Photographic tone. It’s the least understood skill in photography that’s nearly been lost.

I’m on a mission to change that and I want my first video of the year to do that. Most photographers don’t realize that photographic tone is the secret skill that makes them understand every shot. Today we learn it…

But videos like this did not exist when I was starting out. These are the 3 keys of tone in photography so you can master them fast regardless of your experience level. And they will change how you create photos.

MORE TIPS: Get free ticket to my next Shadow Hackers LIVE workshop to take this further. Also in the video, I mentioned Filmist film presets, Silver 5, Natural HDR, and Lumist Actions.

The unabashed flaring of the sun gives a natural haze to this morning street that can’t be done with a single slider. It was processed gold using GoldChrome

The photographic tone is the foundation of great photos. But the tone is a wide-ranging one that comes from the painters and the way they learned to understand shadow and contrast long before cameras.

This is the lost skill in Photography that I go on deeper in my workshops and today I’m sharing the keys to unlock this door in the simplest way I know how. IN consists of 3 elements that lead us to what tone does for us and why it is important.

  1. Shadows create contrast
  2. Contrast reveals tone
  3. Tone creates atmosphere

These 1,2,3 lists mean little to your photographic tone without context. So in the video, we’re comparing different photos to see how not only edits but how shadow contrast and ambiance in each will define our result.

IN another Xpan style crop we see light creating bloom and reducing contrast. The net result is that tone is more subtle and more contrast is created in the overall image. Edited with Street’ist.

In my Exposed Master class, we learn everything about exposure and zones. Those are the technical aspects. But if you’ve been to Shadow Hackers or seen the Photo Perfect workshop you know that combining those with the artist’s aesthetic is what makes a great photo.

In the end, the tone is pretty simple and yet subjective. But if you constantly remind yourself of the three factors. Shadow, contrast, and tone, which is the combination of all the light and dark and mist and color. All of them combined create a tone in your own style.

We see the contrast between the burned tree and the tone of the model. Then edited with a David Hamilton-inspired process to create softness with contrast and balanced photographic tone.
We see the contrast between the burned tree and the tone of the model. Then edited with a David Hamilton-inspired process to create softness with contrast and a balanced photographic tone.

As much as I use sliders and settings and layers inside and out in my tool packs. Tone-like shadow is not created by the slider it’s just moved around.

When we use contrast to just create hard lines we lose tonal nuance and atmosphere. In the end, the contrast of the overall scenes is less, and viewers don’t see the nuance you wanted to show.

If you missed my video on why you should STOP using contrast sliders go check it out and also read my post about how to use the Zone system in digital to hack shadows. You’ll find more on my channel.

As I keep building these free resources and simplifying the process of understanding tone I help myself learn more and hopefully, you as I realize a dream that’s spanned 20 years to make a simple process for those of us who want to truly master our style in photography.

We compare two of these in the video. Note how the tone of this one is softened but less distracting than what might be called the contrast image.
We compare two of these in the video. Note how the tone of this one is softened but less distracting than what might be called the contrast image. Edited with Filmist.

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About the Author

Glad you're here.

I'm from WA State USA and started studying photography in 97. I started work as a pro (using that word loosely because I sucked) using film at age 16. I learned fast but was not as easy to find training then. Sometimes I beat my head against the wall until I figured stuff out.

As digital dawned I went all in and got to study with masters like Ken Whitmire. In 09 I founded the Pro Photo Show podcast. I started promoting tone-focused editing. When Lightroom arrived, I started developing tools to make editing and workflow better.

20 years of study and photography around the country earned me a Master of Photography (M.Photog) from PPA. I got to see my workshops and tools featured in publications across the industry. Once I even won the prestigious HotOne award for my "EXposed" light and tone workshop.

Wanting something calmer, I moved to Mexico in 2017. It's a land of magical light. I'm here now exploring light and trying to master my weak areas. I make videos of that for my Youtube channel, sharing what I learn. I hope you'll stick around and be part of Light Hunters Tribe... Gavin

Gavin Seim

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