CONTRAST PHOTOGRAPHY: The Ultimate Guide

You might be wondering, what exactly is contrast? What difference does a contrast make in a photograph? How exactly can you get high contrast images? It’s a sought-after concept in photography. Since there are a vast number of ways for applying contrast to any particular photograph, contrast photography is one of the most confusing at the same time. But before we start, let’s answer the first few questions as mentioned above. Contrast photography is most easily understandable with monochrome images. With their colored counterparts, it’s easy to explain what exactly a contrast photography wants to depict.

Image Credits: Chiiz

First and foremost, a contrast in photography is the visual ratio of the difference in the tones of an image. Colors, shadows, highlights, and textures are what creates the difference in any photograph.  For some, Contrast might look the same. However, if we look through it from a photographer’s perspective, Contrast is not a universal entity that always appears the same. Various types of Contrast are present which we will be soon looking at. 

Finally, in today’s blog, we will look at various aspects of Contrast that are used in photography which will help you better understand the purpose of contrast photography. Once you have completely understood how to toggle around the Contrast of your images,  it would help you to create even more stellar shots. 

Luminosity Contrast

The first type of Contrast would be the luminosity contrast. This is one of the simplest types of Contrast in which we apply the Contrast just by adjusting the sliding bar in any of the post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. With the help of Contrast, we can make the brights brighter and the darks darker. This is basically what luminosity contrast means.

Image Credits: Chiiz

In addition to this, some photographers will also actually agree to the fact that luminosity contrast in specific case scenarios might depend upon the lens that you are using and the dynamic range of your camera. But the amount of work that can be done in post-production is vast. Adding more contrast to your photograph will push the highlights of your pictures to the right and shadows of your photo to the left. This would eventually lead to blowing out the details in darks and sacrificing out your highlights as well. Sadly, this would also make your picture look more artificial.  Moreover, contrast is mostly used for optimizing a photograph and not for the sake of just adding it.

Tonal Contrast

The next type of contrast in contrast photography would be tonal contrast. You might be wondering, what precisely tonal contrast refers to. Tonal contrast is the difference between the dark areas and the Bright areas of a photograph. With the help of this composition, any picture can appear well defined or undefined due to the differentiated details of the contrast between blacks and whites, and greys.  

Now that we know what precisely tonal contrast refers to let’s understand why photographers mainly use this type of Contrast. With the help of tonal contrast, you can match the mood of a photo that enhances your message and helps the viewers to understand your photograph in the most accurate manner. Creating an emotion, engaging the viewers, and holding their attention for a more extended period is what a tonal contrast helps in. Let’s assume an example to understand the usage of tonal contrast in photography as well as videography.

Image Credits: Chiiz

Have you ever noticed how toothpaste advertisements are very bright and white? This is because they try to associate bright and light images with a positive side that has positive feelings—eventually emphasizing the message of a right healthy tooth. On the same note, if you have watched a very famous Netflix web series Breaking Bad, imagine the scenes in Breaking Bad without light, bright, and shadows? For the audience, it would not have been comforting to watch.  The contrast of dark and light is a visual clue that states it is a gritty dramatic subject. 

Do Not Try To Bring Out The Contrast That Does Not Exist

Most of the photographers might feel tempted to avoid the general guidelines by trying to squeeze into much from the raw files. However, if they are not careful, it is easy to end up creating images that look plastic. For example, people might sacrifice the background to work on getting all the details on the subject. Even though people might be noticing a massive batch of detail-free issues, they still work on getting more focus on their subject.  

Simultaneously, it is not recommended to have a wholly blown out background that has maximum focus given on the subject itself. Images that are having high contrast are called high vital photos. In addition to this, low vital photos are all about retaining the highlight details. Without any doubt, necessary high images are opposite to low essential images. 

It is essential to keep the shadows intact if you want the subject to be detailed and visible. Most professional photographers would always recommend making the best out of what is available and tailoring your decisions based on the subject that is available in front of you. Finally, the bottom line is, instead of trying to show ideal pictures, utilize the situation in front of you, and properly analyze the mood you want to convey to your audience.

Effect of Lightning In Contrast Photography

First and foremost, irrespective of whichever photograph, various images, and subjects,  the incident light on the subject is what denotes and dictates the overall quality of any picture.  None of the cameras or lenses can convert a lousy lighting effect into a good lighting one. The only thing possible is to make the lighting look good with the help of post-editing software and other skills. However, it is essential and easily understandable that light decides the contrast of any image. While capturing photographs, try to make sure that the shadow is pointing right at the subject, which means the sun is directly behind you.

Image Credits: Chiiz

The golden hour of the day is one of the best times to capture the perfect lightning effect that provides ideal exposure to shadows to get fine details on your subject. With no harsh highlights and shadows in your photograph, the issue will stand out from the background. Even though getting the golden hour is an ideal scenario, however, there is a possibility that you might not get so lucky all the time, especially if compared with wildlife photography.  

According to some experts, even if the light source is at an angle that is slight to our right or our left,  beyond about 20° behind us,  we would get partly half-lit subjects.  Apart from this, with the help of such angular lightning effects, photographers can bring out some of the best and beautiful emotions in their issues, including high contrast as well. But unfortunately, other times, there might be a scenario wherein it lights up too many details and makes the photo look slightly on the messier side. However, one of the best tips to get the perfect contrast is to always look for simplicity. 

Whenever the sun is almost at 45 degrees from the photographer,  it creates some contrast within the subject, making it pop out further and look more beautiful and bright. Sometimes photographers might strive to end up with a technically correct picture. However, in these types of scenarios, we forget the fact that a technically perfect image, might not always be a stunning picture.  Rules make our understanding easier; however, as quoted in the movie The Matrix,  some rules can be bent others can be broken. 

Color Contrast

Now that we have seen how to adjust tonal Contrast and luminosity contrast in your photograph,  it is now time to know a few more details about what exactly color Contrast means. We also saw the Contrast between shadows and highlights. And therefore to understand color contrast slightly in a better way, let’s understand that with an example. 

There is an image that consists of no other editing done between them except the addition of a black and white layer over the color image. Just like the Contrast between the shadows and highlights, there is a contrast between colors. In case you might have heard about the color theory,  red, green, and blue are the primary colors, and Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are their inverses that have maximum Contrast. Even if you have two contrasting colors in a photograph of the same luminance,  the color difference alone will make the picture look more beautiful and popped out. Some of us might also have experienced this before seeing how an image can go flat when it’s made black and white. 

Image Credits: Chiiz

Additionally, here are some of the examples where color contrast plays a very efficient and vital role. Before that, let us answer the first few questions,  how can we enhance color contrast? Especially when there are two contrasting colors, preferably just next to each other. In such situations, one of the contrasting colors can be made brighter and the other darker. Capturing the blue sky while bordering the golden mountains is one of the best examples of stunning contrast photography. It showcases the perfect light shattered by the sunset, which is right behind the photographer while the mountain is flashing its warm light and bringing out the bright yellows in the picture. 

We all know the fact that as and when we go higher, the sky starts to get darker. That’s the reason whenever we fly in an aircraft that cruises at and high altitude. The sky looks so dramatically good and blue. However, as and when you tend to land, the sky starts to look bleached, it starts to get overexposed. 

Image Credits: Chiiz

Furthermore, the contrast in any photograph can also be enhanced in its post-processing method using the HSL option in lightroom or ACR. Once you have opened photoshop, click on the filter,  then click on camera raw filter, then select the HSL icon. There you will find a luminance icon with the help of which you can increase or decrease the luminance of individual colors. However, it is always recommended that you do not overdo it, overdoing too much adjustment can likely add noise eventually creating banding in the smoother regions of your images, for example, the sky.

Conclusion

Without any doubt, in this entire blog, we saw how contrast could go beyond merely pushing the contrast slider.  However, the bottom line remains the same, to not get the maximum contrast and end up with the optimum contrast—neither too less nor too much. For professional photographers, there is always a difference between taking a picture under the midday sun and in the golden hour. The mid-day sun still provides out extreme contrast. It almost flushes away the more delicate details by living out harsh shadows in your image. 

On the contrary to which, the golden hour brings out the inter tonal contrast that is ultimately pleasing to each and everyone’s eyes. Always remember the fact that you cannot bring out something that is not present in its first-place itself. A camera lens cannot bring out contrast as a human eye does. A hazy scene will always make you end up in a situation where you have a shadowy frame, and the haze burns out the subtle contrast. Even though post-production of any photographs can help you bring or recover some Contrast, it would eventually be challenging to make it look natural. Sticking to the long-standing wisdom of getting it right from the camera is always recommended to have a naturalistic approach to your image. 

It is essential to have a proper amount of exposure on your image without burning out the highlights and eventually bring out the optimum level of contrast during the post-production stage.  In an ideal case scenario, it is simpler to make a great picture out of a properly exposed picture than an image that is underexposed.

If you are new to photography, master it by attending various live online workshops regularly by us on our Events Website. Also, head to our Blog for more such tips and tricks about photography. You can subscribe to our digital magazine through Magzter or Issuu to delve into more organized and well-furnished photography content. And if you think you have learned a lot and you want to give it a check, then, proceed to our Contests content, participate there and win astounding prizes.

About The Author


Nishad Kinhikar, 
is a 21-years-old budding engineer, passionate world citizen, and a youthful individual looking to innovate and inspire all with his sweet words. “Aiming to Bring the change, one step at a time,” he quoted.

Instagram: @nishadkinhikar4

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