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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.

Close up photo of red poppies in green grass - contrast in photography

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.

Here’s how.

Tonal Contrast

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.

A black and white high contrast image of a dandelion flower

If the photo has a wide range of tones widely distributed from pure white to pure black, it is considered a medium contrast image.

Street photo of two girls sitting on a bench and using smartphones

And if it has a range of middle tones but it lacks the pure whites and blacks, the photo is a low contrast image.

Serene photo of a white flower - example of low contrast in photography

Although tonal contrast is the best known, there are other types that are quite interesting too.

Color Contrast

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.

A diagram explaining color theory for contrast photography

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.

A group photo of girls wearing red and green clothes for contrast in photography

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.

A cityscape shot combining cold and warm coloured buildings for contrast in photography

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.

Close up photo of a cappuccino in a blue coffee cup on green background

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.

A green plant with the leaves in the foreground in focus

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.

A contrast photography shot of two different coloured window sills on a balcony

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.

A low angle shot of a dome shaped multi windowed building

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.

A close up photo of a pink flower with a soft bokeh background

Conceptual Contrast

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.

A girl in a yoga pose in the middle of an urban street - conceptual contrast in photography

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.

A green plant growing through broken concrete and rubble - conceptual contrast photography

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.

A yellow sunflower against a blue sky - contrasting colors in 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.

A dreamy vintage looking photo of a meadow under a cloudy sky

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.

A black and white street image of people walking under an archway

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.

A nikon lens on a white background

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.

Screenshot of adjusting contrast in Lightroom

You can add contrast by sliding it to the right. To the left you can decrease the contrast of the image.

Screenshot of adjusting contrast in Lightroom

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.

Screenshot of adjusting contrast in Lightroom

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.

Screenshot of using the contrast brush in Lightroom for contrast in photography

You can easily visualize which area you have painted by checking “Show Selected Mark Overlay”.

Screenshot of adjusting contrast in Lightroom

Conclusion

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!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

Sarah Rodriguez-Martinez

I am a self-taught photographer based in Catalonia. I learnt the craft by reading, taking online courses and spending a lot of hours taking photos. These days I am shooting mostly portraits, nature photos and cultural events. Lately I am also doing yoga photography because I am a yogini myself. I am well known for loving coffee and hating Mondays. You can contact me easily by Instagram (@sarahrmphotos).

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