Local tones applied to a photo for reinforcing composition
© Amaury Descours

The composition of your photo is not only based on the content with your subject and its environment. After shooting, you can continue to support your composition with visual anchor points in your photo thanks to their brightness. It is the development of local tones, which is a technique often called dodging and burning.

I will share with you:

  • A reminder of what is the tonality and composition of a photo
  • A reminder about the theory of emotions
  • How emotions are related to local tones and composition
  • Vignette, a special case of local tone
  • How to apply local tones or vignetting in your photo

Before We Begin

Succeeding in making remarkable photos means provoking emotions as close as possible as those you felt during shooting. Focused on the theory of emotions, I propose a 6-step method for learning photography first with what you feel. Development is the 5th step to achieve. Among the 6 major development techniques to know, there are the techniques for developing the tonality and tones of your photo: the local tones and vignetting are one of them.

Photo Development: the 5th level of the creative photography pyramid to share your emotions in picture
The Development is the 5th level of my creative pyramid to share ones emotions in photography, once having mastered the capture of the Subject, the Shooting, the Composition and the Light © Amaury Descours

A Quick Reminder about Tonality and Composition

Tonality is the overall brightness that emanates from your photo. The tonality can be dark, balanced or bright and each tonality pushes its own emotions.

Composition is about laying out the content of your photo. It means choosing where to stand against your subject and how to place the subject in the frame of the image. The goal is twofold, it is necessary that:

  1. The eye is hooked by the photo and has an irresistible desire to decipher it,
  2. The emotions are intensified because being captivated by the form, we become more sensitive to the content that are the subject and your emotions

On this blog, you can know more about the techniques of composition and their effects on emotions.

A Quick Reminder About The Theory of Emotions

All types of emotions that we feel can be represented on a wheel with 8 primary emotions according to the theory of emotions of Plutchik. These primary emotions come in varying intensities (the most intense are at the center) and combine in 24 other emotions through dyads.

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
Plutchik’s emotional wheel models 48 possible emotions thanks to the primary, secondary and tertiary dyads which are combinations of the 8 primary emotions © Amaury Descours

Local Tone, Composition and Emotions: Understanding This Trio

Local Tone: What Is It?

As recalled above, the tonality is at first general: it applies to all the photo. This is the global tone. But there is another form of tone when it applies only to certain areas of the image: these are local tones. What are they for?

Our vision is naturally attracted by light: we focus our attention on what is enlightened and neglect what is dark. Remember the theater or the circus: you instinctively look where the spot of light is. Like the director, you can guide the eye in your photo with the lightest areas of the image.

Local Tone And Composition

Apply a local tone to your photo is to highlight one or several areas you want to be noticed, and/or darken the ones that should not divert attention. This technique is called dodging and burning.

Seen otherwise, the local tone is a photographic composition tool: it structures the content of your photo to highlight your subject and the emotions it emits.

Emotions Related To Local Tones

By strengthening your composition, you intensify the emotions you want to share. According to the theory of emotions above, it is to emphasize the emotions in the center of the wheel:

  • Ecstasy,
  • Admiration,
  • Terror,
  • Amazement,
  • Grief,
  • Loathing,
  • Rage,
  • Vigilance.

This is how the local tones serve the composition which in turn serves your emotions.

Local high key tonalities applied at photo development - Before and After
Top: the photo is developed with an overall dark / low key tonality. But the composition of the photo is drowned in this dark tonality and the photo is not attractive. Bottom: I added 4 local tones to lighten the elements that seemed to me key for the composition. Thus, the rocks at the bottom left, the drooping branches at the top in the center, and the foam of the river in the lower right are developed with a light tone. Chaos du Gouët, Brittany, France, 2012. Nikon D800 and Nikkor 16-35mm f/4, 18mm, f/16, 6s, ISO 100 © Amaury Descours


Development with local high key tonalities and golden spiral composition
The different local tones were not randomly placed but according to a composition linked to the golden spiral. The eye is thus stimulated to traverse the different light areas on an harmonious path and thus better feel the emotions revealed by the photo © Amaury Descours

Vignette: A Special Case Of Local Tone

The vignette effect is the darkening of the corners of your photo. In other words, it is a bright tone located on the center of your photo. For optics purists, vignette is considered as a defect on photo lenses. But from a creative point of view, the vignette is a local tone tool and therefore a composition tool.

Choosing to voluntarily apply a vignette is a way to bring out the subject that is at the center of your photo, and therefore the emotions that you have felt in front of him. But be careful, if your subject is not really centered, it is better to apply a local tone that is eccentric but placed on your subject.

Vignette application at photo development - Before and After
Left: the photo developed with a balanced tonality. Right: the same photo with vignetting. The vignette brings out the subject because it seems to be an even lighter tone than the rest of the picture, and therefore attracts even more our eyes. The emotions revealed by the subject are thus reinforced. Nikon D800 and Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/60s, ISO 100 © Amaury Descours

How To Apply Local Tones To Your Photo

Many photo development/retouching applications allow you to apply local tones: Adobe Lightroom on mobile or computer, Google Snapseed… to name only the best known.

You then have 3 possible tools to define:

  • A free area as if you paint with a brush
  • A round or oval area: this is the radial local tone
  • An area separated from the rest of the image with a dithered border: this is the gradient filter

Each of these areas may have more or less diffuse outlines to blend with the overall tonality of the photo.

Then, just use the same settings as the ones for global tone to have a dark or light tone for each of the zones you have defined.

Like any development technique, you must both sufficiently push your effect so that it is visible, but does not take over your subject. If anybody first notice the local tones before considering the subject, this is the sign that your development is too exaggerated. And the exaggeration will divert the emotions of your photo and you finally miss the point.

Local tones brush Google Snapseed
Google Snapseed only allows you to apply local tones with a brush tool. There is no gradient filter or radial areas like Adobe Lightroom for example. On the right, the red areas show the local tones applied to the photo © Amaury Descours


Local tones applied on a photo with Adobe Lightroom
Adobe Lightroom offers local tone tools that are both sophisticated and easy to use without being as complex as AdobePhotoshop. In this photo, 4 oval areas were applied to increase the tone locally to help structure the composition © Amaury Descours


How To Apply Vignetting To Your Photo

Here too, a lot of software and apps offer you a vignetting tool: Adobe Lightroom, Google Snapseed, Instagram, … The list is much more provided, the vignetting is a simplified form of the local tone and thus easy to implement:

  • The area is automatically round or oval depending on the aspect ratio of your photo
  • The border between the vignetting area and the subject is automatically diffused

Advanced applications like Adobe Lightroom allow you to edit the vignette area even more precisely.

Vigneting tool in Adobe Lightroom Mobile and Google Snapseed
Right: Google Snapseed offers a simple vignetting tool to set the center and size of the local tone zone. Left: Adobe Lightroom offers more sophisticated vignetting settings, but can not reposition the center of the area © Amaury Descours

Did you realize that you could enhance the composition of your photo with local tones? Do you know what image do you want to experiment this development? Do the available tools seem complicated to implement? Leave your comment, I will answer with pleasure

Let’s Go On Together!

Learn how to photograph with my 6-step method to make your photos first with your emotions. a powerful and intuitive approach that push back tools and techniques to the background.

Then understand why development in photography is essential in the expression of your emotions and explore the different tonality development techniques:

  1. The global tone
  2. The local tone and vignette (this post)

Do not miss my future posts to better capture and share your emotions in picture: subscribe to my newsletter and get a free eBook!

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