Why and How: Mastering Tonality in Nature Photography

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

Skillfully managing tonality with a creative purpose can totally change the emotional interpretation of your photographs.

However, you should know that there is no standard tonality for an excellent nature photograph. Tonality depends on what you transmit or translate to your viewers. Thus, it changes often.

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 list the tones you want to know by heart. Indeed, tonality involves many tones for different effects.

In photography there are many tones. The following is a list of different non-exhaustive tones which 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 assign a tone to a particular part of the picture.
  • The clear tone and the dark tone. They are characterized by the brightness they emit.
  • The warm tone and the cold tone.The hotter the tone, the closer it resembles 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 the rainbow, but in a circle. The “last” color on the wheel is thus affected by the first, in a transition from red to purple, through all the colors until it reaches red once again.
  • The neutral tone. The neutral tone. It is a tone like gray.
  • The gradient tone. Its brightness is increased while the liveliness decreases with the addition of white.
  • The folded tone. It is toned down by adding black.
  • The off tone. Its brightness contrasts with the neighboring diminished tones.
  • The pastel tone. Its vivacity is attenuated by white.
  • The deep tone. It is 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. It opposes the degraded tone or modeling. Modeling is a process that recreates volumes. In photography, we mainly use the obscure light technique.

Definition of Tonality

The tonality of a photograph is its visual appearance in terms of the 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 select 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 creative palette that allow you to create interesting photographs.

Tones apply to specific parts of a photograph. The tonality 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 for an image, as it depends on what you want to convey. With one image, it is possible to present different meanings depending on which tone you select.

Do Not Confuse Tonality and Exposure

Digital photography exposure is the amount of light that enters the sensor.

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

A photograph is underexposed when the sensor does not receive 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 because they contain only pure black.

A photograph is overexposed when the sensor receives 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 while shooting because the scene’s variations in brightness are great.

I advise you to manage the low lights to overexpose the highlights a little bit. 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 to the low light details, the software tends to generate noise in the image, and you will lose details.

I strongly advise to always have a correct exposure when 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, lacking relief and character. The creative management of the tone will occur at the time of post processing on the computer. The development can darken areas to give a heavier tone or accentuate light areas to give a clearer tone.

Properly exposing a photograph for the shot allows for the widest possible tone range. This place is the special spot, for here it is possible to set up the ideal 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 advise 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 transmitted messages.

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

Dark photos bring contemplative, sad, and depressing feelings. Dark tones are used to convey heavy concepts.

Bright photos evoke feelings of carelessness, gaiety, and joy.

For example, many commercials use bright tones. Here’s a tip: watch some commercials on a product you wish to purchase. Notice how it is implied that by buying it, you will experience joy.

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In practice, a scene with many shadows needs more 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.

Beware: you must use tone contrasts with caution and only when they highlight your 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 becomes confusing and your emotions and messages are missed.


Knowledge and mastery of tonality in photography is an indispensable asset to translate emotions and transmit messages.

I believe that the photo truly “comes together” at the moment of development because then it is possible to selectively work the dark areas and the light areas in a specific direction.

Learning to work with tonality is a long process to gain experience, but what a pleasure it is to contemplate the final work in which you have placed a small part of yourself.

Be humble, patient, constant, persevering, and persistent because the road to excellence is long.


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