Midtones in photography – see and use tones for better pictures

Midtones in photography is quite a broad term, because midtones are neither dark nor light. It’s the tonal range between shadows and highlights.

When a photo has minimal midtones, it’ll be either:

  • High key (high tone)
  • Low key (low tone)
  • High contrast (both high and low tones)

See what I mean? Very broad! So let’s take a closer look at midtones…

Portrait with midtones and tonal depth

What are midtones in photography?

Midtones consist of the middle 50% of the tonal range in photography.

The shadow and dark areas make up 25% of the tonal range, as do the lights and highlights on the other end of the tonal range.

graphic of tonal range distribution from shadows to highlights

Darks and shadows appear on the left of a histogram and a tone curve. While light and highlight areas are on the right.

Midtones are what our cameras want to expose for. You may have heard this exposure sweet spot referred to as 18% gray or middle gray, which is why when photographing in snow your camera’s exposure meter wants to underexpose the image.

Your camera doesn’t want bright white snow, it wants gray snow, which of course would be underexposed. Likewise, it doesn’t want a black cat to be black. It wants the cat to be gray, so it wants to overexpose black.

However, midtones in photography extend beyond just middle gray – they include all the mid tones either side of it, up to dark on one side and light on the other side.

What are the different tones in photography?

When discussing tones in photography, you could be referring to:

  • Color tone – cool (blue), warm (yellows and oranges) etc
  • Tonal range – the brightness level from black to white

You could even be referring to the mood of an image, which is created by a combination the colors, tonal range, subject matter, expression, composition and light.

But today we’re concentrating on tonal range, specifically midtones in photos.

Examples of midtones in photos

It’s easier to explain with photos, so here are examples of tones in photography. Because color often distracts us, it’s easier to see tonal range in black and white photos, so I’ve included both color and black and white versions of the photos.

And to make it even clearer, I’ve included screenshots of the Lightroom histograms and tone curves for each phot.

Below are examples of:

  • A high tone photo
  • A low tone photo
  • Three midtone photos

High tone photo example

High key image with almost no midtones

A clear example of a high key image, with just a touch of low tones in the glasses and midtones in the shadow part of the boy’s hair.

Black and white high tone portrait of child

The highlights area to the right of the histogram is packed full of information, with just a blip of information in the midtones, indicating this is a high key image.

Histogram of high key image with minimal midtones


Low tone photo example

Low tone portrait with almost no midtones

A low key image with just a touch of midtones. The tonal range becomes really obvious in the black and white version of this image.

Black and white low tone portrait

As you can see to the left of the histogram, the darks and shadows contain all the information, with just a small amount in the midtones and almost none in the highlights.

Histogram of low key image with almost no midtones

It’s even easier to see with the Lightroom tone curve.

low key image tone curve

Midtone photography examples

When the tonal range of a photo is limited to largely midtones, it can be quite dull. Like the image below.

Sometimes the limited tonal range is part of the message and mood of photo, in which case it’s a good use of midtones. However, in this portrait the lack of tonal depth detracts from the image.

Flat image with mainly midtones

And it’s even more obvious when converted to black and white.

Black and white midtone image

The light on the model is quite even and her skin tone is very similar to the mortar on the wall behind her. So the result is that she blends with the wall.

In fact, the only bit of variety in the image is offered by the arrangement of light and dark bricks. So the model goes unnoticed. Not ideal in a portrait!

Histogram showing mainly midtones with some highlights

To create a more interesting image, I shifted position to include a light toned foreground and a dark toned background. The lighting also helps to add interest as there’s more shadow to create definition in her face.

Image with a mix of tones from shadows to midtown to highlights

Even the black and white image is more interesting than the previous example, because of the increased tonal range.

Black and white image with full tonal range

The histogram for this image shows a greater tonal range from dark, through midtones, to light.

histogram showing wide tonal range

In this next example of a largely midtone photo there’s greater interest, because of the colors, especially the pop of red lipstick.

The dynamic lines of the background add to the interest too.

midtones in color portrait

In black and white, however, I feel that the photo loses some of its interest.

midtones in black and white portrait photography

As you can see from the tone curve, the photo does also have detail in both the shadows and the highlights, making it less flat than the first wall photo above, even though the lighting is just as flat.

Tone curve of mainly midtone photos

Full tonal range

And just for clarity, here’s another color as well as black and white example…

Portrait with full tonal range, showing tonal depth

As you can see, there is a wide range of tones for tonal contrast in the image, from black to white and all the midtone grays in between.

Black and white portrait with all shades of gray

Tone curve graph showing full tonal range

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about midtones in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my midtone tips have helped you to understand how tone in photography works, share that too.

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