue of what you were talking about. Now watching your videos, reading your blog and joining your workshops, I started to understand how things work.
    It has been the best investment in time and money over the later years I’ve done. I am really grateful, thank you Ming.

    • Thanks Gerner, but as you can see from the comments they are not even 1% as popular as reviews…it is sad that most ‘photographers’ aren’t particularly interested in actually making photographs! 😛

      • Until now the response is poor. Sadly demotivating for you Ming, I guess. Do you recall **The mystical camera** article which is one of the best examples I have seen the camera is not all that counts.
        But I would give it to people your reviews are so popular. They are simply the most neutral out there and your conclusions just very fair from a photographers point of view.

  25. John Brady says:

    Ming, thanks for a very thought-provoking post (together with your previously published HDR post). I think I’m now beginning to understand why you’ve never taken to Lightroom: is it because the local adjustment brushes don’t allow you to selectively target midtones, so exposure adjustments are too crude a tool? Conversely, the highlight and shadow brushes operate in a non-linear way so don’t give you a predictable level of control. Hence you use Photoshop brushes and multiple curves to achieve your signature look.

    I must admit that on high-contrast images I’ve tended to just apply lots of both highlight recovery and shadow recovery in Lightroom and then control for the noise. This insight that clipping is OK provided the roll-offs are smooth has given me a different way of thinking about post-processing, which I look forward to putting into practice.

  26. Having just waded through Bruce Burnbaum’s book again this week, this feels like a very precisely written extension chapter. (Meant as a compliment, hopefully accepted as such 😉 )
    Very nice images as examples as well, show the relationships to the text better than most books that I have read. Dodging and burning is something that I was used to in the darkroom, but have yet to master in the digital realm…somehow it became overlooked in importance in the transition to digital, but as you point out, is still a potent tool to create art from captures.
    Nice article, appreciated. 🙂

    • Thanks – not read that book but will have to look it up now…

      • I think that you would like it, probably the single best book on photography that I have read. Gets pretty technical, goes way over my head at times when discussing the zone system in detail, and the darkroom and printing skills, but captures the essence of what it means to “find your passion” and follow it.
        I also think that you will find that Ken Rockwell’s “how to” pages, which IMHO are the only worthwhile pages on his site, are pretty much taken from this book, rewritten and simplified. 😉

        • Praneeth Rajsingh says:

          Grant, Which particular book by Bruce Barnbaum are you talking about here? I tried to look it up online and noticed he has published several titles.

          • It’s “The Art of Photography”. Firstly discusses “finding your passion” in a great way, then goes into some easily understandable exposure and composition chapters, followed by some very dense (and very, very technical!) discussion of the zone system and final printing. It’s heavy stuff, but if you read this blog, then you may find the challenge worthwhile. 🙂

            • Thanks Grant! Looking forward to the book. Desne, technical and dry is necessary if you’re interested in pushing the envelope (or in my case, get to the point that I can push the envelope) in quality.

      • Hi Ming,

        Grant has rightly described the Book – “The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression” – by Bruce Barnbaum as the only Book one needs to read. I would highly recommend it to you too.

        I am an Amateur JPEG Street Shooter, yet want the best IQ.
        I am a Believer in You, and have accepted that 35mm is a Compositional No-man’s Land. I can confirm this fact as i am using a 40mm pancake for 2 years and have discovered that this normal range of 35 to 45mm is perfectly boring. So one needs 28 & 50mm as a Two-lens-setup of fast primes. A 24-70/2.8 includes both, but it is 1 Kg heavy, and a slow lens.

        Hence thinking of buying a Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens, as there’s no good 28mm for my Canon 6D, neither canon’s own nor 3rd party. So i was in a fix. The 24 is closest to 28 and also fast. So, please guide as to what should i do ? … The 24/1.4 is primarily a Photojournalist’s Weapon, and also for Astrophotography, Videography, Events, Landscape/Nature, Close-up (esp. Street-Portraits or Sports/Action) etc. There are some Photographers whose only lens is the 24/1.4 or 21/1.4 (leica summilux) for Street or elsewhere. Yes, I know there’s unacceptable distortion in that focal length for people photography.

        The new LEICA 28mm SUMMILUX is expensive, and the old Nikon 28mm f/1.4D is sold used at exorbitant price on Ebay. There’s a new announced Nikkor 24/1.8G also, for which i will have to buy a Nikon D750. I don’t quite like the nikon 28/1.8G, as also the canon’s 28/1.8 USM. There’s one option in the form of a Ricoh GR, but to stop action in low light, and more so, to turn night into day (nocturnal shots best achieved with slow shutter speed, hand-held), & for indoors, a fast wide prime is necessary.

        There are other great Sigma Art lenses like the 24-35mm f/2 (fastest zoom) or the discontinued 24-105/4. Canon announced a new 35/1.4 II L which will surpass the Sigma 35, but i am not looking at it at all. There is Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2 + A7RII ; don’t know how much vignetting, aberration or distortion the Batis has, considering that mirrorless cameras have advantage of less Focal-Flange Distance (only 18mm for the E-Mount) compared to 44 & 46.5mm for Canon & Nikon Dslrs.

        There’s also the Canon 11-24mm but i would rather get a 17mm TS-E instead, and these two lenses are not on my mind.

        Should we always have a CPL attached on at least one of our 2 lenses, to have an enhanced contrast, even if it cuts down light by at least 1 stop (or half a stop in case of world’s best HOYA HD3 CPL Filters) ? … as the effect of CPL can’t be reproduced in post-processing.

        My Dream Lens would have been a 28mm f/1.2 AF

        Thanks, Warm Personal Regards,
        Chirag Parikh … (a big fan of yours, and your friend Eric Kim – who prefers the 35 Summicron & the Ricoh GR),

  27. Highly informative and extremely well illustrated. Really hits the core of how we visually perceive and how sensors/cameras work with light ranges and tonalities.

  28. im speechless seeing this wonderful image, I hope i could attend your class once I start earn my own money 🙂 Thanks for sharing 🙂

  29. Wonderful article Ming and great photos!


  1. […] resolution prints – which is how I’d ultimately want them to be seen for reasons of transparency – will be very obvious and weaken the whole body of work. Why cut corners if you don’t […]

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