How you handle contrast in photography will have a huge impact on the mood and look of your photos. Different types of contrast can be used for different types of images, and you can manipulate the contrast to create eye-popping visuals or dreamy impressions of a scene. Here’s an overview of different types of contrast photography and how you can use them to improve your images.
What is contrast in photography?
When we talk about contrast in photography, we are talking about differences — specifically, the differences between tones and colors that make up an image. Contrast is the degree of difference between two colors or between the lightest lights and darkest darks in an image.
How does contrast work in photography?
Contrast is just one of the elements that you should be paying attention to when taking a photo. To use contrast effectively, you will have to pay close attention to the lighting conditions and the way different colors affect each other within a scene. This can be tricky to do when taking photos, especially since you are also trying to find a good composition and take a sharp image. Fortunately, contrast is very easy to adjust in most editing apps, and you can change the look and feel of a photo with just a few sliders.
Types of contrast in photography
With contrast photography, you can make different contrast adjustments that affect not only the mood of your photo but also the tones, textures, clarity, and colors. Contrast may not be the first thing you think of when taking a photo, but there’s no doubt that adjusting the contrast has a lot of impact on the final image. Here are the different types of contrast you can use to improve or change your image:
- Tonal contrast
- High contrast
- Low contrast
- Color contrast
Tonal contrast refers to the difference in brightness between the elements of the image. You can use tonal contrast in color and black-and-white images alike. Unless you are specifically trying to create a high- or low-contrast image, you will be aiming for a photo that includes tones from bright white to dark black and everything in between for a medium-contrast image.
How to increase and reduce contrast in editing
Every editing app will have a contrast slider that makes it simple to increase and reduce contrast in your images. The basic editing tools in the Photos app installed on your phone will do the trick. Follow these steps to quickly reduce or increase contrast in your photo:
- Open the Photos app and choose a photo to edit.
- Tap Edit.
- Scroll through the tools and tap the Contrast tool, which looks like a circle divided in half with black on one side and light on the other.
- Move the slider to the left to reduce the contrast or to the right to increase it.
- Tap Done when you are happy with the results.
High contrast in photography
High-contrast photos have bright whites and dark blacks without a lot of medium tones. You can create high-contrast photos in black and white or in color. High-contrast photos are great for making your subject or element stand out in a photo, such as in silhouette photography or when shooting bright colors against a dreary dark sky.
How to shoot a high-contrast photo
When you first start shooting high-contrast photos, try using the black and white filter on your camera app. This will let you “see” the contrast without the distraction of colors. Start by shooting dark elements against light backgrounds or vice versa to create images that have bright whites and dark blacks.
Once you get the hang of high-contrast photography in black and white, you can try experimenting with color. High-contrast colors are located opposite each other on the color wheel. Yellow and purple, red and green, or blue and orange are examples of colors with high contrast.
When creating high-contrast images, look for scenes that already have good contrast, and then use your editing app to make more drastic adjustments.
Low-contrast photos have very little tonal contrast, so instead of whites and blacks, you will see a lot of gray tones. In color photos with low contrast, you will see colors that are closer in tone, like yellow and orange, blue and green, or red and purple. Instead of details that pop, low-contrast photos have a dreamy feel without a lot of shadows or highlights.
Low-contrast photography is great for moody landscapes, portraits, or when you want to feature a scene with soft, warm tones.
How to shoot low-contrast photos
Since low-contrast photos include lots of middle tones, seek out similar colors when planning a photo shoot. Examples include blue water against a blue sky or a forested landscape of green trees.
When editing for low-contrast photography, use the contrast slider to reduce the overall tonal contrast, but also use the shadow and highlight sliders to lessen the contrast between the lightest and darkest parts of your photo.
Color contrast in photography
Color contrast makes use of other types of contrast (tonal, high, and low contrast) to create an image with varying degrees of contrasting colors. Every color on the color wheel has a tonal value based on white being the lightest and black being the darkest. On a tonal value scale, yellow would be considered quite light, while navy blue would have a darker value. Colors of different tonal values appearing next to each other will create more contrast, while colors that are closer in tonal value will create less contrast. Color contrast is especially important in genres like infrared photography, which relies on inverting colors for a dramatic effect.
In addition to the tonal contrast between colors, there’s also the contrast between the colors themselves. The closer two colors are to each other on a color wheel, the less contrast you will see between them.
When utilizing contrasting colors in photography, it helps to have a rudimentary knowledge of color theory. When you know the basics, it’s easy to see how colors interact with each other to create contrast within an image.
Using contrast in photography: Ideas you can try
Now that you know the basics of contrast photography, let’s put that knowledge into practice. Here are some tips and ideas for using contrast to create stunning images with your iPhone.
1. Experiment with shooting against light and dark backgrounds
For certain subjects, adjusting the background might be all you need to create gorgeous contrast between your main subject the rest of your photos. Still-life photos, flowers, macro shots, and even portraits can benefit from a piece of white or black foam board to act as a background. For small subjects, you can also invest in a pack of portable reflectors to be used as backgrounds or as traditional reflectors to cast more light on your subject.
2. Create color schemes that emphasize high or low contrast within an image
For still-life photos, food photography, flat lays, and product shots, you have ultimate creative control over your photos and the contrast you want to emphasize. We’ve already talked a bit about using a color wheel to create high and low-contrast images, and by using your knowledge of color theory, you can create color schemes that will put emphasis on the contrast you are trying to create. For low-contrast images, try to group items together that are similar in tone and color (colors that are close to each other on a color wheel). For high-contrast images, place light, bright items next to darker ones to increase the contrast.
3. Shoot silhouettes against a bright sky
Silhouette photos are classic examples of high-contrast photography. Because you are shooting against a bright background, your main subject will appear almost entirely black. This dramatic contrast between light and dark is great for experimenting with artistic silhouettes. The secret is to capture subjects with interesting outlines that will stand out as silhouettes. Subjects with intricate details might not show up well as silhouettes, so save them for a future photo shoot.
4. Look for stark shadows to make high-contrast images
If you head outside on a bright day, you’ll find yourself surrounded by interesting shadows, making unique high-contrast patterns that are fun to photograph. Bright sunlight casts the darkest shadows, especially when the sun is high in the sky. On your next photo adventure, try seeking out these high-contrast areas with a shadow scavenger hunt — crisp shadows can be found around distinctive architecture, on playgrounds, in gardens, and on city streets.
5. Use vintage filters for low-contrast shots
Many of the low-contrast photos you see on social media are meant to emulate vintage film photography, which featured a very low dynamic range. You can easily create beautiful low-contrast images by using vintage filters from your favorite photo editing app. VSCO, for example, includes hundreds of filters that were designed to imitate various types of film.
Understanding how contrast affects your photos can make you a better photographer. And using contrast creatively allows you to change the feel of your photos and direct your viewer’s attention exactly where you want it.