Contrast in photography is one of the most important components of your image. Our article will show you how to make the most of contrast, whether by enhancing it or decreasing it.
A defining moment on your photography journey is when you really understand how contrast affects the images you take. Knowing how to manipulate contrast will change your photos for the better.
What Is Contrast in Photography
Contrast means difference. In the case of photography, the most common differences are achieved by changes in the tones (light) or colors that compose the image.
Contrast has been a key element from the beginning of photography. It is the degree of difference between the elements that forms an image.
Higher contrast will give your image a different feel than lower contrast, for example. But the type of contrast can also influence your images.
The best known type of contrast is tonal. It refers to the difference in brightness (light intensity) between the elements of the image.
Although it is important in all types of photos, tonal contrast is especially relevant in B&W images. These lack other types of contrast such as the color one.
If the image has both very dark and very bright tones, it has a high tonal contrast.
If the photo has a wide range of tones widely distributed from pure white to pure black, it is considered a medium contrast image.
And if it has a range of middle tones but it lacks the pure whites and blacks, the photo is a low contrast image.
Although tonal contrast is the best known, there are other types that are quite interesting too.
Creating images with an interesting color contrast requires some color theory knowledge. But don’t worry! You only need the basics to start experimenting.
This is where Colour Schemes and the Colour Wheel come in.
The Colour Wheel is a chart widely used in arts. It simply represents the relationship between various colors.
Using Colour Schemes, you can figure out which combinations have the most contrast. The most contrasting combination is usually that of complementary colors.
It is really easy to recognise complementary colors since they are located opposite one another.
One common example is the juxtaposition of green and red.
If you don’t want to think about the color wheel, you can just classify the colors in two groups: warm and cold.
Combining a cold color with a warm one will result in color contrast.
Use Analogous Colours for Lower Contrast
There are other color combination that will result in less contrast. This is because they are harmonious, such analogous colors (colors that are next to each other on the color wheel).
The colors still have some contrast between them so they can be differentiated from one another by the viewer.
Another way to add contrast to a photo with similar colours is to include an element with a different tint/shade.
It won’t be a strong contrast but it will allow your subject to stand out.
One last thing about color contrast. Keep it simple.
Having less colors in your image will create a strong contrast effect because it looks more dramatic.
Contrast Through Textures
Differences between textures in photography are also a great way to add contrast.
You can combine rough with soft elements to give your image that extra punch.
An easy way to do so is by using the background. If you are taking a photo of an element with a lot of texture, place it in front of a soft background. It can be a clear sky or a flat wall.
If you don’t have a clear background, you can use the depth of field to soften it up. Using a wide aperture (f 3.5 or lower) and placing your subject farther from the background will create a shallow depth of field.
The background will appear blurry and soft and it will stand in contrast to the sharpness and texture of your subject.
On the other hand, if you have a soft element, it will pop out in a textured background.
Conceptual contrast is abstract and much more subjective than the previous ones because it is based on ideas.
Images with this type of contrast have a strong story telling component that usually surprises the viewers.
It consists of putting together things that you don’t expect to see in the same image.
You can use conceptual contrast to highlight differences between elements that you find surprising, fun or that you want people to think about.
Some examples of conceptual contrast that are quite universal are old-new, big-small or artificial-natural.
Use Contrast to Convey a Particular Mood
Contrast is a key element to convey certain moods through your images.
High contrast images pop out, show textures in the subject and give a feeling of edginess, high energy and strength.
These are used a lot in street photography and nature photography.
Low contrast images tend to have a dreamy feeling. It is for that reason that low contrast works really well in outdoors portraits, especially if you are looking for a vintage look.
Before you take any photo, think about what mood you want to convey. And then look for the contrast that will make it stand out.
How to Practice With Contrast in the Field
For tonal contrast, something that really helps is to set the camera to black and white. This is a trick I learnt from Gala Martinez, a portrait photographer from Barcelona, and I really like it!
Taking out the color helps you focus on light intensity and how it affects the image. You can also try looking for strong light-shadow contrasts.
You can also start training with contrast by “building” your own scenarios. You can go to your arts and crafts store and get a couple of cardboards: white and black are great for tonal contrast.
You can then use them as backgrounds for objects of different colors that you already have at home and see how the different combinations affect the contrast of the final image.
You can also get coloured cardboards and combine them with objects with of complementary colors or the same color but different tint/shade.
How to Adjust Contrast in Lightroom
You can also adjust the contrast of the whole photo (global contrast) by using the Contrast slide in the Develop module of Lightroom.
You can add contrast by sliding it to the right. To the left you can decrease the contrast of the image.
If you want to have more control over the whites and blacks, you can use the White and Black sliders instead of the contrast one.
By making the whites whiter and the blacks blacker, you can increase the contrast of the image.
If you prefer to adjust just certain areas of the image, you can use the brush tool. This will give you a bit more control than the global adjustments.
Paint the area where you want to adjust the contrast and then move the contrast slider until you get the effect you are looking for.
You can easily visualize which area you have painted by checking “Show Selected Mark Overlay”.
As photographers, contrast is a crucial element to consider in all our shots because it helps us to convey a mood or a message to the viewer. Although tonal contrast is the best known one, there are types such as color and conceptual contrasts.
You can train yourself to see contrasts around you and you can even arrange the scenarios a bit to achieve the result you want. Lightroom and other post processing software are great tools to give that final touch to your image!