Contrast: It Will Make Or Break An Image

Contrast: It Will Make Or Break An Image

Contrast is a visual enhancement that can either make or break your images. In photography, we refer to contrast as the tool to direct a viewer’s attention to their subject.

In digital photography, contrast is often controlled and altered in the post editing process. To better understand this photography principle, let’s take a look at how to effectively use contrast in your images.

What is Contrast?

There are two types of contrast that are present in an image: Tonal and Color.

The tonal contrast refers to the difference in tones from white to gray to black. While color contrast is the manner in which colors interact with each other.

When creating contrast in post editing, you can choose to adjust the values to make your image more flat or punchy.  In colored images, the amount of contrast used can effectively allow colors to stand out from each other.

Adjusting Contrast in Your Images

You can adjust the contrast of your images in post editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Found in the basic adjustments panel, contrast will be seen as a bar that can be slid up or down to adjust its value.

In digital images, contrast is often more visible than those created on film. When using your digital camera, contrast isn’t necessarily a function you can adjust while shooting, but can be controlled by understanding how lighting and exposure work to capture your photograph.

As a general rule, high contrast images are created in conditions of direct sunlight while low contrast images are created in muted and softer lighting conditions.

High Contrast

High contrast will showcase a complete tonal range in your images. For black and white photography, this can be a mean that there will be dark shadows and bright, white highlights. For color photography, you will have strong, bold and saturated colors and the images will be sharp with clarity.

An example of high contrast images are those that are often shot in direct sunlight such as the examples below:

Muhammad Muzamil
G. Keenan Schneider
Andrew Seaman

Low Contrast

Low contrast results in muted colors and an image that looks more flat. There will be little distinction between the lights and darks in your image and therefore will give off the look of desaturation.

Low contrast images often evoke a strong mood or emotion for the viewer. Even if the colors and textures give off a more muted appearance, the images can be visually dynamic and interesting.

An example of low contrast images that are shot in more subtle light or weather conditions can be seen in the examples below:

Caleb Jones
Alex Ivashenko
Joe Beck

How Much Contrast Should You Use?

The amount of contrast you apply to your images will ultimately come down to a personal preference. Many photographers create their own style by applying a standard of contrast across the board for their photographs.

Yet, a good rule of practice for using contrast is to always consider your lighting conditions and how that will effect your image. Improper uses of contrast result when an image is shot in a specific light and post produced to exemplify an alternate view.

For example:

  • If you photograph your subject in bright, direct sunlight – don’t decrease the contrast so that you remove all detail and color tonal ranges from your images.
  • If you photograph your subject in muted, softer light – don’t increase the contrast so that you add too much detail, clarity and color contrast that feels inauthentic and overly edited.

If you have an idea for the contrast of your images, think about the external conditions such as light and weather before you start creating. The best way to understand contrast and adjust it to fit your photographic eye, is to shoot in various lighting conditions and make any neccessary changes in your editing process.

Contrast can make or break a good image if utilized ineffectively. Remember that contrast is meant to distinguish colors, tones and textures within your images. Consider the mood and feeling you want to evoke from your viewer before creating an image with high or low contrast.