What makes something special? Is it special on its own, or is it only special when compared to everything else around it? Contrast is what happens when you place two polar opposites right next to each other. It can be used to draw attention to an important element in your image. Contrast comes in a variety of forms, and in this article, we’re going to look at a few ways you can use contrast to create truly unique images.
First off, I want you to compare the following images. In the first image, the green apple very clearly stands out. It is the only green thing in the entire scene. Due to its uniqueness, we would say it contrasts highly with everything else around it.
In the next image, we’ve got tons and tons of green apples. They’re all very brightly colored, but none of them is special or interesting. The only things separating them from one another are size and crispness of detail. Otherwise they all look the same.
I am using this example because it makes one point loud and clear. It’s not about the things you photograph. It’s about the way you use them in the scene. Where are you placing the elements to make them stand out? What else have you included in the scene? Creating contrast is about more than merely putting something colorful in your image. You need to finesse that thing, and the things around it, to do the job properly.
Create contrast with color
It’s one of the easiest and most accessible ways to create contrast. By using radically different colors in a scene, you can draw attention to your subject. Some photographers simply do this in post-production. You have no doubt seen the selectively black and white images featuring a subject, or a part of a subject, in full color. I’m talking about pictures like this one:
The above example with the green and red apples works in a similar way. The green apple is the only green thing in the image, so it naturally stands out. To add contrast with color, you need to identify the colors in the scene, figure out what isn’t there, and then find something to fill that gap.
In most cases, it’s a matter of finding a scene that only has a few colors. Most scenes are littered with all kinds of competing colors, so much that it is often distracting. In a studio situation, you can simply remove the elements that don’t work with your subject. Out in nature, you may have to decide to go shoot with a different background.
Creating contrast with focus
Where you focus your camera, and the depth of field, also have an effect on contrast. If your subject is the only thing in the scene that is sharp, it will contrast heavily with everything else that is blurry. Consider this image:
To get the rest of your scene blurry, you simply need to choose a wider aperture setting. At F2.8 or F4, you will get an image that is mostly blurry except for the area where you focus. It helps to be a little more precise with your focus when you are working subjects as small as these pencils. Use manual focus instead of autofocus to do the job right.
Create contrast with composition
Where you place your subject is important too. You can use the rule of thirds to create even more contrast between your subject and the rest of the image. According to this rule, you should place your subject one third into the scene from either the top, bottom, left, or right sides. Any of those places will draw attention to your subject.
Consider the photo with the green apple amongst the red ones. Not only was it the only green apple, but the photographer placed it one third into the frame. That was no mistake. The rule of thirds makes the green apple stand out even more.
Create contrast with themes
Sometimes it isn’t even about color, focus, or composition. You can also play with the themes in your image to create contrast. If everyone is looking to the right, the one person looking to the left will naturally stand out from the crowd. The same goes if everyone is having a good time, but one person looks sad. Or in the example on the right, one person is standing still and sharply in focus while everyone else is blurred. We tend to think of contrast as something purely limited to the realm of colors and shapes, but there is always an underlying theme that ties it all together. Sometimes it’s an emotional one.
So whenever you hear people say they like contrasty pictures, they aren’t talking about the entire picture. It’s simply not possible to make entire image high contrast. Otherwise, what would it contrast with? To create contrast, you have to think about that one element in the scene you want to draw attention to. Whether it’s through color, focus, composition, or the manipulation of a theme, you’ll always get a fantastic result.
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