When I edit my photographs, I pay an incredible attention to the level of contrast in the image, as you may have noticed. By maintaining a coherent contrast throughout a portfolio or series, you might build a more consistent body of work – at least from a purely stylistic perspective.
Before breaking down the factors that make contrast so important to me, we should first understand what contrast is.
Mike Chaney defines contrast as follows:
Contrast is defined as the separation between the darkest and brightest areas of the image. Increase contrast and you increase the separation between dark and bright, making shadows darker and highlights brighter. Decrease contrast and you bring the shadows up and the highlights down to make them closer to one another.
If you look at the histograms of your image, you could notice how a change in contrast affects the spread of the curve. Indeed, as contrast is increased, the histogram looks much more spread and the distance between the darkest and the lightest points increases. On the other hand, as contrast is decreased, the curve will become much more compact by diminishing the distance between the shadows and highlights of the image.
Of course, contrast should be changed carefully. Indeed, even a small change has a sever impact on the image, which may alter the way we transmit a feeling through the photograph substantially.
Let’s try to analyse how we can manipulate contrast in order to change the mood of the image.
1. Increasing Contrast Makes the Image ‘Pop’
This is quite a traditional deployment of contrast. Indeed, by increasing the distance between the shadows and highlights, the resulting image will be much more crisp and defined.
This can be a good strategy if you want to make your image look sharper without increasing the sharpness or clarity directly.
My approach to this usage of contrast is the following. I boost the whites just before the point where the lightest areas of the image are about to turn into pure white. Secondly, I decrease the blacks up to the point where some of the darkest areas start being pitch black and lose details. Sometimes, I even crush the blacks much further, if I want to achieve a particular style. Finally, I adjust the overall contrast slightly in order to improve the final result to fit my taste.
This approach is quite effective for my personal taste on black and white images. However, I hardly ever approach colour photographs in the same way.
Increasing contrast in this way has some drawbacks, which you should beware of. Firstly, increasing the white level might introduce some digital noise and grain, which might be considered a blemish. Secondly, the details in the areas that you turn pitch black and pure white are lost. Therefore, if you want to retain important details in that sectors, you might be better off editing the image more locally.
2. Increased Contrast and Figure to Ground
On a previous article, I discussed the importance of creating a strong ‘figure to ground’ effect in order to improve the composition of the image. Just to remind you, ‘figure to ground’ is achieved as it its possible to distinguish clearly the subject from its background. Artists, such as Koudelka, were real masters of this effect.
By increasing the contrast of an image, you might better separate the subject from its background. This is especially true if the background is lighter that the subject or vice versa. To make it even clearer, increasing contrast will have no significant effect if you are dealing with a grey subject on a grey background under the same lighting conditions.
If you want to achieve this effect and the conditions of the image allow it, I would suggest to operate locally, with specific brushes or selectors. This will allow to apply the desired contrast on a specific area, rather than on the entire image.
3. Decrease Contrast to Create a Faded Effect
Ferdinando Scianna, 1976, Magnum Photos
Even though I prefer a more contrasty and sharper look for my images, some might like a softer look instead. In this case, decreasing the contrast of an image might be beneficial. Indeed, as the distance between the shadows and highlights is decreased, the light in the image will look much more evenly spread and faded.
This might be a good approach in specific genres, such as fashion photogrpahy or some specific portraiture styles. Indeed, the surface, which is treated with this approach, will look smoother and imperfoections of the skin might be less visible, for instance.
So, if you wondered how the ‘faded’ effect could be achieved, you just have to decrease the overall contrast of the image.
I would suggest to apply this effect locally rather on the entire photograph.
4. Decrease Contrast To Accentuate a Mood
Elliott Erwitt, Magnum Photos
Each weather condition is associated to a specific lighting situation and consequently on a specific level of contrast.
When you shoot on a rainy, foggy or cloudy day the level of contrast is generally much less significant. Indeed, the harshness of sunlight is rather deceased by the diffusive effective of clouds. Clouds work as a giant diffuser and let the light spread more evenly.
If you want to accentuate this diffused effect or to recreate it to a certain extent, you could operate on the contrast. Indeed, by decreasing that factor, the image will tend to look alike the one shot on a foggy, cloudy or rainy day.
Being able to manage contrast in an image is one of the most important factors to achieve a good result in post-processing.
The contrast can be manipulated in order to get to several different effects.
You could try to increase contrast in order to make your images sharper and crisper, and to achieve a better ‘figure to ground’ effect as well.
You may try to lower the contrast in order to create a more faded and dreamy effect on the one hand, and to accentuate a moody weather condition on the other.
These effects are really powerful and should be managed carefully. This is why I would suggest to operate a contrast change locally rather than on the whole image at once.
‘Learn from the Masters’ series:
- Learn from the Masters: René Burri
- Learn from the Masters: Bruce Davidson
- Learn from the Masters: Bruce Gilden
- Learn from the Masters: Elliott Erwitt
- Black and White or Colour Photography?
- How to Find Your Unique Style
- 3 Tips to Be More Productive When Making Street Photographs
- Why Equipment Matters
- Photography Basics and Street Photography: Composition
- Photography Basics and Street Photography: ISO
- Photography Basics and Street Photography: Aperture
- Photography Basics and Street Photography: Shutter Speed