How to Get Great Contrast in Photography

A half-century after the fact, Carl Muscarello and Edith Shain (right) recreate the iconic pose that Alfred Eisenstaedt made famous in his 1945 "V-J Day in Times Square" photo.
A half-century after the fact, Carl Muscarello and Edith Shain (right) recreate the iconic pose that Alfred Eisenstaedt made famous in his 1945 "V-J Day in Times Square" photo.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

One of the critical techniques for creating powerful, memorable photographic images is contrast. When you look at a famous photograph -- like Alfred Eisenstaedt's "V-J Day in Times Square" -- consider all of the visual elements that make it so striking. Composition is certainly essential, but you should consider all of the contrasting elements in the photo:

  • The pure white of the nurse's uniform against the solid black of the sailor's
  • The playful smiles of passersby against the intensity of the two kissers
  • The soft "humanity" of the crowds milling through the streets against the cold geometry of the high-rise buildings
  • The nurse's passive, almost fainting posture against the sailor's aggressive stance
  • The comparative largeness of the couple against the "smaller" onlookers

When we talk about contrast in photography, it's usually in terms of dark versus light, low contrast versus high contrast. In black-and-white photography, the contrast between white, grey and black elements is called tonal contrast. In color photography, the differences between warm and cold colors (reds against blues, for example) is called color contrast.

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But there are myriad ways in which the elements of a photograph can contrast with one another: hard, soft, bright, somber, loud, muted, big, small, centered and isolated [source: Freeman]. The way a photographer balances these elements and situates them dramatically can make the difference between a click of the "delete" button and a masterpiece.

In this article, we'll share a few tips and techniques for making the most of contrast in your photos, whether you're using an inexpensive point-and-shoot or a high-end digital SLR model. Let's start with some tips for taking stunning, high-contrast photographs.

High-contrast Photography Tips

A high-contrast photograph purposefully includes strongly contrasting elements. In black-and-white photography, a high-contrast shot will have relatively few gray tones, but lots of strong blacks and whites. A high-contrast color photo might have bright, almost iridescent elements cast against deep, dark shadows, or a single red tree in a forest of green.

One of the easiest ways to instantly increase the contrast of your photos is to switch your digital camera to black-and-white mode. By limiting the color palette, you automatically raise the contrasting possibilities of your images. If you want even stronger contrast, look for the camera's contrast setting. It might require you to take the camera off of its default automatic mode and switch it to manual. When you find the contrast parameter, bump it up to +1 or +2 and monitor the results.

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Another way to intensify the contrast of your photos is to choose or create high-contrast lighting. One technique is to shoot your subject in a dark room with a bright light source shining through a window. One side of your subject will be bathed in hot, bright colors or sharp, white light, which will contrast dramatically with the opposing shadows. The classic high-contrast shot is a silhouette.

Aside from in-camera settings and lighting technique, the best way to boost the contrast of your images is to choose subjects and compose shots in such a way that maximizes their contrasting elements. If this sounds difficult, that's because it is. The artful balancing of contrasting photographic elements takes more than a sharp eye; it also requires years of practice.

Again, it helps to analyze famous photos and other visual art for inspiration. Pay attention to how the photographer or artist uses contrasting lighting, colors, shapes, textures and even moods to draw attention to the subject and hint at the inherent meaning of the image. Then get out there and shoot a couple thousand of your own.

Next we'll share a few tips for boosting contrast in color photography.

Color Contrast in Photography

Look for the shades opposite each other on this makeshift color wheel. The opposites will help you find contrast in color photography.
Look for the shades opposite each other on this makeshift color wheel. The opposites will help you find contrast in color photography.
Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images

In a black-and-white photo, the color palette is restricted to white, black and shades of gray. To create contrast, the photographer pits lighter elements against dark, sun against shadows. In color photography, the artist's palette is infinite and good contrast requires more consideration.

Good color contrast starts with the color wheel. On one side of the wheel are the "warm" colors: shades of yellow, orange, red and pink. On the other side are the "cool" colors: hues of violet, purple, blue and green. Choose the brightest shade of red and draw a line straight through the center of the wheel to the other side, landing on bright green.

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Colors like red and green that live on opposite sides of the color wheel are called complementary colors -- think of Christmas decorations. They're simply pleasing to the eye. The same is true of other complementary pairs like yellow and purple, or orange and blue. Even if the colors don't sit exactly opposite each other on the wheel, the complementary effect is still there, like blue and red, or green and orange.

Keep these complementary color pairs in mind when you're composing a shot. A lush green forest is a remarkable image, but it's even more stunning with a splash of red or deep pink flowers. An aging orange-hued adobe wall is even more picturesque when contrasted with a cracked blue wooden door.

For the best color contrast, keep things simple [source: Tang]. The fewer colors in the image, the more dramatic and effective the contrast. The splash of red in your green forest scene can easily get lost in the noise of dozens of other bright colors. If you want to create a moody, subtle image, try to fill it with shades of color that are all huddled in one section of the color wheel.

Let's finish with some tips on getting great contrast in black-and-white photography.

Contrast Tips for Black-and-white Photography

When you first look at an image, whether it's a painting, charcoal sketch or photograph, notice how your eyes focus directly on the point of greatest contrast. In a black-and-white photo, that point of greatest contrast will be where the lightest and darkest elements converge. To create a truly striking black and white photo, the point of greatest contrast should also be the subject of the shot.

Consider again the famous kiss caught on film by Alfred Eisenstaedt on V-J Day. Eisenstaedt wanted to capture the unbridled elation of the moment when America first heard that its troops would all be coming home. The subjects were two strangers, a sailor and a nurse, iconic representatives of masculinity and femininity.

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But imagine for a moment that the man were dressed in grey work clothes and the woman in a dark blue dress. Or that they were wearing exactly the same color. Instantly, the image is sapped of much of its power. The original shot, with the cold black of the sailor's uniform against the pure white of the nurse's uniform creates a stunning tonal contrast that really pulls the image together.

So how can you create the same dramatic tonal contrast in your black and white photography? First consider some of the tips we've already mentioned:

  • If you have a contrast control setting on your digital camera, bump it up to +1 or +2
  • Seek out or create "contrasty" lighting, perhaps a dark room with a single strong light source or the shadows created by a bright noon-day sun
  • Shoot close-ups of people or objects against a pure white background, like a hanging sheet

Remember that you don't always have to shoot for high tonal contrast. You can also use a lack of tonal contrast to capture a particular mood in your images. An underexposed, uniformly dark image conveys a somber or mysterious mood. Conversely, a uniformly bright image bursts with positive energy and life. Darker and lighter images are sometimes called low-key and high-key photographs.

For lots more tips and information on film and digital photography, click the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Freeman, Michael. "Michael Freeman's Top Digital Photography Tips." Sterling Publishing, 2008http://books.google.com/books?id=JgEBkQfs3_kC&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:%22Michael+Freeman%22&hl=en&ei=cZ4bTe73H434sAOHw8WmDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • Teng, Denny. Photoshop Tutorials. "Create Striking Photos With Good Color Contrast." March 1, 2008http://photoshoptutorials.ws/photography-tutorials/techniques/create-striking-photos-with-good-color-contrast.html