Five Elements of Control: #1 Luminance

This week I am doing something special here on the blog – starting a week long series on the subject of Control.  We can control our photography in several different ways, and I’ve seen different outlets talk about each of these (and others) to a certain degree, but I’ve not seen many that address all of these elements collectively.  Since a discussion of all the elements that go into a photograph would be both exhaustive and likely impossible to touch on everything, it would probably be better to narrow that focus (pardon the pun) on some of the more salient elements to consider.  Today, the element of control that I’ll be looking to in more depth is:


Contrast, or luminance, can be described as the tonal range of light within a photo.  If the tonal range is broad, then that means we have an extensive range of tonality from the lightest point to the darkest point in the photo.  Likewise, a narrow tonal range will mean that we have a limited range of tonality from the lightest point to the darkest point in your photo.  Take a look at the following two photos and see if you can determine which one has a broader and a more narrow tonal range.

Santa Fe Church #1

Santa Fe Church #1

Santa Fe Church #2

Santa Fe Church #2

It should be pretty clear that one has a wider range of luminance to it than the other.  What’s exciting to learn here though is that this is the same photograph! That’s right!  I simply changed the exposure settings in ACR to output a different result.  Different tastes will look at each of these differently, and like one over the other for a variety of reasons.  What’s important to understand here though, more than anything else, is that all I’ve changed is the luminance.  The tonal range or contrast of luminance can have a powerful impact on a photo, either by how it limits and defines focus or by its range and extent of difference between high and low luminance points as we change from white to black.

So, why am I talking about luminance first?  Because it is probably the most important element to control.  After all, luminance (or contrast) deals with the principle of light!  Photography by definition means to paint with light ((look up the Greek roots photo and graphos)  Without understanding how to control for the element of luminance (a.k.a. contrast or light), the rest won’t really matter too much.  Rather than say more or less luminance is better or worse than the other, (because it really is a matter of subjectivity) I’ll simply leave you to ponder a few things between now and tomorrow:

  1. Which one do you like better?
  2. Why?
  3. What other elements of control can you think of?
  4. Finally, what other examples of the effect of luminance can you think of?  Got any you’d like to share?

Feel free to share your thoughts and sound off in the comments or with me directly via email.  Until tomorrow and the Second Element of Control, Happy Shooting!

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5 comments for “Five Elements of Control: #1 Luminance

  1. September 14, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Hey Jason. Good post!

    What did the images look like prior to Photomatix? I’d like to see that too as I noticed the Photomatix stamp on each of the images. I know how much you can do with the dynamic range of an image in there as well, and I’d be curious to see the starting point.
    .-= Rich C´s last blog ..Photographing Arizona Podcast Episode 8: Finding Yellow Rock =-.

  2. Chase
    September 15, 2009 at 7:51 am

    I honestly prefer the top one. My eye prefers seeing the detail in the shadows. Great article on luminance for your readers. Its also a great brush up.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Alistair M
    September 15, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    I’ve got to say I prefer the softer look of the top image. Interesting artilcle -thanks.

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