Tonality (win a free roll of film) : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Hi Everyone -

The word "tonality" pops up frequently on this forum. I'll read that someone prefers emulsion XYZ over ABC because of it's rich tonality.

So what does the word mean, really? Is it a vague synonym for "characteristic curve", or is it meaningless chatter, like Fred Picker's dreaded "mid-tone sparkle"?

So, how about a "define the term" contest? Sharpen up your pencils, get out the dictionary, and shoot some WD40 into your brain. If this word has a photographically useful definition, one of us ought to be able to come up with it. If not, well, we haven't lost much.

Post your suggestions here, and well see if there's one that makes sense. I'll reward the winning submission with a 20 exposure roll of freezer-stored Panatomic-X, vintage 1985. This discontinued film, as everyone knows, was the King of Tonality, the standard against which all others were judged. Would I lie to you?

- Kevin

-- Kevin Bourque (, May 18, 2002



at a certain macroscopic level (the level we usually look at photographs when not using a microscope), we usually do regard analog film as a continuous tone recorder. But when we blow up a picture we stretch the tonal values recorded onto the negative. On the one hand, we increase the space between the grain (the tonal atoms) and on the other hand, every paper gradation has a gamma value >1. This means that the tonal values on the Positive do always lie further apart than on the Negative. Each Film has different limits here.

A Film with a good tonality will yield a pleasing Positive, no matter what scale or paper gradation you may need to express your vision. And will yield good tonal separation in highlights and shadows while you concentrate on the mid-tones.


-- Thilo Schmid (, May 18, 2002.

Whether it's high-key, low-key or 20 zones across the board, tonality is what gives an image life and magic, makes us believe in the "reality" of what only lies on 2 dimensions; on a piece of paper. Handled well, tonality doesn't just record but also interprets and inspires. GOOD QUEST

-- David Stein (, May 18, 2002.

I do think we photographers tend to throw around words sometimes of which we've never considered the meaning. I've always taught that, beyond grain structure, the film's response to light, that is it's curve, should determine your choice of which to use. And my definition of that is the film's tonality. How much does it record in the shadows of the scene? in the highlights? And mostly, what does the straight line portion look like. The answers to those comprise my meaning of tonality. Expose several film types to the same scene, process according to the box instructions, make a black time contact, and the difference you'll see is the difference in tonality. I think. And thanks for asking this. Gary

-- Gary Meader (, May 18, 2002.

A film which has the ability to record the colors of the physical world in a pleasing and beautiful way, is usually considered a film with a strong color, or tonal sense.

However, if the film is being processed by a beginner, it most likely will not display its full potential because of the photographer’s shortcomings. A better example is probably taken from music – a student violinist can be given a world class instrument, and yet will still not be able to produce the full tonal possibilities the instrument can offer. Only through long and painstaking practice will the instrument’s full potential become available. When a photographer asks a question such as, “K.’s portraits have a creamy texture. What film and processing does he use to achieve it?”, it usually reflects an idea that photography is merely a mechanical process that can easily be mastered. I think the question is as absurd as asking, “Anne Sophie Mutter has a rich and subtle tonal style, what violin does she use”? as if the violin is responsible for the music she produces. While the instrument is an important part in the process, it is secondary to the vision, feeling, skill, and dedication the musician brings to the task of making music. Most films on the market have the ability to produce the necessary colors, or tones, required to make a good print, but it is what the photographer does with the film which will determine if the print is alive or dead.

-- James Webb (, May 18, 2002.


To me, tonality is what makes me say :"WOW. Look at that photograph!!" I say that when I look at a print of Sebastian Salgado, or John Sexton, or some of my platinum prints and a few of my "regular" ones.

At the risk of oversimplifying and seeming flippant,I recall Louis Armstrong saying that if you had to have Jazz explained to you, you would never understand it. Tonaltiy is the ability to reproduce the infinite hues and colouration of the world with a series of white, grey and black that "looks like" the original scene, as it was seen and remembered, or visualized. A negative that does not have the ability to do that is considered to have poor tonality. As said above, 99% of the time ity is the lack of skill/art of the maker and not the film.


-- RICHARD ILOMAKI (, May 19, 2002.

Photographers and photographic scientists tend to use different terminology. The photographer term "tonality" can describe how the light values in the scene are mapped to shades of grey on the print. The photographic scientist would use more rigorously defined terms and think of the shades of grey on the print as arising from the light intensities in the scene, the characteristic curves of the film and paper. Both characteristic curves will depend on the exposure times and development given. These of course are the controls that may separate a beginning photographer from an experienced one. If one wants to talk about the "tonality" of a film in isolation from the entire process, I would take the term as a synonym for the characteristic curve of the film.

-- Michael Briggs (, May 19, 2002.

I WOULD LOVE SOME PANATOMIC X!! Can you still get some frx-22 developer?? You know, with all this debate between digital vs film vs tonality vs charataristic curves (Brittany Spears has some character, still trying to figure out if her naval is 1 or 2 stories high in Time Square NYC).

What I think should happen is let digital go where it wants. But film makers like Kodak, Ilford, Agfa should do extensive research into the BEST EVER black and white film for slow, medium and fast films, select the three best in regards to tonality, latitude, finest grain, sharpest etc, etc, etc. Then produce only those three to the highest possible standards. The same with papers.

I don't know, would ya??

-- Rob Pietri (, May 19, 2002.

Another misreading leading to the use of the term 'Tonality' might actually be the effect of 'GRADATION' - or the relative separation between similar tones (probably mid-tone area) exhibited by a particular combination of materials and chemistry.

In the Fourth Edition of his book Beyond The Zone System Phil Davis has added a chapter on 'gradation' in which he illustrates quite graphically the differences in the rendering of a static still life shot on the same film (TMX if memory serves me) and four different developers. The most noticeable differences appear in the mid tones although there are, of course, highlight and shadow differences also. I know which rendering I prefer but I suspect that a panel of viewers could choose any of the four and validate his decision dependent upon his personal aestheticaspirations.

One man's tonality may prove to be another man's banality (sorry for the sexism, girls) so once again we should count our blessings that we may be created equal but we are not the same.

Walter Glover

-- Walter Glover (, May 19, 2002.

Tonality; The abilitiy of a medium, both film, paper, and lenses to capture minute nuances of local contrast that result in the additive rendition of a subject with perfect and exact clarity.

-- Jim Galli (, May 20, 2002.

BTW Panatomic X is still very much alive as is Kodak XX. I use Panatomic X in the 5X7 roughly 40% of the time. And the tonality is indeed magnificent. Available from B&H Photo and others.

-- Jim Galli (, May 20, 2002.

.....and of course the "link" just takes you to B&H's home page for some nice free advertising for them as usual. Sorry. If you'll copy this address and paste it into your address bar it will take you to their aerial recon film page. tivator__Aproduct_html___CatID=356___SID=EC82C928870

-- Jim Galli (, May 20, 2002.

Aerial reconn with a 5x7 field view camera-that's what I call Back to the Future. But why not just use glass plates-in the multi-winder back. Be careful stepping out onto that biplane wing. Waldo Pepper Sr. !!!

-- David Stein (, May 20, 2002.

Tonality, luminosity, brilliance, crispness, gradatiion, snap, crackle, pop!

Photography is probably the most subjective of art forms and carries with it the most subjective terminology to describe qualities in a print. If everyone who has contributed to this post were to photograph the same subject under favorite lighting conditions and with format, film, developer and paper of choice (don't forget post printing techniques: toning, bleaching etc), you would have an equal number of different interpretations of the subject, each one displying some or all of the above terms as defended by the photographer.

So it really is "meaningless chatter". If you expose enough film and make enough prints and have what you consider an excellent print to use as an example, everyone who persues his craft seriously will have his own definition of what tonality is.

-- James Chinn (, May 21, 2002.

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