Understanding Tonal Range in Photography


Understanding tonal range in photography can be the last thing on a photographers mind.

As we progress on our particular paths, there can be times when even the most mindful of us take some things for granted. The simple elements are sometimes overlooked first – such as a sloppy tripod setup or assuming our cameras settings are where we last left them.

In the same vein, the steadfast technical concepts of our photo work are misunderstood, misinterpreted or worse – completely forgotten. This malady spans every level of skill and afflicts both pros and hobbyists alike.

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 1

Take as an example the most basic building block of any photograph; light. In our weirdly flexible digital age of post-processing, we can sometimes forget what is happening with the luminance values of our images.

Our photographs are displays of contrast between light and dark, but the distance between the two are virtually limitless.

A Brief Word on Tonal Range

All that we’re talking about here today is the measure of brightness from complete dark to complete light. The range between the different brightness levels within our photos determines its degree of contrast. Take a look at this tonal scale:

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 2

We move from complete darkness on the left (black) to complete light (whites) on the right. This scale applies for both color and black and white photographs. Now, let’s talk about each of these values and how they relate to your photography.


Traditionally, I’ve always thought of highlights as the brightest portions of an image, which is not the case. At least not the case to the utmost extent. In truth, highlights can be considered the areas of a photograph which consist of high luminance values yet still contain discernible detail. Here’s an example of highlight luminance values:

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 3

Notice that even though these areas are bright, there is still some discernible texture and detail to be made out within the bright spots. If we were to increase the exposure, in camera or with post-processing, it would become so bright that it would lose detail entirely, which brings us to our next point.


If we increase the brightness to the extent that our highlights become ‘blown out’ (where details are invisible), we have complete white.

Even if the white area doesn’t appear white, it may be considered a total ‘white area’ due to the lack of detail. The following is an example of luminance considered total white:

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 4

Depending on your photograph, it may or may not be desirable to push the exposure to the point of white-out. We’ll talk more about this as we discuss the relevance of tonal range in regards to constructing your images.


A mid-tone is precisely that – all luminance values that are not dark or light are considered to be mid-tones. Most of the time our camera meter will attempt to expose for this average brightness when in ‘Automatic Mode.’

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 5

While mid-tones help to ensure much information is contained in an image, a photograph consisting of only mid-tones lacks dynamics.


Areas that appear as shadows are closely related to highlights albeit in the opposite direction. Shadows are the areas of a photo that are dark but still retain a level of detail.

The above photo is a perfect example of more information in the shadow areas, so let’s use it one more time:

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 6

These darker areas still possess information seen by the viewer. However, if we darken them to the point where that detail gets lost or ‘burnt out,’ then…you guessed it, they become a completely black luminance value.


Any portion a photograph that has zero luminance is considered to be black. Much like the complete white areas earlier, these points within our images don’t have to be utterly devoid of color to be regarded as pure black.

Let’s look at some shadows that are completely burnt out and retain no detail whatsoever:

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 7

Completely black areas are so dark that you can see nothing. Consider them the ‘dark abyss’ within a photograph. Having these areas within your image isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so let’s talk about that now.

Luminance Values and You

If you ever open a conversation among a group of photographers about the suitability of brightness levels within a photograph, you’d see that the schism is split. Some photographers feel that images should contain no areas of complete black or complete white – that all portions of the photograph should present some level of detail for the viewer.

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 8

Still, others contend that it’s perfectly fine to either burn or blow out some luminance values for the sake of contrast. Doing this means that there is an area of complete black and complete white so that all the other luminance values fall somewhere between those two absolutes.

While it’s true that it is often desirable to deliver the maximum amount of visual information to your audience, this is not always the case. There are times when a crushed and burnt out shadow or a super-bright highlight are just what you need to bring a photograph home.

Understanding Tonal Range in Photography 9

Final Thoughts

I’m happy to profess my opinion that there is no such thing as a set technique for each photograph you make. It might seem like a simple thing to remember, but it’s easy to overlook the importance of how different levels of brightness affect an image. Let’s take a quick run back through what we’ve learned about luminance values:

  • Highlights – Bright areas within a photo that still maintain detail
  • Whites – Areas of extreme brightness where there is absolutely no information(detail) remaining
  • Midtones – These are neither shadows or highlights but rather a middle value of luminance
  • Shadows – Darker areas of the image that still maintain detail
  • Blacks – Completely ‘burnt out’ portions of a photo that contains absolutely no detail

Like most concepts in photography, it’s essential to have a full understanding of the tonal range falling within your photos. You should use this knowledge to strive for technical excellence and also so you know when to break the rules in favor of fulfilling your creative vision.

How do you make use of tonal range in your images? Share with us your thoughts and images in the comments below.

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com and check out his eBooks and Lightroom presets!.

  • Miraculous Papaya

    Interesting Video Ads. Really Different thoughts.

  • Tones are so important, without a good tonal range you have a flat image. One trick I use on occasion is checking how an image looks in B&W just to see how rich the tones are.

  • dabhand

    The argument as to whether or not images should contain areas of complete black or white is typical of the type of nonsense spouted by zealots – artistic interpretation is personal. That said I do believe that starting with the overall optimum colour / tone relationships which are a consistent foundation for any processing that may follow – even if that processing was for example to create a ‘film noir’ interpretation of the image.

  • Tom Cooper

    I have heard of people shooting in B&W mode so that they start with reasonably good tones. The original RAW image is still in color, so they can then still process the image in color, but from a known good starting point.

  • Albin

    I’ve never seen tonal balance issues as “right answer” in grayscale, it’s a delight to start with the range of presets in Silver Efex and play around, often with the channel mixer. Usually less “creative” with color, biased toward replicating the composition that caught my eye, rather than innovating on it. A lot of times, cropping the same exposure will radically change what’s wanted in light and shadow elements.

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  • Esther Beaton

    The term “burnt out” always refers to highlight/white areas of the image, not the shadow/dark areas.

  • Charles G. Haacker

    Excellent piece, Adam, very clear, concise, easy to follow (i’d hope) even if I didn’t already know this stuff. No one is too old to learn! Me especially! ¯_(?)_/¯

    I’m an (very) old wet-darkroom black and white guy and I still follow the same basic set of Zone System guidlines I learned more than 50 years ago. I shoot 100% raw (don’t even bother with JPEGs except as final output). I process principally in Lightroom, and tend to take what is maybe a rules-based, kinda-sorta formulaic approach? (It works anyway…)

    I generally want to see a broad range of values, all 10 zones when possible, in color almost exclusively.

    The first thing I do when I open a file for development in Lightroom is glance at the histogram. I look at the picture of course, but if I see the histogram is heavily loaded left or right I am very apt to shift it so more of the hump is closer to center, i.e. balanced. IT WILL DEPEND, I’m not going to create art by being rigid about it.

    Most often I will pull the highlight slider all the way down (left) and the shadow slider all the way up (right). I even have a preset for it I use it so much.

    Then I will hold down the alt/option key and move the white slider right until it juuusssst barely clips, then back it off. The black slider goes the other way, except I will often leave a barely-there amount of clipping. This assures me that somewhere in the image there is a clean black and an equally clean white, no detail.

    This formula (yeah, I admit it; it’s formulaic) works well most of the time and leaves me with a “print” with a known, solid, blocked black somewhere (so tiny you can’t find it but the algorithm says it’s there), plus a known, solid, blocked white (what we used to call “paper white).

    Everything else should be nicely balanced across all 8 remaining zones (only in color).

    If you care to see, here’s a recent “before” example: https://www.flickr.com/gp/43619751@N06/Eg6y51

    An its corresponding “after” — https://www.flickr.com/gp/43619751@N06/B27qJq

  • Desert Gecko

    I believe the term for highlights is “blown,” or “blown out.”

    “Burnt” is perfectly appropriate to describe dark areas without recoverable detail. In film/paper days (Ansel Adams mastered this technique), we dodged to lighten an area of a print and BURNED to darken.

  • Esther Beaton

    Thanks for replying, Desert Gecko. “Burnt out” is confusing. However we always used to “burn in” the dark areas of prints in our darkroom processing days.

  • wheresaldo

    Great article, thank you! To see the tonality (tonal range) on photos in the iPhone, this app is really cool Photo Extension Histogram https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/photo-extension-histogram/id1084416191?mt=8

  • Donna

    Best explanation I’ve read, thank you.

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