Contrast is an important aspect of a good photo but it is oft overlooked by amateur photographers.
What is Contrast?
Contrast is a very simple concept. In non-photographic terms, contrast is defined as “the state of being strikingly different from something else.” A good example of contrast is how we experience air temperature. When you step outside your warm house into the cold morning you notice the cold because of the contrast between inside and outside temperatures. As we spend more time outside we often feel the cold less because there is no contrasting warm temperature to remind us how cold it is. Visually we are surrounded by examples of contrast everyday. Neon signs, often hung in dark windows, catch our attention because the light tubes are so much brighter than the dark background. A stop sign works because there is a significant difference between the white letters and the red background so as to make the white letters easy to read. Imagine if a stop sign had a dark blue background with purple letters!
How Does Contrast Apply to Photography?
In photography we think of contrast as the difference between the light tones and dark tones in an image. When we have bright highlights and dark shadows we have a lot of contrast. A great black & white print with deep blacks and bright whites is an example of high contrast. When we have a photo that has a lot of tones that are close to each other in brightness we have low contrast. A picture on a gray, foggy day would have low contrast.
Just like I mentioned in my post on exposure, adjusting contrast in a photo is typically a matter of taste. How much is too much might be different for you and me. There are some circumstances where it is generally a good idea to add a little more contrast to an image. Fall foliage is a terrific example of that. Increasing the difference between the light and dark tones in the colorful leaves can really make them pop. As a rule, if you’re photographing your mother I would advise against adding a lot of contrast as it will highlight her crows feet and wrinkles. You do that at your own risk!
This image of my elephant friend in South Africa illustrates how contrast can affect an image. The photo on the left is untouched out of the camera. It looks okay, but it is a little flat and boring. The middle shot includes an increase in contrast. Note the additional texture in the skin on the trunk and in the ears. Unlike mom, this looks good on elephant skin! And finally, the last image has an a lot of contrast added. It really brings out the texture on the animal, but look too how it separates the leaves in the trees. For some people this is too much contrast. I like it for this picture, but I wouldn’t apply the same treatment too often to too many of my photographs. If this were a different setting I might think about doing something completely different. For example, if this were a misty morning scene I wouldn’t want to bring out the skin as much but rather I would be interested in blending the elephant with the mist. Reducing the contrast in the original photo would be a good way to make that happen. As always, season to taste.
So next time you’re dabbling with your photos play around with contrast and see how it can enhance your work. In most photo editing software the basic adjustments are done with a slider so you can see how you are impacting the picture. Have fun with it!
In my next post I will talk about how color temperature affects our photographs.