What exactly is contrast in a photographic sense? What does it do, and how can understanding it in photography take your work to the next level?
If you know how to use contrast well, it can really help you create stand-out images by directing the viewer’s attention to your subject. There are two main types of contrast, Tonal Contrast, and Color Contrast.
Tonal Contrast describes the differences in tones from the lightest to the darkest tone, or the difference in tones between white, gray and black. Without contrast, you wouldn’t have an image because there would be no difference between light and dark.
Tones are normally described as high, normal, or low contrast. A high-contrast image has dark shadows and bright highlights. If you shoot in bright sunlight, with a bare or modified studio strobe, you’ll likely get photos that are full of contrast.
High contrast images have strong, bold colors, and any texture in the shot will be brought out to add depth and interest.
Low contrast images, on the other hand, don’t have a lot of tonal difference between their lightest and darkest points. Think of photos taken on foggy or rainy, dull days. Everything is muted, including the colors. There are no bright highlights or deep shadows in a low contrast image, and sometimes these images can seem flat and boring.
Don’t write off these low contrast images. “Low contrast” is not equal “bad”. Some photos suppose to be low-contrast by design to add soft, peaceful dream-like effect and a feel of peace and calmness.
Low-contrast images created on purpose (low key and high key)
You can experiment and improve your understanding of contrast if you convert a color image to black and white. Always convert a copy of your original image, so if anything goes wrong you can start again without ruining your original.
Without color in the image, it’s easier to see the tonal differences between dark and light, and you can judge whether the image could be improved by boosting contrast in some areas and/or reducing it in others.
This is a way of making your images pop by pairing colors with contrasting, or opposite colors. Learning which colors work well together is essential to make this kind of photography work. Color wheels are inexpensive to buy, or you can get color wheels free for your smartphone from your app store. These apps often let you choose up to 3 colors that either contrast or complement each other, so can be very useful.
A color wheel
On a color wheel, the colors that contrast each other are directly opposite each other on the wheel. Green and purple, or yellow and blue are good examples of color opposites. Colors are either cold or warm, and color contrast happens when a warm color is paired with a cold one, such as blue (cold) with yellow (warm)
For a color contrast image to work well, the subject should be simple, with nothing cluttering up the frame or distracting your viewers. Nature is full of color, but it’s often a rather messy bunch of distracting colors. It’s best to go for a two color contrast to start with.
Ideas for Color Contrast Images
Taking a walk in an artistic area of town can spark off a lot of ideas. Look for walls or doors that have been painted in bright colors. You’ll then need to find something or someone that has a contrasting color. For example, you might have found a bright green wall. You could find a friend to model for you, and get some purple clothes for them to wear. You may find a yellow door, and decide to place blue plant pots on either side of it.
You can create your own color contrasts at home. Still life subjects, like certain types of food, can be used to make great color contrasts. You can buy brightly colored pieces of card or rolls of paper, to mix and match as colorful backgrounds for your still life.
Improving Contrast in Post Processing
You can do a lot to improve the contrast in post-processing with image editing software. Photo editing tools have a great deal of range when dealing with contrast, as they allow you to make fine adjustments to highlight, shadow and midtone contrast.
Editing your image to improve contrast can make a dramatic difference. Your goal is either to increase or decrease contrast, depending on how you think it will improve the image. Increasing contrast makes your image more dramatic, and decreasing it can make it seem more dreamy and ethereal.
Masking your images so you can paint in adjustments only on areas where they are needed is a good skill to learn, and essential for fine control over your adjustments.
One simple but effective way of adjusting contrast is by dodging and burning. If you’ve never heard of this, it’s basically a hold over from the darkroom days, when technicians added or withheld light during the print development process to adjust contrast or fix blown highlights. Digital dodging and burning is a lot less hassle – dodging means to lighten, and burn means to darken. You then paint on the areas you want to lighten and darken, adjusting the contrast. Photoshop has its own dodge and burn tool, but it can be a bit clunky and over-strong. It’s also worth reading up online tutorials about creating your own dodge and burn using adjustment layers and a brush.
Another way to adjust contrast is to use the Shadows/Highlights sliders in your image editing software. Lightening the shadows will brighten the dark areas of your photo, and darkening the highlights will bring back more of the highlight detail. You need to be careful not to overdo these adjustments though, or the image starts to look unreal.
If you adjust the contrast of your whole image using the contrast slider, you’ll find that it will also brighten the colors as well.
If you don’t want your colors brightening but you want more contrast, you can try adjusting the Clarity slider upwards, which will give your image a bit more gritty ‘punch’ without adding saturation.
If you want to add contrast without color, or color without contrast, you can do a LAB color adjustment in Photoshop using layers. This technique separates color and contrast from each other, giving you more control. There are tutorials available for LAB contrast and color on the internet if you’re not already aware of this great method.
There are many different ways to adjust the contrast of your images in post-processing. Which methods you use will depend on what you want to achieve and how much time you have.
Try experimenting with different ways of adjusting contrast to find out which ones work best for you and the type of image you’re working on.