Saturday, April 12, 2014

How To Use Contrast To Your Advantage In Photography

Light Contrast
Monochrome Flower - Monterey, California
I was recently asked to explain contrast. How does one use it to create great images?

The perception was that in order to have a contrasty photograph, all that one needed to do was boost contrast in post-processing. Yet that wasn't giving the person the results that he desired.
On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
Contrast is a space in a photograph where light areas and dark areas meet. High contrast is an area where bright white and dark black touch each other.

One can have both bright white and dark black in a photograph, but if those two areas do not meet, you may not have a contrasty photograph. An image can be tonally flat yet encompass the full gray scale.
Morro Wave Crash - Morro Bay, California
The reason contrast is important is because the viewer's eyes will automatically be drawn first to the point of highest contrast in a photograph. Where light and dark touch is what the viewer is going to see first.

Contrast can either work to your advantage or disadvantage. You see, having a contrasty image means nothing if it take's the viewer's eyes somewhere that you do not want them to go. Contrast must be used purposefully to make the viewer see what you want them to see.
Crumbling Commode - Cuddy Valley, California
Let's take a quick look at the photographs here, starting at the top. The reason that Monochrome Flower works is because the white flower has a dark background. The image would not be nearly as strong if the contrast was less. On A Brighter Day is full of contrast. Typically, the eyes are first drawn to the clouds in the sky, then they follow the dark roof to the sun peeking through the crack (sometimes it is the other way around). If not for the shadow behind the splash, Morro Wave Crash would not be nearly as strong. In Crumbling Commode the toilet would have been lost among the junk surrounding it if not for the high contrast. Instead, the viewer is immediately drawn to the bright porcelain that is against the black shadow. I placed the tree in front of the clouds in One Tree so that there would be contrast (I actually had to wait a couple of minutes for the clouds to move into place). In Big Creek Bridge And Coast the contrast of the white surf and the dark foreground lead the viewer to distant bridge.

Using contrast to your advantage in photography means paying attention to where the contrast is prior to capturing an image. You have to look at where contrast exists and decide if it will work to your advantage or disadvantage. If it will be a disadvantage, don't include it in the photograph. If it will be to your advantage, make sure that you are thoughtfully using it.
One Tree - Tehachapi, California
By thoughtfully using contrast I mean that you may have to move closer or further, left or right, up or down, and/or adjust the timing to place the contrast just where you want it to be so that the viewer will be drawn to exactly where you want them to. You have to think about all of this prior to opening the shutter. This is called photographic vision.

As you can see, having a contrasty image doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how much contrast is added in post-processing, but how the photographer uses the light at the scene to get the results that he or she is looking for. In fact, most of these photographs had a very minimal amount of contrast added in post-processing.
Big Creek Bridge And Coast - Big Sur, California

Color Contrast
Jelly Fish - Monterey, California
Color contrast is similar to light contrast except instead of light and dark areas together, it is two colors opposite the color wheel together. Color contrast can be just as effective as light contrast.

Colors that are opposite on the color wheel are blue and orange, red and green and yellow and purple. For colors to contrast with each other the match doesn't have to be precise. Yellow contrasts with dark blue, and pink contrasts with green. This is similar to light contrast in that it doesn't have to be bright white and dark black, but good contrast can occur with shades of gray. 
Farm Sprinkler - Tehachapi, California

Red will pop against green, orange will pop against blue, and yellow will pop against purple. The opposite is true: green will pop against red, blue will pop against orange, and purple will pop against yellow.

Just like with light contrast, color contrast must be thoughtfully used. It can be to your advantage or disadvantage in a photograph. You can grab the attention of the viewer and direct their eyes with it. Just be sure it is where you want their eyes to go and not to some distraction in the background. Be purposeful and thoughtful, and you'll be impressed by the results.
Color Lamp Abstract - Bakersfield, California

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