How to Get Great Contrast in Photography

By: Dave Roos

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.


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 below.

Related Articles


  • Freeman, Michael. "Michael Freeman's Top Digital Photography Tips." Sterling Publishing, 2008
  • Teng, Denny. Photoshop Tutorials. "Create Striking Photos With Good Color Contrast." March 1, 2008