Improving Composition with Tonal Contrast

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Tonal contrast 1

If you were to ask me for two ways that you could improve the composition of your photos, the first piece of advice I would give you is to keep the composition as simple as possible. Eliminate anything that isn’t part of the story from the frame.

The second part of the answer is to focus on tonal contrast. Now, many discussions of composition tend to concentrate on the basics, such as the rule-of-thirds, leading lines, use of colour and so on. Not many people seem to be talking about tonal contrast. That’s a shame, because it’s an element that can really improve your composition.

What is Tonal Contrast?

Tonal contrast is created when light tones and dark tones lie alongside each other. Here’s an example:

Tonal contrast 2

The tonal contrast in this photo is created by the difference in brightness between the white flower and the dark green background.

In any photo it is natural for the eye to go straight to the highlights. That is what is happening here – the viewer’s eye is pulled by the lightest tones in the image, the flower, and then travels slowly around the rest of the image, taking in the detail. It sets up a kind of visual dynamism between the light and dark tones.

Here’s another example of tonal contrast in action:

Tonal contrast 3

Here, the tonal contrast is provided by the difference in brightness between the white parts of the waterfall and my model’s clothing, and the dark tones of the water and the rocks.

Working in Black and White

Tonal contrast is the basis of many successful black and white images. Indeed, if you need help to see the tones in your colour photos an easy way to do so is to open them in Photoshop and reduce the colour saturation to zero. This is what happens to the two photos above when we do that:

Tonal contrast 4

Tonal contrast 5

It is easier to see tonal contrast in black and white images because there is no colour to distract your eye from the brightness values within the photo.

You will also notice that the composition of these images is very simple. Simplicity helps improve composition by eliminating distractions.

Let’s look at another example:

Tonal contrast 6

This is a photo that I took in an antiques market in Shanghai. You can see my two principles of composition in action here:

Simplicity: I moved in close to concentrate on the dominoes.

Tonal contrast: The ivory coloured dominoes are offset by the dark tones of the box they are in.

Tonal contrast 7

Here is the desaturated version. The tonal contrast is even clearer in this image.

There are a few more points I’d like to make here:

  1. Tonal contrast is a great basis for a successful black and white image. The desaturated versions of the above photos all work fairly well. It won’t take much more work to turn them into striking monochrome images.
  2. Images with strong tonal contrast tend to work well in both black and white and colour. An interesting exercise you could try is to go back through photos that you have already taken and select some that feature strong tonal contrast. Then convert them to black and white. I think you will be able to create some strong monochrome images if you do this.
  3. Keeping your compositions simple helps make the most out of tonal contrast. If you include too much within the frame, the impact of any tonal contrast is lessened.

Finally, please note that reducing the colour saturation to zero is usually not the best way to convert a colour image to monochrome. The aim here is purely to make the tones easier to recognise by eliminating the distraction of colour.

Does that mean that every image requires tonal contrast to be successful? No, it doesn’t. It is merely one tool of many at your disposal. The key concept to understand is that learning to recognise and utilise tonal contrast helps you create stronger photos.

For example, if you have arranged a photo shoot with a model in a location with a dark background, you could ask her to wear something light in order to set up tonal contrast between her clothes and the background.

Lack of tonal Contrast

There are times when tonal contrast is not evident in a photo, yet the composition is still successful. Here’s an example:

Tonal contrast 8

Now let’s look at the desaturated version:

Tonal contrast 9

You can see that there isn’t much tonal contrast. Yet the photo works because the purple flower is complemented nicely by the green background. This is called colour contrast and in this image more than compensates for the lack of tonal contrast.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom and his written over 25 popular photography ebooks. Enroll in his new Lightroom course for free, or download his free Creative Fade Presets for Lightroom.

  • Very nicely explained. One thing I have taken to doing is desaturating a photo with Photoshop before I’m done in order to see if I like it better in b/w. Most of the time I don’t, but there have been a few that are much improved by losing the color. I had some red leaves I shot that weren’t working out in color. After losing the color, the composition worked so much better that I was able to keep working with the picture.

  • Strengthening IT systems support and enhance project management capacity three-pronged approach, and strive to enhance the competitiveness of its products.

  • The bold contrast of these Zebra against the dark of night really emphasises them

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-Mammals/G0000IrGRBOD5m2s/I0000FmqvKoCrLN4/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

  • Miriam

    Wow. Great photos and instruction. There is much to learn for a newbie like me. Thank you, Mr. Gibson!

  • Great article Andrew and well timed. I’ve been working on this recently, particularly with black and white shots and in using hard light too. Not perfected yet, but getting there! This article helps, so thanks!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/9044553572/

  • Very good instructions. Tkx for sharing!

    Some of my pics:https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • chris

    people might like to research Chiaroscuro to learn more about contrast .

  • Mario Mifsud

    A very informative article for beginners in photography. Thanks.

  • Janet Atkinson

    I accept the points about tonal contrast but the range of tones in the white flowers is practically non existent. Sorely this is not good for contrast or anything else. Whites are difficult but should not be burned out.

  • San

    Great article !! amazing tips. Very well described along with examples.. i’ve learned a lot. thank you very much. Best regards

  • photoman022

    Great article, very informative. Is there a way the site can put a “report spam” button in each post? There is a spam response to this great article — and, no, I’m not the spammer!

  • Very informative!

    http://500px.com/elindaire/

  • Steve

    Is this information covered in more detail in one of your ebooks?

  • Johan Bauwens

    The girls’ eyes aren’t sharp 🙂

Some Older Comments

  • Elindaire July 26, 2013 11:27 pm

    Very informative!

    http://500px.com/elindaire/

  • photoman022 June 23, 2013 05:34 am

    Great article, very informative. Is there a way the site can put a "report spam" button in each post? There is a spam response to this great article -- and, no, I'm not the spammer!

  • San June 23, 2013 03:08 am

    Great article !! amazing tips. Very well described along with examples.. i've learned a lot. thank you very much. Best regards

  • Janet Atkinson June 21, 2013 09:48 pm

    I accept the points about tonal contrast but the range of tones in the white flowers is practically non existent. Sorely this is not good for contrast or anything else. Whites are difficult but should not be burned out.

  • Mario Mifsud June 21, 2013 03:36 pm

    A very informative article for beginners in photography. Thanks.

  • chris June 21, 2013 11:43 am

    people might like to research Chiaroscuro to learn more about contrast .

  • marius2die4 June 21, 2013 01:43 am

    Very good instructions. Tkx for sharing!

    Some of my pics:https://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Guigphotography June 20, 2013 05:20 am

    Great article Andrew and well timed. I've been working on this recently, particularly with black and white shots and in using hard light too. Not perfected yet, but getting there! This article helps, so thanks!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/9044553572/

  • Miriam June 19, 2013 05:25 am

    Wow. Great photos and instruction. There is much to learn for a newbie like me. Thank you, Mr. Gibson!

  • Steve June 18, 2013 05:58 pm

    The bold contrast of these Zebra against the dark of night really emphasises them

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-Mammals/G0000IrGRBOD5m2s/I0000FmqvKoCrLN4/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

  • digiphone June 18, 2013 01:58 pm

    Strengthening IT systems support and enhance project management capacity three-pronged approach, and strive to enhance the competitiveness of its products.

  • Cramer Imaging June 18, 2013 05:28 am

    Very nicely explained. One thing I have taken to doing is desaturating a photo with Photoshop before I'm done in order to see if I like it better in b/w. Most of the time I don't, but there have been a few that are much improved by losing the color. I had some red leaves I shot that weren't working out in color. After losing the color, the composition worked so much better that I was able to keep working with the picture.

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