Contrast Photography: All You Need to Know

(Last updated on July 4th, 2022)

Contrast is essential to any photograph. It is almost as important as the light. Without contrasts, the image looks flat and often unappealing. Contrast photography is a great way to challenge yourself while expanding your photograph repertoire.

This article will explore the nuances of contrast photography. We will learn about the various types of contrast photography, how to create contrast in the camera and the basics of editing.

The Basics of Contrast Photography

You may have guessed it, but contrast photography is about creating contrast within the frame.

Contrast is the state of being different from something else. Most people think of a black and white image when they think of contrast photography.

Ocean sea stack and incoming waves. This high key contrast photograph places the exposure emphasis on the highlights. The majority of the image is on the right side of the histogram
Ocean sea stack and incoming waves. This high key contrast photograph places the exposure emphasis on the highlights. The majority of the image is on the right side of the histogram

Contrast is front and center in black and white photography. The greater the difference between the lights and darks, the higher the contrast.

Contrast photography is a great way to improve an often overlooked facet of the medium. When you spend time thinking about contrast you are, in essence, studying how the light falls on the scene. Paying close attention to how light falls across a scene is a skill worth cultivating in your photography.

But there are many types of contrast photography. Below is an overview of the varied ways to introduce contrast into an image.

Types of Contrast Photography

Color Contrast

I am an advocate of photographers learning color theory. As painters of light, knowing why certain colors look better together will make us stronger photographers. This is why most painting schools start with a heavy dose of color theory.

Two wine glasses with water illuminated with colorful light. Orange and blue are complementary colors. Using them as the primary colors in a photograph creates color contrast photography
Two wine glasses with water illuminated with colorful light. Orange and blue are complementary colors. Using them as the primary colors in a photograph creates color contrast photography.

In my experience as a photographer, I have found the more I study color theory the easier it is to include into my images. Even though the majority of my street photography is black and white, when I am out on the streets, my eye is easily drawn to pops of color. Objects like a red banner or orange traffic cones.

Once I find these, I can then carefully select my subject to stand in contrast to these smaller colorful elements. So if I have a bright red sign, I may wait around for someone to walk by in green, the complementary color to red.

I know when I go to edit the image, the colors will further help create contrast if I choose to create a black and white image.

Color Wheel
Color Wheel

The color wheel is the base for all color theories. This is a common wheel seen in editing software. It includes saturation in addition to hue.

  • Complimentary Colors
    • These are colors that are opposite of the color wheel.
    • Examples include red and green or yellow and blue.
    • By using this color scheme in your image you are creating contrast photography.
  • Analogous Colors
    • These are three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel.
    • Colors such as green, yellow, and orange or violet, blue, and green.
    • If you choose to use analogous colors in your image, the photograph will be low-contrast photography.
  • Color Temperature
    • Cooler temperatures and warmer temperature colors combined in the frame will create separation and contrast.
    • This is more common with landscape photography.
Icebergs and a distant mountain range. Combining warm and cool colors in a photograph can be subtle in the above image. The warmth of the sun setting on the mountain range is balanced by the deep blues of the water and iceberg.
Icebergs and a distant mountain range. Combining warm and cool colors in a photograph can be subtle in the above image. The warmth of the sun setting on the mountain range is balanced by the deep blues of the water and iceberg.

Cooler.Co has a great tool to help visualize what color contrast looks like. Non-photography tools like Adobe’s color finder are a great way to expand your color vision. This book, Secret Lives of Color is an excellent source on the history of colors. It helped give me a solid foundation of colors and with that, a higher appreciation for color.

Tonal Contrast

Tonal contrast is the difference between the bright and dark elements in the frame. It is part of every photograph. With practice, it can and should be mastered. Tonal contrast is easier to conceptualize with black and white photography.

Black and white photography relies heavily on contrast. There are only 10 levels of tonality in a black and white image. The degree of separation between Zone 1, nearly total black, and zone 9, nearly white, determines the contrast.

Leaves of a plant with a dark background. High-key photography is a type of contrast photography. There is a wide separation between the highlights and shadows, creating energy and tension.
Leaves of a plant with a dark background. High-key photography is a type of contrast photography. There is a wide separation between the highlights and shadows, creating energy and tension.

In the image above, the tonal values span the entire zone system. When you increase the separation between tonal values, you get a high-key black and white photograph. This type of contrast photography is very popular in both street and landscape photography. It is also utilized in some portraiture.

Conceptual Contrast

Just like in painting and other mediums of art, contrast can go beyond tonal values. When you combine elements in the frame that we don’t expect to see together. By applying contrast to the subjects in your image you bring in an element of storytelling. This elevates your photography to a new level and can lead to dramatic images.

Screenshot from an article on the Insider highlighting the work of Tim Dodd. This work combined multiple types of contrast. Most notably, conceptual contrast.
Screenshot from an article on the Insider highlighting the work of Tim Dodd. This work combined multiple types of contrast. Most notably, conceptual contrast.

In the photo series above, Tim Dodd is creating a story by having an astronaut explore parts of the earth. These two elements are out of context with one another, creating juxtaposition. This is conceptual contrast.

Another way to achieve this is by combining something big with something small. Something alive with something dead. Something wet with something dry. The common theme is to combine opposites in your image; do it with reason.

High Contrast

High contrast is similar to high-key photography. The whites are quite bright and the darks are dark. The image has little middle tones.

This technique helps the subject stand out and be a prominent feature of the image. It is often used in landscape and street photography. These types of images will have a lot of energy and often be more visually intense.

Low Contrast

Low contrast photographs are flat. The majority of the tonal range is the mid-tones. These photos don’t stand out as much as high-contrast images, leaving it up to the composition. Reducing the contrast creates a dreamy, ethereal feel that can be beneficial to the subject matter.

Texture Contrast

The texture is also a way to introduce mood into your contrast photography. By combining objects or subjects of different textures, the tension lies in the contrast. There are many ways to achieve this; a common way to achieve this is using a wide aperture.

This will soften the background or foreground and keep the subject tack sharp. This juxtaposition creates tension in the image. It is an effective use of the camera to create contrast within the image.

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Enough Theory, Let’s Practice

If you are starting out with contrast photography, I recommend creating images in black and white. Many digital cameras like this one allow you to create images in black and white. This will allow you to see the world in all its tonal greatness.

It will also help you become a better photographer.

Ansel Adams created the zone system I mentioned above. He divided the tonal range of film into ten steps of tonal value. The separation between tonality creates contrast. Adams mastered the zone system, creating high-energy landscape photography.

When you can internalize the idea of the zone system into your photography, you can better utilize contrast when creating images. Removing color from the scene will help you focus on where the light is and the intensity of how it creates the image. You will start to see the balance between the dark and light areas of the frame.

With practice, this tonal visualization will become second nature. Like riding a bike, you will not even think about it but your photography will improve.

Here is a short list of ways to practice contrast photography.

1. Create a Studio

Another way to practice contrast photography is by setting up a home studio. Simply place a table in front of a black or white background. Then use select lighting to create high-contrast still lifes.

2. Color Schemes

Bring color theory into your workflow. Create color schemes that emphasize color contrast. Bring similar colors together to create a low-contrast scene. Try using a triad scheme of colors to add contrast and complexity.

3. Craft Silhouettes

Silhouettes are a great way to emphasize a subject while creating contrast in the camera. It is also a form of high-key photography. This type of photography involves capturing a dark image of a subject over a light background.

4. Pay Attention to the Shadows

High noon is considered by many to be the worst time to create images. This is a great time to combine shadows and lights to create contrast. Use the bright light of the sun and seek out patterns between light and dark areas.

Post Production

“Get it right in post,” they said. This is not a good approach to photography. With contrast photography, you focus on creating contrast in your composition.

However, with a little purposeful editing, contrast can be improved. The histogram is the perfect place to start. Generally, as the information of the histogram widens, the contrast increases.

Histogram
Histogram

Referring to the histogram while you edit is a quick visual cue to where the contrast is in the image.

At the most basic level, you can use the contrast slider. Another global edit you can use is the blacks and the whites sliders. These two adjustments provide more control over the contrast. If you make the blacks darker or whites brighter, the contrast will be increased.

Local adjustments can also be handy in editing contrast photography. They are particularly useful if you are working with still life or portrait photography as you can isolate the subject for editing. Create a selection using a mask over the area you want to adjust. Masks can be created with a brush, luminance mask, gradient, etc.

Conclusion

Contrast is part of every photograph. The two cannot be separated. When you start to make it a factor you think about and decide how much, what type, the mood, etc. at the time of image creation, your photography becomes stronger.

The best way to implement contrast photography into your workflow is by creating a project. Think of a subject you want to study. Then choose a type of contrast photography you are drawn to. Then get out and create some images.

It could be high-key product photography. Or low-contrast portraits. How about combing macro photography with color contrast? In your project, every image should reflect the same type of contrast.

Aim to create 50 images over the course of a month or two. Then edit the selection down to the best 20 images. This practice will create a strong body of contrast photography suitable for your portfolio.

Remember, contrast photography is about getting the contrast in the frame, not creating it when editing the image. Keep creating contrast, have fun and always try new things.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is contrast photography?

Contrast photography is creating images that rely on contrast within the composition to strengthen the image. There must be noticeable differences between elements to create contrast, like light areas and dark areas.

What kinds of contrast photography are there?

There are many types of contrast photography and one of the most common is black and white landscape photography, or street photography. Using contrasting colors creates color contrast photography. It does not have to be high contrast images; flat, low contrast images are also considered to fall in the genre of contrast photography.

Does it have to be black and white?

It does not. Color theory is a great place to start by creating images with complementary or analogous colors. You can think outside the box and create contrast with subject matter or concepts. The sky is the limit as long as there are noticeable contrasts within the frame.

How do I get started in contrast photography?

The best and fastest way to begin creating contrast photography is by starting a photography project. Choose a subject matter and type of contrasts, perhaps color contrast, and spend time creating images that all abide by this type of contrast.

Where can I look for inspiration for color contrast?

The best place to start is by studying color theory and the history of colors. Once you have a border understanding of color, creating photography that pops with contrasting colors will come naturally.


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