VIII. Gradation

Aesthetically speaking, “gradation” refers to a gradual or graded change. Artists refer to it as a grading of “values.” In color photography, gradiation can be a transition from one hue to another or to a different saturation or brightness. In black and white, it’s a transition from light to dark or from one texture to another. The width of the transition can take up a lot of space—

Or very little.  And there can be multiple areas showing gradations within the same image—as in the taillight above and the architecectural feature below.


The experience of gradation is soft and graceful. As the eye moves across a plane of graded colors or tones there’s a slowing down of the aesthetic sensibility. Whereas areas of stark contrast are abrupt changes, gradation elicits a slower, more pensive and flowing experience for the eye. Especially, it enhances roundness in a subject or parts of a subject. For this reason, it’s best used in communication objectives intended to express roundness and softer sensibilities.   


Outdoors in sunlight, gradation occurs naturally wherever there are textures, curves or rounded surfaces. It’s just a matter of choosing an angle and framing the subject to get the desired amount of grading from light to dark.

Inside or in the studio, lighting for gradation is a matter of positioning the subject in relation to the light so the brightness falls off gradually. Before he passed, Fr. Ted Tepe S.J.—who taught photography at Xavier University for many years—lived in a small apartment. Without the use of incandescent lights, he created gorgeous color images of flowers by setting them in his window at different seasons and various times of day, adding some detail in the shadows with pieces of white cardboard to provide “fill” light. When I first saw his photographs, the lighting was so exquisite, so controlled, I thought he’d shot the flowers in a studio. The lesson here, you don’t need specialized lighting equipment to create fine images.

(Above) To maximize gradation, situate one light well above, below or to the side of a subject so the shadow side is left completely dark, without detail. 

To shorten the gradation, add some fill light in the shadow areas using a reflective surface or another light placed at a distance, “feathered off,” to control the amount of desirable detail in the shadows. Note the detail in the shadow above on the left side of the pepper.

In this image, there are multiple gradations, some short, others long. Notice the smoothness of the longer gradations, and the flow of the shorter ones as in the ripples—middle right.

Reflections On Personal & Social Gradation    

Gradation equates with changes that are gradual and graceful, not stark and abrupt. It’s calm and quiet; it doesn’t excite or shout. Personal change that’s graded is gradual, it takes time and consideration. At times it may not even be perceptible, as when an idea or offhanded word gestates in the dark subconscious for a time before it becomes adopted in the light of consciousness. Just so, the “graded” aspects of life are long-term and gradual—activities that improve our awareness and identity, help us to become more creative, realize more of our potential, build competencies, develop moral and ethical guidelines, enhance our quality of life, help us realize our dreams and contribute to spiritual growth. 

If I love the world as it is, I’m already changing it: a first fragment of the world has been changed, and that is my own heart. 

Peter Dumitriu (Novelist)

Socially, gradation is more evolutionary than revolutionary, more considered and less reactionary. We see it in dialogues rather than debates, questioning rather than pronouncing, inviting rather than excluding, listening rather than speaking and flexibility rather than rigidity. Although we’re sometimes frustrated that positive change in the area of social development takes so long, our faith in the future is grounded in the belief that eventually common sense, decency, intelligence, wisdom, and truth, will outshine ignorance and greed. As in our personal lives, the challenge—and lesson—of social development is patience. Although gradual change takes longer, it’s more likely to sustain.

Every time we invest attention in an idea, a written word, a spectacle; every time we purchase a product; every time we act on a belief, the texture of the future is changed… The world in which our children and their children will live is built, minute by minute, through the choices we endorse with our psychic energy.

Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi (Psychologist)

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