Welcome back to Through the Lens with Nick Leadley, our continuing series on wildlife photography. Read the rest of the series here.
The title of this month’s post may result in a few raised eyebrows. Thinking In Tones? Upfront I’ll admit I don’t have any degree of musical talent, so I’m not going to write on that subject.
When I mention tones, I’m referring to what drew me into photography: the black and white print.
Since we as humans see in color sometimes the idea of black and white images falls way beyond the abstract. How do you determine if a subject will translate well in a black and white nature photograph?
That’s where an understanding of tones comes in. In some cases, the broader range of tones the more successful the image will be. To determine this involves a term I was first introduced to by one of my instructors in photography school: pre-visualization. This practice relates not only to the composition of a photograph; but looking at the tones within the image, how they relate to each other, and will appear in a print.
Pre-visualization of tones involves learning about the scale developed as part of the Zone System. The scale represents 11 tones from a black with no detail ranging (Zone 0) through shades of gray to a white with no detail (Zone 10). (Image 1 is a zone scale created in Photoshop.)
Here are instructions on how to make a zone system tone scale.
Using the zone scale to identify what tones are present in the scene you intend to photograph will go away long towards ensuring the success of your image.
Here’s an example of how to do this, using an image of Lake Clark National Park as an example. The area in the water labeled Zone V represents the tone of gray that falls in the middle of the zone scale. This is the spot I metered from to establish the starting exposure. I have also included the image prior to black and white conversion image so you can see how the tones appear in a color image.
The dark area amid the coniferous trees represents a black with little or no detail, somewhere between Zones 0 and 1. The light area of cloud in the upper left corner falls somewhere between Zones 9 and 10, a white area with little detail. The spot on the mountain labeled Zone 3-4 represents an area where detail starts to appear in the gray areas of the image.
The tonal values of the areas in the image were determined by using the scale in the field. Each area was metered using a hand-held spot meter. The difference in f-stops was used to determine the placement of each area on the tonal scale.
Determining exposure and placing tonal values may seem a bit daunting at first, but with time and practice it can become second nature. This website explains in detail the use of the zone system scale in pre-visualizing images and determining exposure.
One helpful way to help in determining the tonal values in a given scene is to use a rectangular frame to establish the image area. When shooting scenic photographs I carry a precut matte board with a 4-inch by 6-inch opening. That size opening closely matches the 2:3 aspect ratio of digital camera sensors, meaning the long side is 1.5 times the size of the short side. This can help you decide what to include in the image and what not to include.
If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me through my website. And have fun exploring the tonal values of the Zone System.