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Exploring contrast in images.

I recently took my camera to a spot where I thought I would get some interesting landscape pictures. Unfortunately, on this occasion all I could see before me was an uninteresting expanse of grey - grey sky, grey lake, trees and hedges without a hint of colour, which would have added up to very dull images lacking any kind of contrast. On this occasion I had to pack away my camera and travel on, as no amount of post-production would have salvaged any images taken. However, the experience did set me thinking about the importance of contrast in photography. In reality, without contrast we really wouldn’t have an image – we would have completely dark or completely bright or, if we’re lucky, a dull shade of grey.

Looking at the contrast in the scene before I take my shots is something I think I do sub-consciously and I seem to reject images that lack contrast. That's not to say that I always get the best contrast in my photographs and it is an area in which there is much to learn. I have recently been reading an eBook by photographer David duChemin which outlines what he considers to be ways to make better photographs. High on his list is the concept of looking for contrast within the frame of a photograph, which he claims can be an aid in a making better story or better image. DuChemin makes the claim that, Paying attention to contrast both in camera and in post-processing will improve your image,” and he goes on to say that, “Better contrast makes for better stories, and better stories make for better images.”

DuChemin mentions two types of contrast, the first being visual contrast, which he says doesn’t always have to be strong contrast and can work equally well as subtle contrast. Contrast can be achieved in photography through colour and tone. Colours such as blue and yellow or red and green (complementary colours on the colour wheel, sometimes called warm colours and cold colours) provide a good contrast and each colour helps to accentuate the other, while light tones can contrast against darker tones.

Red and green accentuate each other in terms of contrast.

The strong contrast in colours help this stand out as an image.

There is a good contrast between the boat and the surrounding water.

Silhouetttes are one example of tonal contrast. Black and white photographs work best when there is good contrast in the tones.

Sometimes in photographs with similar colours, such as autumnal yellows, browns and oranges, strong and light tones can provide contrast. Depth of field in images can provide contrast as the blurry background will stand in contrast to the sharper subject in the foreground.

On the other hand, low contrast images can be used to create a particular effect or convey a certain mood therefore it is important to know what we are trying to achieve and how we can use contrast to help us achieve that aim.

The mist over the mountain changes the mood of this shot, and even though it has low contrast, in my view it somehow works as an image.

Conceptual Contrast

The second type of contrast mentioned by duChemin is conceptual contrast, which he defines as “the distinction between elements within your frame,” where there may be a contrast between old and young, high and low, hard and soft, and so on. In some images the contrast may not be immediately obvious but if it draws the photographer it may also be the feature that draws the viewer into the frame. DuChemin suggests that watching for contrasts and incorporating them into an image “can give meaning beyond just the obvious and make it more engaging.”

From my reading on this topic it seems clear that learning how to use and incorporate contrast into my images will be one way to improve the results, therefore it is something I intend to focus on more attentively. Contrast can be enhanced or reduced post-production but having a good awareness of how contrast works to begin with is obviously an advantage.

In the meantime I had a look back through some of my images to see to what extent I am naturally drawn to capturing conceptual contrast. I found these in my archive!

Contrast is what makes photography interesting. Conrad Hall


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