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  • Writer's pictureEllen Fisch

The Art of Architectural Photography: Those Boring Midtones?

Working in the monochromatic photographic medium of black and white or sepia can be challenging at times. In color photography, the midtones, those between the velvet darks and the brilliant lights, can be emphasized with shadings of hue. For example, a stretch of street in between the deep shadows of a doorway and the bright sunlight down a-ways, might be a cool medium blue/gray or a warm ochre/Naples yellow. Mixing up some moderately dark/light tone will get the eye from one extreme to the other. Actually, even if there is a powerful dark area and a searing light, there is a transition midtone between the two to make the realism credible. Of course, I am excepting abstracts that have their own guidelines.

Shading in realism equates to creating depth and form. There are a number of midtones that need to be included to create a 3-dimensional effect on a 2-dimensional surface. The "fun part" is slamming in the darks and illuminating with the lights, but it is the mids that are the unsung heroes, adding space, structure and sparkle to the photograph. Without the midtones, the darks are flat and the lights become blown out parts of the image.

Where are the midtones? Actually, they exist everywhere in the image. They add depth to the shadows and darks and they "pop" the whites. On every edge there is a midtone and all straight lines or curves have mids incorporated into them. Otherwise, whatever you are presenting appears inanimate. I learned this from experience and actually from life. Years ago, I painted from life at the Salmagundi Club in NYC. It was a small group that met on Saturday evenings to paint or draw from a three hour nude pose. That way we artists could really study the forms. A good friend of mine and a mentor, the late and very great artist, Alex Fournier, told me that in order to create form, I needed a dark, a light and four different midtones mixed in between. Try as I might, I could not see the mids. I could easily recognize the shadow dark and the highlight and something in the middle. But four distinct middle tones eluded me until one day when I was standing next to a young guy in the subway. My fellow commuter was wearing a sleeveless tank top as it was summer. On his muscular arm I saw the six specific tones. I gasped at this epiphany, quite startling the guy. Beat red, I apologized and made up some story to dispel the embarrassing (for me) situation. However, once I "got" the midtones, my work became more fluid and contextual. My paintings and photographs had more depth and form.

Photography is a wonderful medium with which to explore the values of lights, darks and midtones. Photography is the use of light to create a subject that reflects and/or communicates the photographer's conceptualization. In effect, light conceives that which you are photographing. However your use the midtones is always important. Never boring, the wonderful midtones facilitate, encourage and provide the ability for the darks and lights to achieve their dynamism in the image.

Black and White Photography: Catskills, NY

The above photograph, taken in the Catskill region of New York State, shows distinct gray midtones that accentuate the dark foreground trees and the soft whites of the clouds. The midtones take the eye around the image to give it depth and a pastoral feeling of space.

Black and White Photography: Harlem, NY

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