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.


80 thoughts on “The Uniqueness of a Gradient

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

    1. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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!

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