Tonal Contrast for Emphasis
Smoking at the Bank – Tonal contrast for emphasis
If you asked twenty people in the street ‘What’s the best colour to make a white object stand out?”, they would probably all say ‘black’ (except those who know that black isn’t a colour!). It is obvious, isn’t it? But in the heat and excitement of the moment the street photographer can easily forget the most obvious principles and miss the opportunity to make a scene into an effective piece of communication.
This picture is clearly about the whisps of smoke that appear above the man’s head. We know that because they are probably the first things we notice when we look at the picture. They are the first things we notice because they stand out, and they stand out because the difference between their brightness and the deep dark shades of the doorway represent the strongest tonal contrast in the scene.
Tonal contrast: brain v camera
When I saw the potential of the shot I’m not sure where the smoke was, but it stood out because my eyes and brain were able to separate the smoke from whatever background it was against, but the camera can’t do that on its own. When I came to take the picture I adjusted my position so that the light toned smoke would be against a dark toned background – not against the stone wall or the pillar in the distance. It is this slight shift in my position, and the differences in the tonal values of subject and background that make the shot work. Had the smoke appeared over the wall of the Bank the picture wouldn’t have worked at all.
The reason I moved was because I had thought all that through in the seconds between seeing and taking the shot. I didn’t just get wow’ed by the smoke, I thought about the best way to get the message to you that the smoke rising from the man’s head looked cool with the light shining through it. And it is that few seconds of thinking that make the difference and which are so often missing.
Contrast, depth of field and saturation
The shallow depth of field helps, of course, as does the soft light of the rainy day that allowed the camera’s dynamic range to capture the full scale of the tonal values of the scene. I exposed for the smoke, not for the man’s jacket, because I didn’t want it to appear pure white and featureless.
It was a muted sort of morning, and there are no strong colours in the scene. I’ve desaturated the image it a little more to give it a stronger monochromatic atmosphere. I also cropped square for a classic feel that suits the moderate tones and colours.
Smoking is of course pretty bad for the health of humans, and as prices and prohibition increase fewer and fewer people are doing it. That’s great for the lungs of the nation, but one day scenes like this will be rare. Go out and make the most of smokers while we still have some.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 with Taylor Taylor Hobson 2in f/2 Telekinic lens
I run regular street photography classes around London, both during the day and at night, so why not join me and a very small group of other photographers for some instruction and inspiration – and a lot of fun?
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