Image Tonality and the Histogram- Part Three: Highlight Distinction

Most scenes captured in full daylight that include elements that are almost pure white and nearly total black. Many times their dynamic nature gets buried within a standard single exposure. The tones are there, as your camera has the capacity to capture over 4000 colors and tones between white and black. The problem is that the initial distribution of those tones is portrayed in a “linear” fashion rather than the dynamic way that your eyes observed them in the original scene.

Building on the last session (Part Two) where we clarified the three-quarter tones, this session we’ll now add clarification to the quarter tones. In the picture below, the pounding surf splashing onto the huge lava rocks is still a powerful memory (yes, the sound did add to the experience). While the camera captured this scene pretty faithfully, the initial portrayal of the tones on the computer display was quite disappointing. Remembering the dynamic lighting and saturated colors in the original scene, I felt a responsibility to open up those colors and tones in an effort to do the scene justice.

Whether you shoot RAW or JPEG, when you see your image captures presented on your computer monitor for the first time, you only see a standard breakdown of those tones as a (linear) capture interpreted by the standard JPEG tone curve. This is like buying a one-size-fits-all garment and expecting it to fit. Pretty standard and boring. Most likely, the distribution of tones will need some help.

The real details- both in the quarter and three-quarter tones- are right there in the scene. They are literally hiding within the deep shadows and behind the brash highlights of the initial JPEG interpretation, waiting to be released from the prison of the standard JPEG interpretation. Your job is to liberate and distinguish them.

LavaSplash-1-HighlightAThe top picture is the original JPEG capture, and the bottom picture is the adjusted version.

LavaSplash-1-HighlightCNow if you’ve never been to Hawaii, this aqua color may look contrived, but I assure you… it is not. If anything, the colors are quite muted compared to what I saw in real life. This water is the clearest, blue-aqua color on the planet. Look closely at the spray of water hitting the lava rocks. The aqua color within the spray in the bottom picture was not added or emphasized in any way. The corrected image has a very small amount of saturation added; just enough to reveal the real colors but not so much as to diminish the all-important tonal structure (remember, the counter side of saturation is tonality).

Your digital camera does a fine job of capturing massive amounts of data, but it cannot see the lighting dynamics of the scene the way your eye sees it. The data in the highlights that was bunched up in the pure white in the original JPEG image (top) simply had to be separated from the “blown out” white spray. This adjustment is choreographed between the White slider and the Highlights slider in Camera Raw and Lightroom. In Photoshop, make this adjustment (in 16-bit mode) with the Highlights/Shadows tool.

I make it a point to visit the web sites of the folks that follow this blog. There is a common thread that runs through just about all of you… you’re a seasoned photographer, you have significant film experience, you’re passionate about your photography, and you’re not through learning how to do it better. I’ve seen some truly amazing work. As a professional, you know it’s up to you to finesse your data to deliver the visual emotion that caused you to capture the scene in the first place. The magic of detail is created when tones are shaped and reassembled using your memory, and an accurate monitor. You saw the scene in person, you simply need to reconstruct that scene the way you remember it.

This finessing process is not a quest for visual fantasy; overemphasizing contrast, over saturating colors and unrealistically sharpening images. You’re better than that! The real art is to recreate for others the scene you experienced, and to do so without drawing any attention to the editing process. If your audience can see the edit, you’ve failed. Nature is already fantasyland. You don’t need to hype it, simply replace any unrealistic visual interpretation with a realistic one.

Tone shaping is an art; it is the finishing-touch companion to digital capture. All the tone tools you need are provided within Camera Raw, Lightroom, Photoshop, and even Photoshop Elements for that matter. Pay attention to the three tone assignments (highlight, mid tone, and shadow) and the three tone ranges (quarter tones, middle tones, and three-quarter tones). Just coax them to dance together.

Finesse, restraint, and fanatical attention to detail. Three good guideposts for editing.

This series is a small excerpt from my soon to be released book titled The Digital Image: From Capture to Presentation and Everywhere In-between. If you find this series helpful, imagine what the book will do for you.

That’s the way eye sees it. Feel free to leave a comment and keep the conversation going. If you saw this post listed on a LI group page, add a comment to the listing in that group! Thanks for joining me. If you like this blog, let me know and tell your friends.

This is the first appearance of the spooky series called Image Tonality and the Histogram. This first installment is open to the public but the balance of the series will be available only to followers of this blog. Sign in now (top right of this page).

See you next time, Herb

Click the Follow button at the top of the page so you don’t miss any future posts.

PS. if you have an iPad and are interested in learning about more about the fundamentals of digital photography, I suggest that you take a look at my Accurate Color iBook in the iTunes Store

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
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1 Response to Image Tonality and the Histogram- Part Three: Highlight Distinction

  1. speeddemon2 says:

    Herb my question is: Why are you starting with a jpg? Isn’t there a far greater amount of info in the RAW file? This is not a criticism but an effort to better understand what you are saying.

    BTW I agree with your statement about recreating a scene as you, the photographer, saw it. Sometimes that will encompass color and tone that some may question the authenticity of. I still recall a sunset in Alabama years ago when the red clay I saw was a crimson red in the last moments of sunset. No drugs…. just my eyes and mind working in concert. I’m sometimes asked if the colors I reveal were “really” there and I can honestly say that in my mind’s eye they are exactly as I remember them.

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