Tonemapping vs Toning

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Less than a month ago Christian Bloch of communicated something to me I’d like to share with all of  you (us HDR nuts).  The nutshell of what he is proposing is that we all start using the term “Toning” vs “Tonemapping” when referring to finessing high dynamic range files (images).

I’ve always viewed all of this as a pipeline.   A high dynamic range imaging pipeline which consists of everything from capture to post processing 32 bit files.  However, thanks to flickr and photographers worldwide, the term HDR has been used to describe a look instead of the process. I’ll cut and paste the email now because I think he makes a good point and good case for differentiating now before things get set in stone forever!

In case you are not familiar with Christian, he wrote what I consider to be “THE” reference manual for understanding HDRI and file formats as well as various workflows.  His book was “The HDRI Handbook”.  I say “was” because the publisher sold every copy and it is out of print.  It even printed in a ton of languages, not just english.  It was that good.  The book is getting a bit dated when looking at certain chapters, but was bleeding edge stuff when released.  It is still an amazing reference.  The Second Edition is in the works as he describes here.

The Second Edition of “The HDRI Handbook” will most certainly be a must have text when released in 2011.

Back to HDR terminology and Christian’s take on “Toning”.  The email exchange…


Hey Michael,

I have an issue I would like to discuss with you.

As I’m reworking the tonemapping chapter of the next version of the hdri handbook, I have come across the necessity to redefine some terms. What bothers me is that everybody keeps using the term “HDR” for tonemapped images. The latest DxO escapade is prime example for that. It’s the good old mixup of the result and the technique, and I believe it’s largely based on the fact that photographers just don’t have a better term than “HDR”.

Tonemapping has an awfully technical ring to it, and I cannot condemn a photographer to rather label an image “HDR” instead of “tonemapped”. And if you really look at it, even most researchers see tonemapping as a technical challenge, not a creative one. Therefore, I propose to split the term, or rather redefine the thing that photographers do with an HDR image as “Toning”. It’s a tiny twist, but it has a better chance to survive linguistically when someone says “toned surreal” or “toned naturally”.

So, Tone-Mapping may be the broader term. It remaps an HDR image to the tonal values available in a target medium.  But when a photographer is toning an HDR image, he uses tonemapping operators or whatever means necessary to purposely adjust the appearance to meet his expectations. Tonemapping would be the technical process, but “toning it right” is the creative challenge.

I have discussed this already with Greg Ward, who actually appreciates a distinction like that. His only concern would be that the term “toning” might be overly occupied by the Sepia toning and the like. Personally, I see no confusion here, instead I rather see a chance of “toning” in the sense of creating a targeted look to sink in very easily.

What do you think?


[[[ My reply cut and pasted ]]]

I’m completely unfamiliar with sepia toning as a term.  He may be right.  However, I really like the idea.  I say we just start redefining the process of tonemapping with your “toning” concept.  Like you said in a sentence above..  ”…. when a photographer is toning an HDR image, …”  That makes sense to me and sounds better than the harsher “Tonemapping”.

I doubt we’ll get Flickr folks to retag their HDRs though ;)

Plus who knows, maybe in 10-15 years there will be 32 bit displays and we won’t be remapping for 8 bit viewing and then we’d only be “Toning” the HDR file  😉    So your term is future proof.

I’ll run with it if you do.


Now what prompted me to post this tonight is a post by Marshall Cant about HDRI.  This posted on the blog by a company that does film to digital scanning oddly enough.  The Sensor Range chart I had posted recently was referenced on their site hence how I found it posted.

The blog post is a good write up about where we are going from their viewpoint.  A pretty good handle on the technology.  The blog post is titled and linked here: HDR: THE INEXORABLE MARCH TOWARD PHOTOGRAPHY’S HOLY GRAIL

Probably my favorite paragraph from Marshall’s post is a reference to early HDR:

“Circa 1850: The idea of using several exposures to fix a too-extreme range of luminance was pioneered as early as the 1850s by Gustave Le Gray to render seascapes showing both the sky and the sea. Such rendering was impossible at the time using standard techniques, the luminosity range being too extreme. Le Gray used one negative for the sky, and another one with a longer exposure for the sea, and combined the two in a single picture in positive.”

Posted by Michael James

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