Huangshan | Photographing A World Of Grey

Snow disturbed by walkers at a conservation area high up on Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in China.

Like the term chalk and cheese, black and white is often used to describe exact opposites that are, quite literally, poles apart.

While it's possible to make photos of extreme contrast, with little or no tonality between black and white, the classic black and white print will display a full range of tones from jet black; through deep to open shadows; a range of midtowns and subtle highlights all the way up to near white. The great American landscape photographer and master printer, Ansel Adams, is perhaps the most famous exponent of this style of photography.

Understanding Tonality in Digital Photography

These days a histogram is used to describe the distribution of tones within a digital image into a maximum of 256 levels of brightness (where 0 is jet black and 255 is pure white) per color (i.e., Red, Green and Blue). If you multiply the 256 levels of theoretical brightness for each of the three colors (i.e., 256 x 256 x256) you end up with more than 18 million discrete colors (i.e., many, many levels of red, green and blue) in an image. Incredible!

Photography | Where Technique Meets Creativity

But neither the world you photograph nor your intentions always lend themselves to this classic rendering of tones. You may be photographing a scene with predominantly light (e.g., beach or snow) or dark (e.g., close up of a dark tree trunk) tones and, as a consequence, your image may be unlikely to resemble a classic Ansel Adams print.

And, of course, software provides so many options by which an image can be altered/enhanced/manipulated to achieve (hopefully) new, interesting and thought-provoking results.  For example a high key image, where the majority of tones are mid tone or brighter, or a low key image, where the majority of tones are mid tone or darker. 

The image at the top of this post was made on a trek across Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in Eastern China. The path I was following led me to a high, windswept vantage point where I had outstanding views in several directions. After photographing back down towards the hotel I'd stayed at the night before (my birthday) I turned my camera up the hill towards this beautiful, yet somewhat surreal scene. It's always strange in remote or wild areas to see nature contained by barriers, albeit as part of a re-generation strategy.

On the day in question I was hiking under a heavily laden sky. As a result the light was soft and even, producing an almost shadowless light. The majority of the tones were midtowns or brighter (i.e., high key image) and the snow covered trees and ground added subtle texture to the scene.

The problem with this sort of scene is that it can look flat. Fortunately the black fence lines added contrast, as well as great leading lines, moving the viewer through the frame and enhancing the sense of three dimensional space.

While a lot of the delicate tonality is bound to be lost in this small, compressed JPEG (i.e., Joint Photographic Experts Group) there should be enough retained on your monitor to illustrate some of the luminous beauty and sheer wonder I experienced at the top of a quite steep climb. Huangshan is an amazing place to explore and to photograph and I'm very much looking forward to my next adventure there.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru