What is Contrast in Photography

What is Contrast in Photography | And how to use it?

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If you are a beginner Photographer or looking to get into Graphic Design then you might be wondering what is contrast in photography? Contrast is one of the most essential parts of photography that you will ever learn. Many budding photographers think that contrast makes a shot ‘pop’, but what they mean to say is that it gives life to what would otherwise be an average photo.

Basically what this means is that there are areas of lightness and darkness within every image. So, for example, if you were to take a photo inside of an entirely white room with no windows or lights on, you would see almost nothing but white — there would be very little variation. This is known as low-contrast.

On the other hand, if you were to take a photo inside of an entirely black room with no lights on, you would notice very few areas where it’s actually black — most everything in your scene would have at least some slight variations that separate it from what lies directly next to it. This is what we call high-contrast.

In a more technical sense, contrast refers to two key factors: tonal contrast and color contrast. Tonal contrast involves the visible differences between pure black and pure white areas, or what we might refer to as dark and light.

When it comes to color photos, this means that contrasting colors tend not to lie next to each other in an image — for example, you’d be hard-pressed to find two identical reds. Instead, there will almost always be some slight variation among them, which gives them their distinction from one another.

Color contrast works the same way, only with color itself rather than just darkness and lightness. While there’s technically no such thing as white, yellow, red, green, and blue shades that are all an exact match of what lies next to them in an image, you can have colors with varying hues that still share the same tone. Instead of red #FF0000 being the same as red #B22222, what you’d likely find is that they’re both within what we call high-contrast.

Let’s see some examples

It is indeed a nice shot, so what makes it? The texture on the stone wall combined with the darkness of the foreground sky works together to give that scene some magnificent contrast. By having something dark or light within your photo, even if it’s the sky, you will emphasize what’s in front of it.

The other side to contrast is having light and dark within your shot. This brings out an entirely different effect than what we saw above, making your photos still quite beautiful.

What is low key?

The low key approach emphasizes what’s already there, giving what would generally be a common scene its own unique quality.

It works by taking what is naturally lit due to the location (the parts that are not shaded) and exposing them for what they are worth while suppressing exposure to darker areas.

In this case, since there was very little natural light around when I took this photograph, I used artificial lighting with a reflector to bring even more light into what was already shining through.

It is quite possible to have what seems like an infinite number of contrasts with just one photo. For example, if you were to take a picture in the woods, what would be your main focus? It would likely be the trees, right? By making what’s in front of your camera lighter than what’s behind it (the background), you can achieve this:

You could even try inverting the process and make what is usually white black! Your foreground will come out starkly contrasted against what’s in back of it.

What is high key?

The term high key refers to how much light there is within your shot. So the more light, or ‘white’, your final print is, the higher that variable goes. 

High key photography makes images appear over-bright, over-saturated, and generally more cheerful than they would be in reality. This use of digital manipulation can create an almost surreal effect that is very pleasing to the eyes. Most often high key images are displayed with bright white backgrounds and often in large dimensions.

Generally speaking, you don’t want to shoot high key all the time. Many times, a lower key approach would work better for what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, if you were photographing someone sad or crying, what would be more appropriate?

What is Contrast in Photography in practice?

In a nutshell, you want there to be what’s known as a smooth gradient of tones from one area to another in your image. This means that when you look out at the world around you with your eyes, what you see is what we call life-like or what photographers refer to as natural.

In reality, when you are taking photos outside with sunlight, you will notice that there appear to be very large areas of lightness and darkness, each containing what appears to be their own unique shades and hues.

We refer to this as high-contrast, or what makes certain images appear more life-like than others. This can be applied in any situation that might require it — whether you’re taking photos at home with your lights on, outside during sunset or deep within a forest where there’s less sunlight coming through the trees.

There are countless situations where what you see with your eyes isn’t exactly what you’d find when looking at images. And this is why certain tools and settings such as ISO were created so that photographers could take control over what they want their viewers to see, keeping things natural wherever possible while emphasizing whatever it is they want to capture.

How do you control contrast?

With what’s known as post-processing, what we’re able to do is what photographers refer to as “playing God” — we can go in and adjust what we want within an image, much like what would happen if we were actually there taking it ourselves.

This also means that what you see might not necessarily be what you’d get, depending on what changes take place after the photograph has been snapped.

You’ll find that what contrast does for images tends to vary from photo to photo, but that overall it gives viewers a certain perception of intense visual interest, making them appear more aesthetically pleasing than they otherwise might.

How do I adjust contrast setting in Photoshop?

The most basic way to tinker with contrast would be selecting the image layer > Image > Adjustments > Brightness / Contrast. This setting can be sufficient for most basic contrast changes.

To make more advanced changes the contrast:

  • Select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels (From menu bar at top of screen).
  • In Layers Panel , a new layer appears above the Background layer with a default name like “Levels 1”.
  • Click on the Levels thumbnail to bring up the Levels properties.

This will allow you to adjust image tone for more contrast, or less contrast.

Note that if an adjustment is too strong, it may clip (lose) detail in highlights and/or shadows of your photo. As a result, you may not see much difference in your image even though you have increased or decreased the contrast. This is because an adjustment to tone might not be enough to bring out more detail within that portion of tonal range.

To adjust the photo’s tonal range for more contrast without clipping, do one of the following:

  • Drag the highlight slider (white triangle) toward the left, and drag the shadow slider (black triangle) to the right.
  • Drag the white point and drag the black point so that they meet somewhere in the middle of your histogram .

For more contrast, drag both sliders towards each other. For less contrast, drag them away from each other.

  • To get more detail in highlights, drag the white point toward the left.

To get more detail in shadows, drag the black point towards the right.

  • Be careful not to clip your image when you adjust these sliders too far to either side.

What is Contrast in Photography – Final Words

How much you wish to tinker with contrast can depend on where your comfort level lies when it comes to post-processing your images.

You’ll also need to know what types of tools are available in what you’re using, but what’s most important is what kind of story it will tell . Will your images appear natural? How much can you adjust your photos before they start to lose their sense of authenticity?

It’s important to keep what was there when the photo was first taken in mind so that viewers don’t become distracted by things that were never meant to be part of the final product.

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