Looking for Tonal Separation

I’ve been coming to Iceland for over a decade and often visit it several times a year. It has become a home from home, somewhere that I feel I have built up a deep visual relationship with.

One aspect of returning many times to the same location, is that its appearance can be quite different during different seasons. In the winter months, Iceland can be shrouded in a blanket of snow, and this I feel can add a dynamic contrast to the black beaches found on the south coast.

View of Reynisdrangar sea stacks from Dyrhólaey, South Iceland, 2012. Image © Bruce Percy

View of Reynisdrangar sea stacks from Dyrhólaey, South Iceland, 2012. Image © Bruce Percy

I think my image of the distant sea stacks at Reynisdrangar, shot from Dyrhólaey illustrate just that. I was particularly drawn to the tonal separation between the foreground sea stack of Dyrhólaey against the background snow covered cliffs of Reynisdrangar. When I have visited this location during the summer months, the background cliffs are often too similar in tone to the foreground stack. So much so, that they often merge to become one confused mess in my viewfinder.

Some thoughts on to working on tonal separation

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve reached by visiting the same places during different seasons is in reading the tonal separation between objects in my view. I feel I am now at a level in my art where I make ‘black and white’ images ‘in colour’ (I often find that when I convert my colour images to monochrome, very little change is required because I am reading the tones of the scene at the time of capture). Well, I'd certainly like to think this is the case ;-)

I believe the biggest pit-fall for many of us is our inability to abstract a scene into an image. To do this, we need to understand that the skills used to compose our camera on location are no different from the skills we use to interpret and edit a scene during the ‘post-process’ phase. In fact, I abhor the term ‘post-process’ because it encourages us to think differently about two tasks that should use the same skills. The pit-fall is that many of us don't.

While out in the field, rather than thinking ‘tree’, ‘river’ or ‘bridge’, I try to think about the tones present within the scene. Because this is what I do when I am ‘post-processing’ my images.  If you are a film photographer, I would suggest using a spot meter, as it helps me build up a mental picture of the tones contained within the frame. If you are a digital shooter, then I would suggest using live-view. Live-view is fantastic because it transforms a scene into 2D for you. It further helps you abstract the real world into a tiny postcard image on the back of your camera. If you make the distinction in your mind by thinking of the back of your screen as a photo, rather than a view of live scenery, then you're on the right track.

To aid in helping you think more about tonal separation, try turning the jpeg settings to monochrome as this will give you a black and white rendition on your live-view screen. The Raw file will still be in colour but you will have a tonal rendition on your camera that should aid you in noticing tonal errors much more easily. You should be able to see more clearly tonal errors such as foreground objects merging into background objects or two objects of similar tone colliding with each other. Beware though that often green and red have the same tonal rendition in monochrome.