Whether it is a silhouette backlit against the sky on our hunting ancestor’s horizon, promising food, or the dramatic Chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio or Rembrandt painting, the eye is naturally drawn to contrast. Like many things in life, there is beauty in the juxtaposition of contrasting opposites. This is something all visual artists can use, and as photographers immersing yourselves in techniques like high contrast photography, you should familiarize yourself with this style. It isn’t an easy one to master. Proper use of contrast means not only mastering the technical aspects of things like contrast lighting and the manipulation of exposure in your camera, but also training your eye in recognizing contrast naturally occurring in your subject matter. Becoming proficient in using this style requires nothing short of long practice. And to make that practice as effective as possible, you’ll need direction and knowledge, which we can help you with.
Types of Contrast
When talking about contrast from a photographic perspective, people usually mean the contrast between light and dark. In color photography, this is usually expressed as color contrast, which is to say the contrast between brighter and darker colors in your subject. For black and white photography, the emphasis is on tonal contrast. That is the contrast between the white, grey, and black elements of your chosen subject. However, there is also contrast to be found inherent in your choice of subject matter: big, small, hard, soft, rough, smooth, isolated, crowded. The list is potentially infinite. The juggling of all this is what makes high contrast photography so much fun to play around with.
Like the name suggests, high contrast photography means purposely including strongly contrasting elements. In black and white pictures, for example, a high contrast shot will feature relatively few grey tones, instead having mostly deep blacks and bright whites. An example of this in color photography would be a single red tree in a forest of green, or a single subject or object of bright color cast against deep, rich shadows. The idea is the primary subject matter should pop out of its surrounding background.
Achieving High Constrast Photos
There are numerous ways your camera can help you achieve this look. The easiest way to achieve this is to set your camera to black and white mode. The lack of color will automatically raise the possibility of contrast in your images. For an even stronger effect, look for your camera’s contrast setting. This may force you to take your camera off its automatic setting, but let’s be real here, you should be learning to shoot in manual at this point. When you find the option for contrast, try setting it to +1 and +2 and take a few shots to monitor the results. Another way to achieve a high contrast look is to use high contrast lighting. A common technique here is to shoot your subject in a dark room with a single light source illuminating it. This works great in portrait photography for imparting a sense of intimacy with your subject.
Black & White High Contrast Photography
As contrast in black and white photography is easier to achieve, let’s talk a little about it before moving to color photography. When you look at an image, whether it’s a sketch, painting, or photograph, notice how the eye is drawn to the point of greatest contrast. This is where the lightest and darkest elements of the image converge. In black and white photos, this is where your subject should be located. This maximizes the impact of your photo.
Color Image Constrast Photography
The nature of colored images means that the photographer’s palette is near-limitless, so more careful consideration is needed. At its core, good color high contrast photography requires at least passing familiarity with basic color theory, and that means the color wheel. On one side of the wheel are the “warm” colors, which are your reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks. On the other, you have the “cool” colors of blue, purple, violets, and green. The most basic way to use the wheel is for choosing what is called complementary colors. All you need to do is pick a color on one side, then draw an imaginary line through it to the center of the wheel out to the opposite side. The other color that is its opposite is its complementary color. This kind of color combination is just pleasing to the eye, and it’s a great shortcut to getting great looking color images. Keep these color pairs in mind when composing your shots. Another great piece of advice for achieving good-looking color contrast is to keep things simple. With fewer colors in your image, the more dramatic and effective the contrast.
The path of mastering photography is a lifetime’s work, and the many skills involved makes for a rewarding and enriching journey. I hope this basic guide helps you take your first few steps into the exciting realm of high contrast photography.