the image histogram (v) – tone

In addition to shape, a histogram can be described using different tonal regions. The left side of the histogram represents the darker tones, or shadows, whereas the right side represents the brighter tones, or highlights, and the middle section represents the midtones. Many different examples of histograms displaying these tonal regions exist. Figure 1 shows a simplified version containing 16 different regions. This is somewhat easier to visualize than a continuous band of 256 grayscale values. The histogram depicts the movement from complete darkness to complete light.

Fig.1: An example of a tonal range – 4-bit (0-15 gray levels)e

The tonal regions within a histogram can be described as:

  • highlights – The areas of a image which contain high luminance values yet still contain discernable detail. A highlight might be specular (a mirror-like reflection on a polished surface), or diffuse (a refection on a dull surface).
  • mid tones – A midtone is an area of an image that is intermediate between the highlights and the shadows. The areas of the image where the intensity values are neither very dark, nor very light. Mid-tones ensure a good amount of tonal information is contained in an image.
  • shadows – The opposite of highlights. Areas that are dark but still retain a certain level of detail.

Like the idealized view of the histogram shape, there can also be a perception of an idealized tonal region – the midtones. However an image containing only midtones tends to lack contrast. In addition, some interpretations of histograms add additional an additional tonal category at either extreme. Both can contribute to clipping.

  • blacks – Regions of an image that have near-zero luminance. Completely black areas are a dark abyss.
  • whites – Regions of an image where the brightness has been increased to the extent that highlights become “blown out”, i.e. completely white, and therefore lack detail.

Figure 2 shows an image which illustrates nearly all the regions (with a very weird histogram). The numbers on the image indicate where in the histogram those intensities exist. The peak at ① shows the darkest regions of the image, i.e. the deepest shadows. Next, the regions associated with ② include some shadow (ironically they are in shadow), graduating to midtones. The true mid-tonal region, ③, are regions of the buildings in sunlight. The highlights, ④, are almost completely attributed to the sky, and finally there is a “white” region, ⑤, signifying a region of blow-out, i.e. where the sun is reflecting off the white-washed parts of the building.

Fig.2: An example of the various tonal regions in an image histogram

Figure 3 shows how tonal regions in a histogram are associated with pixels in the image. This image has a bimodal histogram, with the majority of pixels in one of two humps. The dominant hump to the left, indicates a good portion of the image is in the shadows. The right-sided smaller hump is associated with the highlights, i.e. the sky, and sunlit pavement. There is very little in the way of midtones, which is not surprising considering the harsh lighting in the scene.

Fig.3: Tonal regions associated with image regions.

Two other commonly used terms are low-key and high-key.

  • A high-key image is one composed primarily of light tones, and whose histogram is biased towards 255. Although exposure and lightning can influence the effect, a light-toned subject is almost essential. High-key pictures usually have a pure or nearly pure white background, for example scenes with bright sunlight or a snowy landscape. The high-key effect requires tonal graduations, or shadows, but precludes extremely dark shadows.
  • A low-key image describes one composed primarily of dark tones, where the bias is towards 0. Subject matter, exposure and lighting contribute to the effect. A dark-toned subject in a dark-toned scene will not necessarily be low-key if the lighting does not produce large areas of shadow. An image taken at night is a good example of a low-key image.

Examples are shown in Figure 4.

Fig.4: Examples of low-key and high-key images.

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