Why and How: Mastering the Tonality in Nature Photography

You have certainly realized that you have to master the concept of tonality in nature photography.

Good management of the tonality with a creative purpose can totally change the emotional interpretation of your photographs.

However, you should know that there is no good tonality for a photograph. It all depends on what you want to transmit or translate.

This photograph of a gelada sitting on a rock is an example of photography with a well-managed tonality.
This photograph of a gelada sitting on a rock is an example of photography with a well-managed tonality.

Definitions of Different Tones

Before defining the tonality of a photograph in the next paragraph, I suggest you a list the different tones you need to know by heart. Indeed, tonality will use this notion of tones.

In photography there are many tones. Here is a list of different non-exhaustive tones. I chose the tones that I use most frequently.

  • The general tone. This is the dominant color of a photo.
  • The local tone. This is the proper color of a focus of a photo. You take a part of a picture and you assigns it a tone.
  • The clear tone and the dark tone. They are characterized by the brightness they emit.
  • The warm tone and the cold tone.More the tones are hot, the closer they get to the orange on the color wheel. The color wheel is an ordered representation of colors in graphic arts. The colors follow one another in the order of those of the rainbow, the closing being affected by a transition from red to purple through purple.
  • The neutral tone. It is a tone that is close to the gray.
  • The gradient tone. Its brightness is increased but the liveliness decreases by the addition of white.
  • The folded tone. It is toned down by adding black.
  • The off tone. The brightness and contrast with the neighboring tones are diminished.
  • The pastel tone. Its vivacity is attenuated by white.
  • The deep tone. It is both dark and saturated.
  • The tone on tone. It is an assembly of tones differing only in a small shade like a camaieu.
  • The flat tone. It is a colored surface in which the tone does not vary. He opposes the degraded tone or modeling. Modeling is a process that recreates volumes. In photography, we mainly use the obscure light technique.

Definition of the Tonality

The tonality of a photograph is its visual appearance in terms of distribution of tones and levels of gradation between them

In this distribution we use the tones that I listed in the previous paragraph.

It is up to you to choose the tones you want to apply to your photographs to express your emotions or convey your messages.

The different tones at your disposal are a palette that allow you to create interesting and creative photographs.

Tones apply to parts of a photograph. The tone is the general rendering of the photograph.

There are three main types of tone:

  • The dark tone: the photography is rather dark with low lights or dark colors. Low key black and white photos are dark toned photos.
  • The clear tone: the photography is rather clear with high lights or bright colors. High key photos are clear tone photos.
  • The neutral tone: the photography is neither dark nor clear. It is also called balanced tone.

There is no universal tone. It all depends on what you want to convey.

Do Not Confuse Tonality and Exposure

Digital photography exposure is the amount of light received by the sensor.

A properly exposed photograph must accurately reflect the brightness levels of the scene.

A photograph is underexposed when the sensor has not received enough light. The picture is too dark. The details in the low light are insufficient. In photography, it is said that the dark areas are clogged e s because they contain only pure black.

A photograph is overexposed when the sensor has received too much light. The picture is too bright Details in the highlights are lost. In photography, it is said that the light areas are burned because they contain only pure white.

A photograph must always be correctly exposed to the shot.

Sometimes it is not possible to have a correct exposure when shooting because the scene offers too large variations in brightness.

I advise you to manage the low lights to overexpose a little bit the highlights. Indeed, in RAW format, it will be easier for you to recover the details in the high-lights than in the low-lights. If you try to go back the details of the low lights, the software tends to generate noise. You will lose details.

I will strongly advise to always have a correct exposure to the shooting. Do not worry about the tone. Exposure control is always done using the histogram available on all cameras.

Do not confuse exposure and tone.

The Impact of a Neutral Tonality on Shooting a Photograph

When a photo is exposed correctly, most often it has a neutral tone. It appears flat, without relief, without character. The creative management of the tone will occur at the time of post processing on the computer. The development can darken dark areas to give a dark tone or accentuate light areas to give a clear tone.

Properly exposing a photograph to the shot allows for the widest possible tone range. This place makes it possible to obtain the best possible development.

It should be kept in mind that the tone reflects the visual aspect of a photograph.

Give Priority to RAW Format When Shooting

In nature photography, I advised you to always use the RAW format. This is the one that will allow you to develop the tones with the broadest spectrum.

The JPEG format is not recommended because it has fewer shades in blacks and whites than the RAW format.

The Interest of Tones in Photography

In nature photography and above all in the artistic field, portraits play an important role in the translation of the photographer's emotions as well as in the messages transmitted.

If you consider photography seriously, it is not a simple transfer of reality. It can evoke invisible elements like emotions. Colors and tones help a lot in these transfers.

The dark photos bring a contemplative, sad or depressing feeling. Dark tones are used to convey concepts.

The bright photos evoke feelings of carelessness, gaiety, joy.

For example, many commercials use bright tones. This is a tip to suggest watching to buy new products. It is implied that by buying them, he will experience joy.

In practice, a scene with many shadows needs a lot of light. Exposure times are longer than with a bright picture.

Very bright scenes require clouds to soften and diffuse light by reducing shadows. For example, I like shooting when it rains or when there is a mist to create clear tonal photographs.

Watch out for tonal contrasts that are too strong

The contrast in a photograph directs the viewer's eye. In animal photography, the eyes and faces of animals attract attention when the natural contrast is strongest.

But beware: you must use tone contrasts with caution and only when they highlight the interests.

Indeed, if there are many contrasting areas in a photograph, the viewer cannot focus on one or more shapes. The interpretation of the image can then become confusing.


A good knowledge and a good mastery of the tonality in photography is an indispensable asset to translate emotions and transmit messages.

I think everything happens at the moment of development because it is possible to selectively work the dark areas and the light areas.

It is a learning that can be long but what a pleasure to contemplate a final work in which you have put a small part of yourself.

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Article published on Friday, November 22, 2019 . Written by
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