Contrast is often thought of solely in terms of tonal range and as something that can be increased or decreased with a slider in photoshop. This is a fairly basic view of contrast and contrast itself is a word that encompasses much more than just light and dark.
In photography we often use a small amount of contrast in post production to make our images more striking and give them a little ‘pop’. This is something that has been done since the dawn of photography with many darkroom photographers experimenting with developing methods and different films to alter the contrast of their images.
The same is true of digital photography. Something I often try to teach in my talks and seminars is that we should always be thinking of contrast, regardless of whether that is tonal contrast, colour contrast, contrast in sharpness or contrasting subjects.
If we look at the definition of contrast which is ‘the state of being strikingly different from something else, typically something in juxtaposition or close association’ then we can see straight away how we can use contrast to grab the attention of the viewer in our images. Below I want to discuss 4 ways in which we can utilize different types of contrast to make our images stand out.
TONAL OR LIGHT CONTRAST
This is the type of contrast that most people will be familiar with. However as I mentioned above, many people think of contrast as something they can add or take away in post production. This is wrong and post production should be used just to add the finishing touches to the contrast that you have created in your images and never as a substitute.
Being able to use tonal contrast in your images relies on being able to control natural light or having the ability to use artificial lighting to add contrast that isn’t present in the natural light at the time of shooting. For example, in the image above I used my Nikon SB700 flash in a small Lastolite Ezybox softbox off camera to add depth and contrast to my subjects face. The deep shadows and bright highlights give the image a strong tonal contrast and accentuate the subject’s facial structure.
The benefit of tonal contrast is that it is colour independent. This means that an image that has good tonal contrast will often still look as striking even when converted to black and white. This is a good test to work out how much influence the colour in your image has on the mood of the shot. By converting this image to black and white we can see that the contrast is still there and the image doesn’t lose much impact. This is due to the fact that the colour palette of the shot is using what we call ‘analogous colours’ which are colours that are next to each other on a colour wheel that when used together have very little colour contrast.
In black and white the image still has the strong contrast which is coming from the light rather than the colour
Colour contrast has a similar effect to tonal contrast in that it can be used to make visually striking images. Colour contrast relies on the theory of ‘complimentary colours’ which are those pairs of colours that are on opposite sides of a colour wheel, for example blue and orange.
Colour contrast is luminance independent and even colours which have the exact same luminance value can be contrasting if they are complimentary to each other. As I mentioned above, the easiest way to understand the role of colour in your image is to convert it to black and white. If you have an image that relies on colour contrast, it will lose its impact when converted to black and white.
If we take this image of Old Town Square in Prague as an example, the blue of the post-sunset sky has a strong colour contrast with the warm orange and red tones of the market area. Not only do these two colours have a strong colour contrast but as I mentioned in my tutorial on visual mass, the warm tones have a much greater visual mass and so the viewer’s eye is drawn straight into the town square.
If we then convert this image into black and white we can see that the shot immediately loses its impact in black and white. This is due to the fact that colours are all very similar in their luminance value and therefore there is no tonal contrast just colour contrast.
In black and white the image loses the majority of it’s impact. Notice how many of the tones in the market square are now the same as those in the sky.
Another way you can add a different type of contrast is through the use of shallow depth of field. The difference between the sharp areas of the image and the soft, blurry out of focus areas is also a type of contrast that can be used to draw the viewer’s eye towards the in focus areas.
This technique can also be used to focus the viewer’s eye on the subject. Take the below images for example; by using a very narrow depth of field we have created a strong contrast between the in focus and out of focus areas. The shallower the depth of field the more contrast there is between the in focus and out of focus regions. This gives more emphasis to the subjects face and reduces the emphasis on the surrounding background.
We can also control this contrast by using local adjustments in post production. By adding small amounts of sharpness and clarity locally with either the adjustment brush or radial filter tool we can give the impression of a higher contrast and therefore increase the emphasis on certain elements even further.
Notice how the contrast between the in focus areas and the out of focus areas draws your eye straight to the subjects eyes
The final, type of contrast that can be added to your images is slightly different. It is what I call subject contrast and is created by finding differences in your subject matter. Some great street photographers often use contrast in their subjects for example rich and poor or happy and sad. Texture can also work well in contrast with hard objects against soft, man made against natural and so on. This is not something I personally use too often but I wanted to include it for those who may be interested.
WHAT IS THE POINT OF THIS?
Contrast is a much wider concept than just purely tonal contrast. Any two things that are strikingly different will offer contrast. It is important to remember that you don’t have to be trying to get as much contrast in your images as possible. If you take the example images in this post they all generally just rely on a single type of contrast. Often less is more and having light contrast, colour contrast and really shallow depth of field will just make your image too busy.
Generally if I want to add emphasis and depth to an element in the image I will use lighting to create tonal contrast. If I wish to add emphasis to a single element in the image for example a brightly coloured turban or sari then I will use colour contrast. Finally if the background is detracting from the story or mood I am trying to achieve in my image then I will use shallow depth of field to increase the subject to background contrast and make the main subject stand out.
Is contrast something you consider in your work? Had you ever thought about colour contrast before?