What does "tone" really mean?

Discussion in 'Digital Darkroom' started by billman, Dec 26, 2006.

  1. Although it's been several years that I've using my digital camera, playing
    with photoshop, and studying things online (like these forums), I still
    haven't come to a clear understanding in my mind what exactly "tone" means
    when some talks about "tonal range", for instance. Is it /just/ about the
    regions on a histogram? If so, then I interpret "tone" to somewhat synomous
    with "brightness". Sometimes when it's used, it seems that "tone" includes
    color as well as brightness. Does a single "tone", for example, correspond to
    a single RGB value, e.g., 222-178-89?

    I hope this question doesn't sound to naive, but I just can't quite determine
    its meaning from the usages I've run across.
  2. As used in Nikon DSLRs, "tone" is comparable to the characteristic curve of film, describing the falloff in sensitivity at the high (shoulder) and low (toe) ends of the curve and the steepness (gamma) in the middle. Since most of what you see in a photo is in the midrange, "tone" is approximately equivalent to contrast, and can be adjusted upward or downward as desired. In Photoshop, the analogy is more related to "Curves" than to "Levels" (histogram).
  3. When one says "tonal qualities" or "tonal scale" in the context of photography, one is using a
    musical allusion referring to the qualities of the different intensities or colors, how they
    interrelate, much as you would listen to a piece of music and perhaps marvel at the tonal
    qualities of the flute or woodwind.

  4. Hue is the color. Saturation is the purity/intensity of the color. Tone is the degree of lightness and darkness.
  5. Tone is the degree of lightness and darkness.
    Not quite right. That is Luminosity.
    What Godfrey said on this one.
  6. Actually, Matt is right on this and gives the defintion used for painting a drawing.

    In the context of the question, "tonal range" is the degree to which a sensor or film can capture light and dark. High contrast film for example has a realatively small tonal range. When discussing cameras, I think it is safe to say that a low pixal P&S will have less "tonal range" than a 13+ megapixal full frame sensor.

    In other words, if it were possible to have a grey-scale chip chart with an infinite number of distinct chips, the camera or film with a lower "tonal range" would distinguish fewer of the chips.
  7. You know, no one is really wrong here; it's just that the word gets used in different ways. To tell the truth, Godfrey's definition is closest to the way I personally use the word -- i.e., more in a subjective way, like, This shot has gorgeous tone. All that statement says is that the interplay of various neighboring levels of lightness "grabs me", esthetically.

    But if you want to use it more clinically, there may be other terms that are more widely understood, especially since Photoshop appeared. Ones like luminescence, contrast etc. -- qualities that can be plotted on a graph. For instance: if you're referring to "a" specific tone, then you mean a level of lightness, a.k.a. luminescence -- regardless of it's color.

    "Tonal range" is another way of saying what the difference is between the darkest and the lightest parts of a picture. It can refer to an actual physical scene in nature, or it can refer to the range that a photo has captured.

    Hope nothing I've said is too silly!
  8. One needs only two words: Hue and Luminosity.

    Luminosity is brightness. Brightness is a value which can indicate differences which you
    can call range.

    Hue is color.

    (B&W photography is hue translated to luminous values).
  9. Thank you, everyone, for all the responses! I can see now why my understanding of "tone" has been so fuzzy.

    Personally, if I were to derive a definition from all the usages I've seen, I think "tone" is more than simply luminosity/brightness - though that seems to be the primary component of its meaning based on what you've all said here. I think there is also a color component to the way most people use it.

    It is good to know, however, that it is not the case that I am simply missing out on a precise definition of the term. :)
  10. I think tone is an extra dimension we put on our film. One person above related tone to music, and that's the way I see it. All guitars will put out the same notes, but each one has a different "tone". I tend to think of it as personality. All photographic media will produce a middle gray,but...none look quite the same.
  11. Hi Bill,
    Tone is the degree of grayness. if the subject has color, imagine taking away its color; What remains is its tone.
    Absensce of any tone makes a subject bright (light gray/white).
    Presence of a tone makes a subject Dark (Dark gray/black)
    A white wall or a white piece of paper has almost no tone whereas Black velvet is dense, that is why it looks black.
    ----- Ken Bhasin

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