Contrast is for your eye and mind

Hi Guys, this time I am back with a seemingly boring topic. A topic that all of you intentionally or unconsciously is adapting in your photography. My argument is by moving from the realm of unconsciously photography towards an aimed, will make your photos better, and give you a higher rate of good shoots. And before I get butchered, this is really not a technique to use when taking snapshots. It really takes a lot of thought. But when you get it right, it is very inspiring. I recommend developing patterns in your mindset, so you can spot the opportunities easier.

So let’s be on with it, I hope you can keep the interest through the blog post, comments and examples on my blog are most welcome. This time we are going to deal with contrast, the article is going to segments for the new photographer as well as for the trained. Be warned; a certain arty element cannot be avoided J

Where is contrast important; immediately our minds strive towards black and white; and it is certainly true contrast is important in BW photography, but it is equally important in color photography. On top of these types, there is contrast in the stories and in the theme.

There are two types of contrast.

When many photographers think contrast, then it is often the Tonal contrast that’s in their mind; the difference between the lightest part of the image and the darkest. But there is also a second type of contrast; color contrast, is the type of contrast created by the color characteristics. Different colors can either enhance or subdue one another.

Tonal Contrast and its 3 predicates

In previous blogs I discussed how important it is to train the eye, and the mind to think of a shadow as a real-life object; how lines work and how colors and textures is recast in B&W. It takes time to train the brain to see B/W, and getting that feel for the subject allowing for more intuitively. This blog post is on contrast, how it adds to monochromatic images, how It adds dimension and take your photos onwards the road making them engaging, by inviting the viewer into the image. We typically talk about Tonal Contrast with three predicates, HIGH, NORMAL and LOW. These labels are helpful for communicating the type of contrast that we seek; mind you there is no right contrast; the expression you as a photographer seek will be right for you; where what works best for the viewer will be right for them.

A HIGH contrast image has a wide tonal range with deeper shadows and pronounced highlights. If you pay attention to your histogram then you will see bigger spread-out in high contrast images, than you will see in a light contrast image. It’s fair to say that images with a limited tonal range will appear flat and dull; we label these photos with the predicate LOW contrast image. It is always easiest to describe the radicals, what about NORMAL contrast; and what does it exactly mean to be normal. In my eyes NORMAL doesn’t exist or at the very least is totally irrelevant as a term. For me NORMAL Contrast is at some undefined state, somewhere pleasing between LOW and HIGH. The strict technical definition refers to pictorial photographic negative emulsions; a total negative contrast of approximately 1.1 is considered normal (for diffusion enlargers) and is based on the printing characteristics of the negative.

The effect of a HIGH contrast photo is often an emotionally active and dynamic picture. Lower the contrast and it will result in a more passive, static and decorative effect.

Maximum contrast of Value (dark and light) places objects in the foreground of a picture, while minimum contrast (gray) places objects in the background.

Type Contrast Resulting Attributes
Dark and Light Maximum Emotionally Active
Esthetically dynamic
Spatially in depth
Gray Minimum Emotionally passive
Esthetically decorative
Spatially static

The difference in color characteristics

Color contrast is the way colors in your photography enhance each other. Complimentary colors are opposite of each other on the color wheel accentuate each other. Examples would be Red and Green or Yellow and Purple. Heavily saturated will have a higher contrast. Weaker colors have a lower contrast. I urge you to go read more on this matter at Brandi Hussey Inspired by Color. Color/Contrast is not the only effect, Color/Space also impact on the beholders perception. Cooler colors (blue, violet, and blue-green) tend to recede, while warm pigments (red, yellow and orange) to bring features forward towards the viewer. So much like tonal contrast, will color add dimension to your photo.

Balance in Contrast

I will like to start out with apologizing for my graphical skills; I still hope this will convey the meaningJ.

Balance implies that the visual elements within the frame have a sense of weight. Large objects generally weigh more than small objects and dark objects weigh more than light colored objects. The position of the elements is also critical. We unconsciously assume the center of a picture corresponds to a fulcrum. A heavy weight on one side can be balanced by a lighter weight on the other side if the lighter weight is located at a greater distance from the fulcrum.

The general rule is that you should try to balance out the Complimentary colors, so warmer and cooler colors distributes pleasingly for the eye. The distribution of objects is of less importance as the amount of each.

Imagine that you are taking a photo of Indian summer, brown stems, red, yellow, and greenish leaves all over. This can be quite confusing to look at, but add a cool blue sky, and you got a marvelous photo.

That being said, I do know a ton of good photos that deliberately go away from this to achieve a very special expression. So don’t let this dominate how you take a photo, but think about it when taking your photo’s.

Simultaneous contrast

It is important to understand how colors of two different objects affect each other. The effect is more noticeable when shared between objects of complementary color.

In A1 the two inner rectangles are exactly the same shade of grey, but the upper one appears to be a lighter grey than the lower one due to the background provided by the outer rectangles.

In A2 do notice how the surrounding tonal value completely changes the way we perceive the tonal value in the squares.  Even though the values are the same across the entire strip of squares they appear to be of different lightness/darkness in the end.

Do also pay attention to the dimensional effect of the combined tonal values. Suddenly we are not looking at a 2 dimensional photo, but almost at a 3 dimensional object which looks something we could reach out for.

A3 Simultaneous contrasts do not only apply to Tonal
Contrast but also to Complimentary

It is absolutely worth studying John Paul Caponigro on TED, on “The Creative Process“, Photographers at Google. Where he address light, the path, where how you get there is more important than how you arrive.

Extremely High Contrast Scenes

High contrast lighting is something every photographer has to deal with. To make your photos look realistic, control of the light is essential. This might sound simple, yet it is not, exposing for the light tones will cause the darker tones to underexpose while exposing for the darks will result in blown out highlights.

There is no rule when it comes to Contrast, only guidelines. When working with Complimentary Color Contrast, try to keep a balance between the opposing groups of colors. When working with Tonal Contrast try to work with a wide range of tonal Values.

It is impossible to say what the best shutter speed/aperture is for high contrast scenes. Aim to shoot with the narrowest aperture possible; and with the fastest shutter speed possible for light conditions.

“This does not apply for my scene!” but of cause not! The above is just guidelines, giving you a reference point. What is important is the aware though making you object against the settings, it shows that you have gained control over the expression of contrast that you want.

Live view and our histogram are great tools guiding you to a desired result. By asking yourself “Do I need more light or less light” to achieve the expression that I want are you and enable you to direct your actions. It is easy to conclude if you need to narrow the aperture and/or increasing the shutter speed you can reduce the light. Or opening the aperture or slowing the shutter speed to increase the amount of light entering your lens. No surprise understanding Exposure and f-stops is key to any type of photography and especially when handling contrast. When you got your exposure just right, then it is easy to model the expression further. for instance by adjusting your settings by 1/3 to 1/1 f-stop under; you will be adding “dark”.

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