Form and Tone


It is the midtones that are all- important for providing a subject with three-dimensional form. The subtle gradation of shades in between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks gives body and substance to a flat photograph.

These tones are the photographic equivalent of the shading in an artist’s drawing. They help distinguish the contours of a face, or a cube from a sphere, for example. To accentuate form, you want the changes in tone between areas of dark and light to be as gradual as possible. This is primarily achieved using lighting.

If a subject is lit from the side, rather than 
from another lighting angle, you get a higher proportion of areas that are half in shadow and half in the light. This then provides the crucial mid tones that reveal the contours of a subject. Varying the angle of the lighting in relation to the subject, either by moving the light itself or by changing viewpoint, will change the mid- tones, and the amount of form that is revealed. The lighting must not be too direct, because this can create intense highlights that tend to drown out the subtlety of the shading. But it should not be too soft, either—otherwise the illumination is too even. The best light for accentuating form is halfway between the two. The partially diffused light you get by using a soft box over a studio light, or from sunlight that is softened by thin clouds, is ideal.

Outdoors, the darker side of a sidelit subject will almost always be lit indirectly—from sunlight reflected from surrounding buildings, the ground, or even from the sky. This natural fill-in helps to soften the shadows, and create a better range of midtones to suggest the three-dimensional form of the subject.

In the home studio, however, you need to provide this fill-in effect yourself—otherwise the shadows can end up being completely featureless and black. Although a second light can be used to partially balance that of the main sidelight, this is not really necessary. You can often simply use a reflector. This needs to be strategically placed to bounce light back from the main light source into the deepest shadows on the subject. Although specially made reflectors can be bought, a large sheet of white cardboard or paper, or a bedsheet, can be just as effective.


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