Composition. Contrast in photography

Contrast is a basis for any photograph, and its mood. Usually we expect that contrast goes along with a natural mood of the photo subject. It creates an easy to read, and ‘nice’ pleasing image. Contrast though can also be in a conflict position to the natural mood of the subject. In this case it can reflect on the photographer’s contradicting thoughts about the photo subject. As a result the photograph will be more thought provoking, and ambiguous.

Contrast in photography

Contrast in black & white photography is a difference between the tone (value) of the darkest and the lightest areas of the image.

From the perceptional point of view contrast is the spirit of the photograph. That’s why it is critical to understand contrast for both technical reason (to avoid camera’s mistakes), and creative output (to intentionally influence the visual result of the image).

Measuring contrast as a difference in exposure values (EV), we can subdivide and describe contrast types as such:

Contrast Light Value Difference Description
Low 1 EV and less  inexpressive, quiet, easily registered by a camera
 Medium 1-2 EV  convenient for modelling with light; easily registered by a camera; contains details in both dark and light areas of the image
High 2-4 EV dynamic, may require camera or scene tweaking to depict details in the dark areas of the scene
Harsh 4 EV and more graphical, challenging for cameras, hides secondary details

In photographic practice it is more common to evaluate not the global contrast (throughout the entire image), but the local contrast, which is the contrast in the important image area only. For example, in portraiture the most important is often the contrast in the model’s face part of the photograph.

There are many patterns in photographic contrast usage, although there are no restricting rules. It’s all up to the aesthetics and author’s personal preferences at the end. Some people like dreamy photos by Jessica Stam, some like feminine style of Bull Sinclair, and some enjoy somewhat sharp portraits by Helmut Newton. Different strokes for different folks, you know.

It’s like with music, or food. Someone listens to rap, while chewing a gum. Listening to classical music, and eating gourmet food helps others to keep their mind in balance. Other combines hot-dogs with rock-music, and feeling groovy…

How to evaluate contrast

  1. Using a camera in spot exposure metering mode.
    Align the center of the frame with the lightest part of the photographing scene/object in aperture priority mode. Notice the shutter speed, measured by the camera (let’s use 1/125 for an example). Move the center of the frame to the darkest side of contrast area, and notice the shutter speed again (1/30 in this example). The contrast can be calculated by dividing the larger number on the smaller one: 125/30=4.1. To transform the result to EVs remember that one step of exposure (1 EV) equals two times difference: 2EV = 2 x 1EV = 2 x 2 =4.
    Thus in our example the contrast is a bit above 2EV, e.g. we are at the very beginning of the high contrast zone.
  2. Visual evaluation.
    Squint your eyes to only see the major brightest areas of the evaluating scene, and give attention to the darkest important areas of the scene at that moment. If the darkest areas are looking completely black with no details, then we’re dealing with harsh contrast. If there are some barely visible details, and the darkest areas are not completely black, then it is high contrast. Medium contrast reveals dark details. You do not have to squint with low contrast though, as even in normal view of the scene it is quite difficult to differ the lighter areas from the darker ones.

Two technical aspects of contrast

  1. Camera light metering mistakes.
    Low and medium contrasts usually do not create troubles for cameras. Exposure metering results under high, or harsh contrast greatly depend on the amount of light and dark in the frame though. Exposure metering mode also changes the result. Be especially careful with the spot metering mode, as even a slight change in image framing may result a significant difference in the exposure measurement.
    If the light conditions in the scene with high, or harsh contrast are stable, then it may be easier to photograph in manual exposure mode.
  2. Loss of details.
    The dynamic range (camera contrast tolerance) of each camera’s sensor is different, and depends on the camera’s level. This is probably the only camera’s parameter, which is fairly reflected in the camera’s price. Even the most expensive camera has its dynamic range limitation though.
    High contrast in the photographing scene very likely may cause the loss of details in highlights (e.g. overexposure), or in shadows. Both shadows and highlights may suffer from the details loss under harsh contrast. That’s why it is important to give an extra attention to those areas while photographing contrasty scenes. To rescue details in important highlight, or shadow areas we can only use camera exposure compensation (+/- button), manual settings, or HDR technique/bracketing.
    Here are examples of the high contrast details loss.

About the creative part of contrast

There are scenes, where the tonal contrast compliments the mood of the depicted story. It only requires an appropriate photographing point, and some technical photographing skills to create at least an interesting photograph. It’s like a healthy refreshing drink in a hot summer day is guaranteed pleasure for a tired body. The only element has to be added here is the master to make the drink at the right time and place.

Below there are some images, primarily from internet, tо give you some ideas about contrast. I picked images with a good blend of contrast, and the subject. Supplying each image with a short description (titles in gallery preview), I’m trying to show how photographs can benefit from many aspects of a powerful contrast:

  • the right timing (the moment, and light conditions),
  • what’s included/excluded from the frame,
  • object scale,
  • intentional under/overexposure, etc.


Low contrast

soft, heartfelt, tenderness,  feminine, warm, kindness, low spirit, weak will,  vagueness, old age

High contrast

play, dynamics, strength, awakening,  opposition, expressiveness, energy, fear, joy, childhood

  • Analyze example images above, and their descriptions. Notice, how the contrast of each photo helps to create the mood, mentioned in the description?
  • Analyze your own best images, and images of your favorite photographers. Check the relationship between the contrast, and the subject of each chosen image. How does the contrast help to create a better result?
All articles on composition can be found by clicking on the tag “Composition” in any article’s header.
Our free course “Sharpen You Photo Skills” offers many helpful exercises for improving photographic skills on this and other topics.

As usually, I’ll be glad to answer your questions, or provide more clarification on the topic of this article:

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