Contrast in Photography – How to Make the Best Use of It

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understanding contrast in photography

The contrast in photography comes in a few different forms. How you make use of it is well worth considering. Contrast, or lack of it, can make or break a photograph. Making the best choices about how you manage contrast is one of the photography fundamentals.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what contrast is in photography and why it is so significant. A variety of factors influences different types of contrast. Contrast plays a role in both visual and conceptual aspects of photography.

What you are photographing, the light illuminating it has an influence on contrast in your pictures. Your choices about exposure and how you edit your photographs can shape how contrast in an image appears.

man in a canoe lake.

What is Contrast in Photography?

Contrast in photography is the difference in tone or color between things that are in relatively close proximity to each other. The contrast in a photograph is affected by light intensity and quality. The tones and colors of elements in your composition also play a role in the overall contrast in a photo. You can have high contrast or a low contrast image, depending on these variables.

There is also conceptual contrast in photography, but this is quite a different topic. Conceptual contrast is about the subjects you choose to photograph and how they relate to each other. My newest camera and the one I first used to take a roll of film are an example of conceptual photography. Any two or more elements in an image that appear different from one another are examples of conceptual photography.

drone and old film camera.

What are the Different Types of Contrast?

The most commonly recognized types of contrast in photography are high contrast and low contrast.

High contrast images have dark tones and bright highlights appearing close to each other. Most often, this style of high contrast image is made where the light intensity is strong. This is hard light because it produces dark shadows with well-defined edges.

Low contrast images tend to be made in soft light. The elements in a low contrast image will be of similar tones, especially if they are close together.

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The tones of elements in compositions also influence contrast. Photograph a zebra, and you’ll get a high contrast image, no matter if you are in bright sunlight or the sky is overcast. 

Taking photos of things that are all one color or tone does not automatically make them low contrast images. The light intensity and quality influence contrast in photography of things that have little or no tonal contrast.

A cream-colored cup and saucer on a white table can create a high contrast when the light is strong.

high contrast photograph of a white cup.

With the same subject in soft light, the contrast level drops.

low contrast photography.

Photographs with light and dark tones that are not so close together are not considered high-contrast images. In the image below, there are both light and dark tones. Because these do not make up much of the composition and are mainly separated, this is not high contrast photography.

women with a red color flower.

Tonal contrast is relative to other close-by elements in a composition and the lighting. You might compose an image that has pure black and bright highlights. When these are separated or not so significant, then the image is not in high contrast. It might be a medium or low contrast image.

Does Your Camera Accurately Record Tonal Contrast As You See It?

What we see with our eyes is often different than what our cameras record when we press the shutter button. Much of this difference is how we perceive the tonal contrast and how our cameras can record it.

We can see a broader range of tonal contrast that cameras are currently capable of capturing in a single frame. This is more pronounced in higher contrast photos. We may be able to see the detail in shadows and highlights, but our cameras may not record detail accurately at both contrast extremes. 

When there is a strong contrast in how the photo is exposed determines how much detail appears in brighter and dark tones. If your light meter is set to take an averaged reading for the entire image, you may lose detail at both extremes. Taking a spot meter reading from bright tones in a composition, you can set the camera’s exposure to retain detail in these areas. 

candles burning with a dark color background.

This will mean that in dark shadows, there are no details retained. The opposite happens when you take a spot meter reading from the dark shadows. This is because the dynamic range of camera sensors is currently more limited than what we see with our eyes.

You can exploit this limitation, especially if you save your images are RAW files. While post-processing, you can adjust contrast using tools like the levels adjustment layer. This allows you to subtract or add contrast. You can also use an adjustment brush tool if you do not wish to alter the global contrast in the whole photo. There are many great photography tutorials available explaining the details of how to do this.

tree in the mountains for contrast.

What are High Key and Low Key Images?

High and low key images are all about the lighting style used to create the images or film. These terms originate from the movie industry way back before the color film. A high key light, the main light, was used to make exposing the film well easier. 

Movie lights were big, bulky, and expensive. One key light made for a more practical filming experience. The trade-off was the higher contrast images than the film captured. This was embraced by many directors, especially in crime, suspense, and horror genres. The high key lights and dark shadows added to the drama and created more sense of mystery.

When the key light was turned down, the contrast levels dropped. Low-key lighting is much softer and more gentle. 

Because of the limitations of film at the time, these lighting styles became popular. When a photographer wanted to add drama or tension, they could make a high-key image. If they wanted to make a more romantic look, they used less light to make a low-key image.

A low-key image has low contrast and is mainly even tones. A high key image has high contrast and can be mostly shadows. Often managing the contrast levels in images comes down to controlling the lighting. You can use natural contrast, or you can create contrast by adding light or blocking it. Adjusting contrast while editing also gives you scope to further control the look and feel of a photo.

portrait of a man with high contrast.

What is Color Contrast in Photography?

Color contrast in photography is all about how different colors interact with each other. When colors are opposite each other on the color wheel, they are called complementary colors. These colors have the most contrast when appearing next to each other in photos.

Analogous colors are those that are next to each other on the color wheel. These colors are lower contrast when side by side in photographs. 

Complementary colors are warm colors and cold colors. Green and red. Orange and blue. Purple and yellow. These are primary colors that are complementary. These colors placed near each other in photos tend to enhance color contrast. This often adds more drama or tension to a photo. 

Color characteristics of hues close to each other on the color wheel are similar. The contrast is lower. There’s less drama because the colors interact with each other differently than complementary colors.

There’s lots of opinion concerning color theory and how it’s used in photography. Color contrast can definitely be controlled to create mood and atmosphere in photos, just as tonal contrast can be. A good combination of tonal contrast and color contrast can really make a subject pop.

color contrast of a flower and background.

What is Conceptual Contrast in Photography?

Conceptual contrast has nothing to do with highlights and shadows in images. You cannot alter it with a contrast slider while you are post-processing. Conceptual contrast is about the contrast between elements in your photo.

What you photograph can share a message of contrast, as in my example above of my two cameras. The contrast is plain to see regardless of whether there’s any color contrast or tonal contrast in the photo.

Conceptual contrast used well in a photo can provide the viewer with a sense of scale, temperature difference, age, or any number of ideas that contrast.

portrait of a women with conceptual contrast.

Do You Want More Contrast or Less?

Being a photographer who understands light and knows how to control their camera, you can best manage contrast. Whether you want to create high-contrast photos or manipulate the color contrast in your photos, you are the one who is in control.

Being able to see the difference between middle tones, a dark background, and pure white elements can help you compose these things more effectively in your photos. Learn to look at contrast levels as you compose your photos. Take time to consider if you want to make low-key photos or high-contrast photos.

However you decide to manage the contrast in your photos, the more intentional you are about it, the stronger your photography will be.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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