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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.