Creating Impact with Tonal Contrast

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We often advise our students to look for tonal contrast while capturing landscape photographs. Tonal contrast is one of many tools that can be used effectively to separate background from figure. It can also add that dynamic element to the image that creates impact. On the other hand, lack of tonal contrast may result in a dull and uninteresting image.

  • Paria Townsite, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah (UT), USA

    Paria Townsite, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah (UT), USA

  • Paria Townsite, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah (UT), USA

    Paria Townsite, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah (UT), USA

I took the first photograph above during one of our workshops in Escalante National Monument. The workshop was a demonstration on how to use  light to create tonal contrast. After our morning shoot ended, I took this shot of the bush just as the sun came up over the ridge. Because of the low angle of the sun, the bush was back-lit while the background was still in deep shade; this created a natural tonal contrast between the subject and background. This tonal contrast helps the bush stand out from its background.

Compare this with the second shot above that I took before the sun came up over the ridge. At this time, both the bush and the background were in deep shade. In this image, we lost the tonal contrast between our figure and the background. Overall, the effectiveness of the photograph is greatly reduced.

Creating tonal contrast requires a balance between highlights and shadows so that the camera is capable of capturing the entire dynamic range with one shot. If the dynamic range of the light exceeds that of the camera, you’ll need to use exposure bracketing to capture all the details. The following is an example of a photo that required exposure bracketing:

Ouzud, Morocco

Ouzud, Morocco

Here are few tips to help you capture tonal contrast in nature:

  • Look for back-lit subjects that stand out against a shaded background. The best time is when the sun is low in the sky. A low angle to the sun helps reduce the dynamic range and makes it easier to capture the image.
  • Combine a sun star effect with an evenly-lit shady area to create an effective tonal contrast (for example, Ouzud, Morocco pictured above).
  • The Spotlight Effect produced by a break in an overcast skies from which the sun can shine has an great potential to create tonal contrast. The following is a shot I took in Death Valley using this spotlight effect.

    Death Valley, California

    Death Valley, California

  • A passing storm can produce intense tonal contrast. Sometime these storms have potential for creating rainbows that stand out against the dark, stormy skies.
    Rainbow in Scotland
  • Sun breaking through the early morning mist can also create soft tonal contrast that produces some very moody photos.
    Redwood Forest National Park, California (CA), USA

While capturing photos with high tonal contrast, make sure to check your histograms to ensure that the entire dynamic range is captured. If you find that there are significant over-exposed or under-exposed areas, you may have to bracket and blend your photos to create an image that produces impact.

Please feel free to share your own examples of images with high tonal contrast.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams