Zuber Photographics Home








Print Friendly  Print||All Topics>Photography as Art>Sail Boats

Sail Boats

Critical Use of Tone



While on a business trip to Annapolis, Maryland USA, I was able to get out in the mornings and evenings to photograph.  I came across this scene, Figure 1, in the early morning after sunrise.



The photograph was taken with a digital SLR camera mounted on a tripod using a medium zoom lenses.  Exposure was determined by spot metering a part of the boardwalk in the same light as the tops of the small sail boats.  The original capture was in the Raw format.

Original, unaltered image

Figure 1.  Original image with no adjustments applied


Figure 2, at the bottom of the page, shows the various changes that were made to the image.



There are numerous marinas in this area full of large and beautiful boats, but what caught my attention was the repeating pattern of the smaller, much plainer, sail boats.  There are three repeating patterns; the hulls, the horizontal and vertical masts, and the shadows of the small sail boats on the boardwalk.


Because the diagonal repeating pattern was closer to horizontal than vertical, a landscape orientation, versus a portrait orientation, was used.

- Composition Problem 1 -

The pattern ends in the upper left.  But it begins off the image in the lower right.  I was not able to include the beginning point in the image because the boardwalk posts covered up the sail boats in the lower right and disrupted the pattern.

- Solution -

Using the zoom feature of the lens, the lower right was composed to give enough room to create a new beginning point in the image by cropping the bottom edge in the darkroom.

- Composition Problem 2 -

A major problem with the subject and its background is the background consists of larger, more beautiful boats than the boats that make up the pattern.  Given the choice of looking at something small and plain versus large and beautiful, people would rather look at the beautiful objects.  Therefore, I needed to draw the viewer's attention off the background and onto the subject.  The advantage I had was in the white of the small sail boats.

- Solution -

Since the background could not be eliminated in the field using composition, the background had to be de-emphasized using darkroom techniques.  With the knowledge that the eye is naturally drawn to brighter spots and to areas in focus than out of focus, I decided to darken the background and blur it.  I used a Curves adjustment layer to darken the background and applied a mild lens blur to the background.  Both adjustments used an intricate layer mask to ensure only the background was darkened and blurred.  I was more aggressive with darkening the background than blurring it.  I decided too much of a blur would give the image an unrealistic look.  In addition, a more aggressive darkening would make the small sail boats stand out more since their hulls and masts are white.

Why not use depth of field to blur the background?  I used depth of field to get as many of the small sail boats in focus.  This resulted in some of the background boats to be in focus also.


It was early morning and the sun was low in the sky (the sun is off image and to the right of the sail boats).  This created a strong side light that put the tops of the hulls and the horizontal masts in direct light.  It also gave a nice contrast to the vertical masts because the right side of the vertical masts is in direct light while the left side is in shadow.  The strong side light also created the shadows on the boardwalk.  If the sun were directly overhead, these shadows, and the pattern they make, would not exist.


This image has almost the full range of tone from dark shadows to bright highlights.  As it turns out, tone became the single most critical element in showing the subject and solving numerous issues.

- Tone Problem 1 -

Even though the image has almost the full range of tone, the darker shadows were not as rich as I would like.

- Solution -

A Curves adjustment layer was used to force the darker pixels even darker.  Anchor points were placed on the Curve to prevent the adjustment from reaching into the mid tones and highlights.

- Tone Problem 2 -

As mentioned earlier, the larger, more beautiful sail boats compete with the smaller sail boats that make up the pattern.  In addition, the water's brightness also interferes with the subject.

- Solution -

A Curves adjustment layer with a layer mask was used to darken the boats in the background and darken the water.  They were reduced in tone by one half stop.  The mask had to separate the small sail boats, their masts and ropes from the background.  Creating the mask was one of the more time consuming activities while working on this image.  This same mask was used to control what part of the image was blurred.

- Tone Problem 3 -

Part of the subject is the repeating shadows on the boardwalk.  However, the contrast between the shadows and the boardwalk was too weak to allow this pattern to clearly stand out.

- Solution -

A Curves adjustment layer was used to increase the contrast between the shadows on the boardwalk and the boardwalk itself.  A layer mask was used to confine the adjustment to just the boardwalk.

- Tone Problem 4 -

In the middle of the left edge is a free standing power outlet next to the post.  This power outlet is very light in tone.  After darkening the background, this power outlet stood out even more and competed with the subject.

- Solution -

I used a Curves adjustment layer to drop the tone of the power outlet by 2 stops.


Overall, this image has subdued colors.

- Problem -

There is very little color in this image, and what color there is, it is not part of the subject.  Since a viewer's attention is naturally drawn to color, this made it even harder for the subject to stand out from its background.  This is an image where color is actually working against the subject, not for it.

- Solution -

Convert the image to black and white to remove the distracting color.


Only with a complete understanding of the subject and the other elements of a photograph could this image be enhanced to bring out its artistic qualities.  In summary, the following field and darkroom adjustments were made.

  1. Field - Used landscape orientation and the zoom feature of the lens so the pattern is running through most of the image.
  2. Field - Set exposure so the white of the small sail boats stayed a highlight without losing detail.
  3. Field - Set the f-stop so depth of field would keep the small sail boats in focus.
  4. Darkroom - Darkened and blurred the background to de-emphasize it.
  5. Darkroom - Darkened shadows to get richer blacks.
  6. Darkroom - Increased contrast of the repeating shadows on the boardwalk.
  7. Darkroom - Darkened distracting objects.
  8. Darkroom - Converted to black and white to eliminate distracting colors.
  9. Darkroom - Cropped to remove extraneous edges.

To visually see the affect of these changes, mouse over the labels in Figure 2 in a clockwise direction.  Start with Original and end with Crop.  The Cropped version is the final version.


1. Original

2. Show

3. Blur

4. Convert
to B&W


Sail boats


9. Crop

8. Darken

7. Increase
Local Contrast

6. Darken

5. Darken

Figure 2.  Mouse over, or click, the labels in a clockwise direction.  Start with Original and end with Crop.  The Cropped version is the final version.