The Uniqueness of a Gradient

Gamle damplokomotiver samles fra hele landet og restaureres

I have in previous posts talked about the specific properties of photography, what makes it stand out from other works of art. My focus was – as it almost always is – the visual language, and in this case the visual language that is genuine for photography. In the post The Essential Property of Photography I talked about how the camera’s shutter is the most unique feature of the photographic process enabling the photographer to captured either decisive moments or alternatively, by time exposure, show the structure or form of movement, or express a feeling of speed or movement. In the post The Inherent Property of Photography I talked about the aperture and how this translates into important elements of the visual language, by determining the depth of field of a photograph.

But besides the graphic qualities dictated by the shutter and aperture, there is but one more feature that makes photography unique. It’s the continuous and infinite gradations of a tonal range that a photograph can reproduce. Before photography came about no other visual artistic expression was capable of producing such a smooth gradient. Painters have through all time used various techniques to mix colours to make a smooth transition between two separate tints or shades, but it was and is always based upon an illusion – not a real continuous and infinite gradation.

Photography was a first. Later with the digital era and computer aided design photography is no longer alone in being able to produce such a smooth gradient, but it’s still a characteristic feature that makes photography special, or as the renowned photographer Edward Weston once wrote: «[…] the unbroken sequence of infinitely subtle gradations from black to white [along with the recording of fine detail are the] characteristics which constitute the trademark of the photograph; they pertain to the mechanics of the process and cannot be duplicated by any work of the human hand.»

A continuous tonal gradient brings depth to the photograph. It displays the smooth surface of a sphere lit from the side. Or creates a feeling of three-dimensionality in a landscape when tones fade from dark towards light as the scenery recedes into the background.

It is light trailing over a surface that usually creates a gradient. And the quality of the gradient reveals the quality of the light. If the gradient is smooth it means the light is soft, coming from a large light source. If on the other hand the gradient is compressed and sharp it reflects the fact that the light source is harsh and small. Thus a gradient may be used to set an emotional tone in a photograph, from a gentle ambience to a more wild sensation.

A gradient is also related to form. A soft gradient depicts a smooth form while a sharp gradient depicts an edged and/or angular form. Form comes alive by the way it is lit, which again corresponds to how light emphasize the quality of the gradient. Also the angle of which the light falls on an object determines how its gradient is captured. A low angle will usually form a longer and smoother gradient while light angled 90 degrees onto the object will create a sharp gradient if at all. Thus form, gradient and light are all qualities closely connected.

Of course the tonal range of a gradient doesn’t have to stretch from full dark to the lightest of light, but may be limited to one end of the scale or another. This again will be another deliberate way to set the ambience of a picture, with darker gradients creating a more moody and gloomy atmosphere and a lighter gradient representing hope, happiness and harmony.

On a different note, I will want to warn you that I am about to close down the Picture Critique as I am leaving for an assignment in Nigeria by the end of the week. It’s only going to be a closure of this session, and I will get back with a new round some time into the new year. But if you have a picture you want to have critiqued now, you have only a couple of more days to post it before I close this session. I might not be able to critique pictures before I leave, but then I will get back to them when I return from Nigeria about a week later.


About Otto von Münchow

Photographer based in Norway
This entry was posted in Creativity, Photographic Reflections, Photography, Properties of Photography and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

80 Responses to The Uniqueness of a Gradient

  1. Great information! Have a good trip to Nigeria!

  2. niasunset says:

    Wonderful sharing, Thank you dear Otto, have a nice travel, love, nia

  3. Wonderful points Otto! Safe trip.

  4. Med ønsker om en god reise!

  5. As usual, your thoughts are applicable to my form of art. I tend to “hear and see” instructions, or a more appropriate word might be methods…ourside the box. I’m listening…and learning.
    Safe travels.

  6. Iksa says:

    Thank you for sharing it Otto. Have a safe trip to Nigeria ..

  7. Patti Kuche says:

    Thank you for more wonderful information Otto and wishing you safe travels in Nigeria!

  8. Excellent post Otto. Have a great trip!

  9. More insights that are woven with an image that captivates and proves your points. Have a memorable trip, and cannot wait to see results of your vision of Nigeria.

  10. ‘Light trailing over a surface’ is the best phrase I’ve heard to describe how a gradient of values works. As always, thoughtful and thought-provoking, Otto. Thanks!

  11. I enjoyed this. I had not considered that gradation of tonal range is unique to photography, but as you have eloquently explained, it is. This gives me a new element of consideration for my future photographs. Thank you for posting.

  12. lauramacky says:

    I love how you explain things. Thank you very much and have a safe trip!

  13. icastel says:

    Great write-up Otto. Thank you for sharing! Safe travels 🙂

  14. Jackie says:

    Safe travels! 😀

  15. Phil Vaughn says:

    Otto, while I haven’t been the world’s highest fan of black and white, I must say that 1. I really like this photo! You are absolutely right about the gradient quality that is so crucial. Instead of spots of white and murky blacks, your photo has a depth that I appreciate. It adds “life” to black and white that can otherwise easily escape. 2. Your article is an illumination for me in “seeing” the gradients, and I think I’ve missed that before. I will also be more aware of that particular quality of light, especially since you have reminded me to do just that. Thank you, and best wishes on your trip.

  16. Nyttig informasjon … og til ettertanke, jeg er altfor lite flink til å utnytte mulighetene med ulike strukturer. God tur til Nigeria!

  17. Safe trip and have lots of fun!

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge

  18. This great article just underlined the fact that photography is not just ‘point and shoot’, but that it’s a form of art that uses the same principles as all other visual art. It’s complicated and has to be studied, understood, practiced, and mastered. Thanks for this and all of your other valuable articles, Otto! I am learning so much from them. And much fun and success in Nigeria!

  19. Yes, to see a beautiful black and white photograph is a joy. Have a great trip wish I was going. And will try to get a photo in your critique but may miss this round. It is the opposite of this fine piece! Carla

  20. Genuine visual language shows the pureness of the scene or the subject. Almost always it touches our hearts and move us in ways we don’t even know it exist. Inspiring post my friend.

  21. Lisa Gordon says:

    Great information, Otto.
    Thank you.
    Have a safe and wonderful trip.

  22. Safe travels dear Otto. Stay away from the bad zones or live to tell the tale! As always I am able to apply your advice and wisdom to my craft so very thankful for your knowledge – especially in the way you communicate it.

  23. likeitiz says:

    A gradient makes for a more interesting photo, for sure! Have a great trip, Otto. Safe too!

  24. Another very interesting post Otto. Have a great trip 🙂

  25. Great insight into various gradients of photography. Enjoyable post.
    Good luck with your trip to Nigeria.

  26. The photo, which appears to be in some railway yard, is so clear– it appears almost as a museum setting. Nice stuff. Look forward to your Nigerian shots. Enjoy your trip.

  27. semprevento says:

    I can only tell you that you are a nice person.
    You are a great teacher for all those people who are in love with photography and espressessività how much you can give to a picture.
    Eight good trip, with all my heart!

  28. Yvonne says:

    Good luck in Nigeria

  29. This photo certainly shows the the effect of gradients on an image. The details are really effective. I hope your Nigeria trip is everything you want it to be. Stay safe.

    • Well, Nigeria is a very special country. So far it’s been quite challenging. But I will soon get back with a post so you get an idea what we are focusing on here in Nigeria. Thanks for commenting, Michelle.

  30. Phillip says:

    Amazing photograph, I hope that you have a great trip Otto!

  31. Superb information as usual Otto. A really terrific read that has made me re-evaluate my approach to image understanding and production. I hope you have a great trip and I look forward to forth coming posts

  32. Pingback: Autumn scene | Radu Stefan's Photo Club

  33. Sun says:

    caught this (great) post late but i hope for safe travels, Otto. ☺

  34. Robin says:

    Thank you, Otto. This is an aspect of photography I never thought about, and I learned something new today. 🙂

  35. Pingback: Urban rooftops | Radu Stefan's Photo Club

  36. Dalo 2013 says:

    Wonderful post yet again Otto. “It is light trailing over a surface that usually creates a gradient. And the quality of the gradient reveals the quality of the light.” is a beautifully written description, and something I had never thought much about yet it is so important. Safe Travels!

  37. What an interesting way to look at light, Otto. I’d never thought of it quite like that.

  38. I like the way of your photography and also you are really good photographer. Here is my work of wedding photography i hope you like my wedding albums ==>

  39. Pingback: [Photo album] Urban rooftops | Radu Ștefan prezintă: Blogu' cu de toate

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