« Football Day (OT) | Main | Two Photography Books, One Light and One Heavy »

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


It occurs to me that in addition to the art of good printing, "good tone" (and I do like that phrase) is also dependent on exposure and development. That pertains to film photography, of course; I don't know if it's meaningful with digital other than perhaps choosing a different camera/sensor for the exposure.

When I was doing a lot of 4x5 work at an old rail yard site, I generally "pulled" my exposures and developed with HC-110B or Rodinal. For portrait or fashion work, I think I would have chose something like D-76, FG-7, etc.; today it might also be XTol.

As much as I enjoyed printing, I tried to obtain a negative that required as little manipulation as possible. Paper was relatively expensive then, and it is even more so now.

I am not easily impressed, but - WOW! What a beautiful portrait. I am not sure such tone can ever be guaranteed even by the best shooters, but if one is exceptionally good, sometimes it just happens.

Funny you mention tone today. I went to DC on Saturday to catch a couple of exhibitions, including one at the Phillips Collection. There I saw a Walker Evans print of an Alabama landowner...


The screen version is unremarkable, but I tell you that the range of grey tones and print quality was so wonderful that I've been thinking about that print for days now. I've been fortunate to own a couple of Evans' prints, but I wish I had this one on my wall.

And speaking of football, I've never seen an ending to a game as wild as the one between the Ravens and Vikings on Sunday. Six lead changes in the fourth quarter set an all-time NFL record, including 5 touchdowns in the last 2 minutes and 5 seconds, in an otherwise low scoring affair. Simply nuts. And the winning catch was every bit as good as the one you linked, although I thought yours depended on an even better throw.

You have talked about tone occasionally, but never in any great depth that I can recall. I would be eager to read more about what you see as good, acceptable, and bad tone.

I realize it may be hard to put into words. Possibly you could suggest other photographers' work--perhaps some commonly-available books--featuring really good tone.

Examples of work (again, books might be most helpful) which has other merits but has poor tone, might also be helpful for us students. Of course, that might be overly contentious.

"I would say one in every ten black-and-white pictures I see have acceptable tone, and one in one hundred have good tone."
And yet almost every picture has a black and a white and all the greys in between. What is good tone?

I've been thinking about B&W over the last few months ... not deliberating shooting it but I've become aware of shooting for colour and shooting for "not colour, but something else". During post, I typically convert the latter images to B&W, as they don't work as colour images. Maybe the "something else" is tone, as the B&W conversion generally works out! :-)

I'd be interested to read your thoughts on "good tone".

So "I feel relaxed and happy today" is presumed to be indicative of something bad?
I always thought Garrison Keillor was exaggerating about all that Great Planes Stoicism but perhaps not.

Don't know what to say but "wow". What an image. The Good Tone is obvious, even on this small online posting. Thanks for sharing.

PS: You came down to Chicago for Bears vs. Cowboys last night!?!

I never realized that there was such a large distance between the bottom of her nose and the top of her lip.

The subject of tone is near and dear to my heart at the moment. I'm at a point in my photography where my focus is on attaining good tone... or tonality that is compelling for a given photo. It's hard to describe, but I find that some prints have a tonality that serves the photo so well, and in striving for that in my prints, it can be elusive. I don't need external help in composition, or in deciding what to photograph... but toward acheiving that sumptuous tonality, I'll take any help I can get (in addition to all my trial and error). In my case, tonality is a result of the interaction between emulsion, light, developer, toners, etc...


@ John Camp: all beautiful people have something just a little odd about their faces. It's the "attract"ant in attractive. For example, Jackie Onassis' eyes were "too far apart," and that was something that drew you to her striking appearance. A number of the classic beauties from the 1930's movies era were almost interchangeable in their appearances because the studios had this mold they expected an actress to fill. In later years, the slightly "off" actresses began to find audiences because the "normal" beauties just didn't stand out. For the record, I find Nicole Kidman to be one of the most striking beauties of our time.

This portrait is photoshopped to death. It looks like an aluminum suitcase with glass eyes.
It may have "tone", but it is completely artificial.
Take care.

Doesn't it look like she should have had a cigarette in her left hand ?

That photo of Nicole is superb.
I have been shooting and developing B&W film and/or converting digital to B&W for a while now. Just long enough to realize how difficult it is to achieve "tone"!!. Every once in a while it just happens.

Nicole kidman you say, Mike? Strange! Are you sure it's not Lenina, you know, the sister of Josef :


So pneumatic!

I find the pose interesting. Redolent of the 1940s era of 'Star' photography. Everything except the missing cigarette. Very clever

I too would like to know what "good tone" actually means and second the call for a recommended text on how to define and achieve "good tone".

As a hobbyist who occassionally shoots black and white film, I'm wondering how to consistently achieve "good tone". Assuming I don't mess up development, good photos seem to happen more by chance than design. Of course, the answer could simply be "practice".

Thanks in advance.

No doubt why Mr. Demarchelier gets the big bucks here. One of the very few images of NK where she actually looks human - at least to my eye.

That's lovely - but what's she doing that nonchalant smouldering cigarette-hand for, when she hasn't got a nonchalant smouldering cigarette? (grin)

I love good tone, and I have to admit that sadly, I have never managed to produce great tone in a B/W print. Same with digital B/W. I know what I want but I can't produce it.

Food for thought: what is tone for color?


I believe the good Doctors here in LA call that the Lip-n-Schnozz line. If you look at older pics of the gorgeous Ms. Kidman you'll see that line is adjustable, and is based on the age and popularity indexes of the subject, divided by the infamous "available discretionary funds" adjustment.


Maybe the homogenenity of the blond hair, summer dress, pale eyes and (soft, but i don't know) skin of Ms. Kidman do contribute to the sillkyness of the image?

Count me as another wondering what a working description of tone would be. And yet I get the parallels between images and sound, as the Armstrong reference suggests.

I see a texture brought about by the range of grays here. Something that therefore makes it "real enough" or at least more meaningful for the eye.

For you non-audiophiles out there (which would be, statistically most of you ...) in my opinion image tone is a fair analogy to that pursuit, as it's a harmony of sorts, a balance, a feeling nothing's missing nor over-represented.

Your comment about keeping a good reference print around to "season the eye" resonated with me. I have done the inverse of that with wine. Training the nose on all the various chemical compounds (good and bad)possible in wine is very difficult let alone associating an experience in the nose with an adequately descriptive word. I am reluctant to admit it, but I kept a bottle of seriously corked wine for a long time so I could train my nose on that particular fault. Before that training I would open a bottle and detect something wrong and wonder if it was corked, but be uncertain. Today I am sure of my assessment. Likewise with my printing I will detect something wrong, but not be able to identify what is bothering me and put a label to it. In addition to the longer monthly articles you referenced above, perhaps in your retirement you can sell packages of prints designed to train the eye on concepts like good versus bad tone. A picture is worth a 1000 words.

Mike, I propose you start the ball rolling with a few examples, notes, book recommendations perhaps. I expect the comments section will do the rest. Moderating the discussion ought to be easier than the lengthy treatise you are not quite up to writing at the moment.

It's not strictly black-and-white picture, it's kind of delicate sepia actually.

I hope you will rethink your answer to David Bostedo. I'm sure you could write a book about tone, but I am also sure you could do enough in 2 or 3 blog posts to help people get the idea and move their work in the right direction.

As someone who has been printing and looking at black and white for 40 or more years I think I know what you mean, but I'd like to hear more.

Right now I have 4 B&W prints on my evaluation wall, working toward a new portfolio. I'd say 2 have pretty good tone, though I'm not sure I'm satisfied. One of them I will try one more variation, the other I will probably let stand. One other print has potential for good tone and I have an idea how to get it. That one I will reprint. The last is a good picture but because of the subject matter and lighting will never have the kind of tone I like. Most likely it will not make the final cut for the print portfolio, though I sure do like the content and will probably keep it online.

Jeff said: "The screen version is unremarkable, but I tell you that the range of grey tones and print quality was so wonderful that I've been thinking about that print for days now."

Some comments have already asked what is "good tone". A question more often asked on photo fora is "what is a good print"? My late friend, Fort Worth photographer Lee Carmichael, would often respond by asking in turn: "Have you ever seen one"?

It is amazing how many amateur photographers have never actually seen real prints by good photographers, but are only going by books, and now, internet images. There is no comparison! One must see many, many, good prints (with good tone)if one is to develop into any kind of serious black and white printer themselves.

Just my opinion, of course.

To John Camp- hope you have no itch to draw a mustache there.

This looks like it has been digitally manipulated. They removed the cigarette from her hand.

As a followup to Dave Bostedo's comment and your response I was wondering, Mike, if you could recommend any books on the subject of "tone" (or similar)? -- since it is the holiday season.

What a stunning portrait.

"...it doesn't matter. The results matter." Mike, this led me down an interesting chain of thought. I realised that, maybe just to me, and without being able to logically justify my position, I respect and appreciate film/darkroom prints more than digital/photoshop prints even if they look identical to the last 'pixel' (and I shoot waaay more digital than film btw). Something about the connotation of mass production/trickery in digital photography vs craft/skill in film. Like I said, totally not rational but there it is.

Tone. I call it Harmony. A really good Printer in the darkroom days could achieve this, it's like composing music (which is why yu are an Audiophile, Mike!); it is now possible in the Digital medium. When I am working on my digital prints in photoshop, I have my old darkroom pictures to use as a Reference Point to tell me what the pictures should really look like.

I'd say most of the tone referred to is due to the work of the retoucher who has good skills in Photoshop dodge and burn, separating the texture from the tone, and luminance masking.

As Associate Justice Stewart Potter once said of a different topic - I don't know what tone is but I know it when I see it.

I was in the Weston Gallery in Carmel, CA today and spent some time talking about the different tone of various BW prints on the walls. It seems that the desired tone for portraiture has changed dramatically over the years.

There were a few Karsh portraits and I am always surprised at how dark they are by todays standards. They are lit that way but they also seem to have a quality about them where the paper seems to have been heavily flashed. There is lots of detail in the shadows, but almost the entire face in every portrait is in the shadow. (The Churchill portrait being an exception.) I love his portraits party for this quality.

But there were other prints of portraits and nudes with this same darker flesh tone look. And thoughts on that?



Was it Photoshop or the Plastic Surgeon that manipulated her nose and removed the cigarette between her index and middle finger? I think the tone and related compliment should be directed more towards the hairdresser and the cosmetologist rather than the photographer and subject. There must be a better example of tone that's a lot more low maintenance.

We can read Demarchelier from an other angle than that of Aldous Huxley ("Brave new world", Lenina Crowne.

In his poem's "beauty"(The flowers of evil), Baudelaire:

Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre

I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone


A serious question arises: Is the Lady Kindman of Demarchelier pneumatic (Huxley) or hieratic (Baudelaire)?

But if we invite Baudelaire it is absolutely impossible to ignore the Greek philosophy and poetry: Homer, Plato, Plotinus - to interpret that image of the Lady Kindman of Demarchelier. One alternative:

* Mrs. K. is an Idol = Eidôlon. The image is a reflection, a simulacrum, a kind of facsimile of the Sensible appearance.

Confers the poem of Walt Witman "Eidolons" which is more in the sense of phantom:


* Mrs. K. is an Icon = Eikon. The image is then a mere symbol in the order of the Intellect, decoupled from the Sensible.

Conclusion: Demarchelier is a master of ambiguity, which is the essence of art.

Pierre Charbonneau: I think you're onto something with softness. I have a suspicion that one aspect of `good tone' is how it interacts with areas of bokeh.

The truth is that most of us live in an age where the vast majority of visually literate people under the age of 40 have never seen good quality glossy silver black and white photographic prints up close and not behind glass. This makes most discussions of tone and such (pace digital printer Ctein and others) highly abstract. Still, being of a certain age, I can probably correctly imagine what that print of Nicole Kidman looks like in real life.

Speaking of the talented Ms. Kidman, life appears to have transformed her the wayphotoshop changes images. She sure looks different from what she used to look like years ago at the start of her career in Australia. Take a look at this picture of the younger Nicole Kidman.


Ms Kidman was working on the movie Grace of Monaco that explains the 1950s styles in the photo above (and the others in the Vogue series) to promote the movie.

The movie has been pushed back to March 2014


The comments to this entry are closed.