3 tone guide to composition

My background in illustration and graphic design has offered me a unique view in analyzing lighting, composition and overall layout. Photography and illustration share many of the same visual guidelines so I tend to use my training in illustration when post editing my images. Specifically when working to establish the point of interest (the main theme or main subject).

When a photographer creates a photo there is an unwritten dialog between the author and the viewer. A topic is presented that will hopefully engages the viewer in a dialog. The dialog comes through the interplay of the viewer's eyes over the content of the image and is controlled by the photographer through the use of certain techniques (rule of thirds, leading lines, depth of field, contrast, and so on).

One technique I rely on to direct the viewer's eyes to my subject is through the manipulation of light. After all, we are using light to capture our scene, establish mood and shape our subject. This light can be manipulated in any number of ways: In a studio by placing the lights and adjusting ratios, or with natural light by using light shaping tools or the careful consideration of positions and backgrounds. There is also postprocessing manipulation of light in an image. All these techniques can be used to manipulate the light to where you want it.

As you come to study and understand light you will hear the term, "seeing the light," quite often. In truth, what this refers to is seeing the interplay of light and shadow and how it affects your subject. Color tone, saturation, contrast, edge transfer, specularity, are all qualities you will need to recognize but, for now, let's simplify things to three simple tones; white, middle gray and black. While this is a big oversimplification it will help make the process easy to understand.

Simplifying your scene

By reducing a scene into three tones you can then assign each of the three tones to the three basic elements of any image; foreground, middleground and background. Using any combination of these three tones will create a more dynamic image with very little effort on your part. The trick, as you'll come to learn, is being able to recognize these combinations in the real world where color and subtle tonal changes can distract your eye. Here is a simplified illustration of three tone combinations;

Oversimplified? Yes but you can see how using only these three tonal divisions can give you a variety of compositional choices. What I want you to pay close attention to is the contrasts between elements. No two elements blend into each other, creating a strong visual composition between all the parts. In the next example I have placed actual photos into the grid that utilize these three tone distributions so you can see how they are used in actual photographs.

As I mentioned earlier, the trick is to be able to understand these tonal distributions when looking at your scene through your viewfinder. Unless you are color blind, it takes training to be able to see our color world in terms of tones. More so when you have to consciously reduce these tones to their three least common denominators. In time this does become easier to the point of almost being somewhat of a subconscious act.

Learn to see in tones

One trick you can use to recognize these patterns is to squint your eyes as you look at your scene. This technique removes detail out of the equation and makes it easier to see contrasts better. If you have a hard time with that then just take your shot and squint when looking at the preview screen of your camera. It has the same effect but this time you are looking at your actual composition and framing.

I teach a similar technique in photo editing by utilizing a small thumbnail and reducing the overall tone down to three tones. This also gives you a visual reference to work with during your image editing. Adjustments, corrections and alterations become easier to do when you have a clear map of where problem areas are in your image. This next example shows the above images reduced down to three tones. Compare these with the first illustration and you can see how those compositional guidelines were used.

Once you have your initial thumbnail, you can utilize any editing technique to bring a compositional balance to your image. Masks, brushes, gradients, curves and other basic editing techniques can be used to manipulate foreground to subject, subject to background contrasts. As an example, look at panel number 5 (man on icy path). This image can use a little more contrast between the background the the ground plane. A little lighter on the snow would make this image that much stronger.

Three tone rule in portraiture

The same principle can be used in a portraiture setting to maximize contrasts between subject skin tone, hair tone, clothing and background choice. Obviously there will be subtle differences, specially when it comes to hair and clothing, but at least you can control the various contrasts through the proper use of lighting once you understand these simple guidelines.

Know when to break the rules

There are situations that will call for the three tone rule to be broken. In particular, high key and low key lighting scenarios are the first two that come to mind. This next illustration shows how modifying the tonal balances can greatly alter the look of an image. Emphasis can be exaggerated or reduced depending on how contrasts are used.

As your eye improves, you will gain a certain finesse over these oversimplified three tone guides. Shadow edge transitions will become more subtle and you will gain a better understanding of lighting in layers. Those subtleties will elevate your image making to a higher level, but the basic principles will ground your images in a strong foundation. Without that strong foundation subtleties get washed away.

I hope this basic tutorial gives you a better understanding of how tones drive a composition. Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences.


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