10 tips to help you shoot for contrast

First published:
January 18, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

10 tips to help you shoot for contrast

First published:
January 18, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

Silhouette of children playing on sand hill by JetHuynh

Learn to use contrast in your photography to create bold compositions, highlight important details and draw the viewer’s eye through the scene

Contrast is a vital element not just in photography, but many forms of art and design. From the chiaroscuro paintings of the renaissance masters to the bold colour combinations of Van Gogh or Mondrian. As photographers we can seek out changes in light, contrasting shapes and bold colours to create images with greater impact. Here are 10 top tips to get you thinking about contrast in your photography…

1 What is contrast?

Strong evening sunlight can be wonderful for creating bold, contrasty street photography. Image by Anna Sowinska - f/18 | ISO 200 | 1/125s

Contrast is essentially about difference. Whether it be differences in brightness, opposing colours, or conflicting themes. We can create contrast by arranging and juxtaposing these differences, perhaps by placing dark objects or details against lighter ones. As such, it allows us to emphasise shapes, make bold shadows and enhance the sense of depth that is so vital in translating three dimensional scenes into a two-dimensional photograph.

2 Start with black

Every photograph starts off as a black canvas on which we expose pools of light. Image by Brendan Cody - f/4.9 | ISO 200 | 1/300s

Leonardo Da Vinci said that a painter should begin every canvas with a black wash, because “all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light”. As photographers, we can relate to this because, in a sense, all photographs begin like Da Vinci’s black canvas, onto which we expose as much light as we need. It can be helpful to keep this in mind when building contrast into your images. Start with a black wash, then look to add pools of light that contrast with the blackness in other parts of the frame.

3 Compose in levels

Look to create levels of contrast in your outdoor scenes - here each element - the foreground, the midground, the tree, the distant scenery and the sky - stands out because it contrasts with the level beyond. Image by Helen Homer - f/11 | ISO 100 | 20s

When composing outdoor photos it can be helpful to think of the scene as a series of levels. For instance you might have four levels - foreground, subject, distant scenery and sky. If we can create contrast between the levels then each will stand out more clearly. So if we place dark objects against brighter parts of the scene beyond, then contrast those with darker areas beyond, then we can create overlapping contrast throughout the scene.

4 Seek out contrasting colours

Contrasting colours - like the red, yellow and blue of Sintra castle in Portugal here - can result in vibrant photos. Photo by Stephen Barna - f/6.3 | ISO 800 | 1/800s

As well as creating contrast with tonality and brightness, you can also create it with colours. It’s helpful to think of a standard colour wheel, as the colours that sit opposite one another on the wheel will contrast strongly with one another. Artist Marc Chagall put it brilliantly when he said “all colours are the friends of their neighbours and the lovers of their opposites”. So look out for complimentary neighbours or opposites when out shooting. Combinations of green/red, blue/orange or yellow/purple will result in bold, vibrant contrast.

5 Shoot in harsh light

An autumn sunlit glade in early morning. Image by Chris Day - f/4 | ISO 200 | 1/500s

Direct sunlight creates high-contrast scenes with bold shadows, especially when the sun is low in the sky and the light streaks across the landscape, creating pools of bright sunlight and deep shade. Use your camera’s exposure compensation control to choose whether to expose for the highlights or shadows by dialling in more or less light. If we expose for the highlights then the shadows can become very black, whereas if we expose for the shadows the highlights can blow out. Either way, we’ll have an image with extreme contrast.

6 Seek out dark skies

Evening sunlight hits the red rocks of Sedona in Arizona, contrasting dramatically with dark storm clouds beyond. Image by John Sirlin

One of the most enticing kinds of light for outdoor photographers occurs when the sky becomes very dark with heavy rain clouds. This looks especially dramatic when the foreground is lit with strong sunlight. It creates an unusual kind of contrast because we’re so used to seeing the sky as brighter than the land, so to have the opposite occur can lead to incredible photos.

7 Shoot from dark to light, or light to dark

The careful positioning here of the brightest part of the backdrop beyond the butterfly creates strong contrast and makes the subject stand out. Image by Krzysztof Winnik - f/4.5 | ISO 640 | 1/125s

This is a trick often used by portrait photographers to create separation between their subject and the background. Look for places where you can place the subject in the shade with a bright area beyond them, and then expose for the subject so that the background comes out much brighter. Similarly, you could place the subject in a pool of bright light with shade beyond them for a moody dark backdrop instead.

8 Bracket your shots

By underexposing the foreground and exposing for the setting sun you can create bold silhouettes. Image by JetHuynh - f/6.3 | ISO 200 | 1/2000s

In high contrast scenes try bracketing your shots by shooting one underexposed, one ‘normal’ exposure and one overexposed frame. Not only will this give you options for choosing different exposes with differing levels of contrast and detail, it also gives you the opportunity to try merging for an HDR or exposure blending later on.

9 Create contrast with a flash

An off-camera flash here (a Godox AD300 Pro fitted with a softbox) lights the sheep from one side for a moody animal portrait, transforming the flat daylight into something much more dramatic. Image by James Paterson.

If you want to create more contrast than the available light offers, try using a flash. A pop of flash allows you to underexpose the background so that your subject stands out. It’s best to use an off-camera flash so that you can light your subject from one side. Begin by taking a shot with the flash off, and use a manual exposure that underexposes the ambient light. Then simply turn on the flash and use it to lift the subject while everything else stays dark and moody.

10 Shoot after dark

Take to the streets after dark to capture night-time scenes with bold contrast. Image by Christopher Wright

One of the reasons why night photos are so atmospheric is the strong contrast you get between the deep night and bright spots of artificial light. Street lamps, neon signs and traffic can all be used to great effect. It’s also a great time to try long exposures with a tripod.

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