Playing around with developing film has brought a bit of enlightenment my way. I have a hint of what photographers mean when they speak of the “tone” of an image. Keep in mind this particular use of the word isn’t concerned with the grey scale range, or the Zone system, or the exposure, but rather the sense being offered by the image. What it feels like, in essence.
And it helps me realize there are some technical aspects of image quality that are simply not relevant, as only film can portray.
Here are two examples. First, a landscape image. For this I expect sharp focus throughout the image, good exposures and colors, a composition that gives a sense of perspective and dimension.
I intentionally waiting until someone walked into the composition to give a frame of reference to the scene. It helps show that the subject – Half Dome – is quite a ways off and that if she is thinking of walking there it’s going to be a bit before she gets there.
The second example is less of a landscape image and more of a setting. This is B&W film, ISO 400 (about 5 years past expiration date), developed by me, scanned and processed digitally. This is the image that caught my attention and started me to thinking about “tone”. This image is grainy, not color, no sense of perspective, and exposed only moderately well. By the standards of the first image it is not as technically “good”. Yet it has a quality about it that is engaging, at least to me. Whereas the landscape above gives a place, the image below gives a mood. Maybe you sense the same mood I do or perhaps you get something different, but it does elicit a sense of something – something different from the image above. And that something is independent of the technical quality of the image.
And this is what got me to thinking. Technical quality only carries an image so far, that without the “tone” I’m talking about the picture is really just a documentary about a point in time. Nothing wrong with that. But the really interesting photos, the memorable ones, they have something else about them. And that something is contained in the essence of the scene, not the technical aspects of the image. The most perfect exposure, focus, contrast and color is important for the first image, but it would be essentially wasted on the second one.
The first glimmer I had of this notion was going through an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize winning images. Many of them would be instantly recognizable and equally memorable. They are part of our collective visual consciousness. Yet looking at them enlarged, framed and hanging on a wall, critiquing them like the fresh photography student I was at the time, I said to myself, “these are really crappy images.” Poor focus, harsh exposures, odd cropping – many technical reasons that would fault an image as part of a portfolio. Nonetheless, looking at them as a person, the “tone” of each image jumped off the wall to make an impression.
Maybe it’s something about B&W that encourages this. Without the seduction of color it’s possible to pay more attention to what the composition says rather than what it looks like. Maybe digital has actually exceeded film for technical quality, and I’ve gotten so caught up in chasing that razor sharp resolution I’ve lost sight of one key purpose of photography – to tell stories – that returning to film enables me to recover. All I know is I’m starting to see compositions and worrying less about the technical aspects and more about the content. It’s an interesting evolution.