If you've spent much time working in black and white, you already know how important it is to understand contrast. Contrast is what keeps your black and white images from looking flat. Contrast adds dimension, and dimension can go a long way towards making a photo more engaging. It invites the viewer into the image.
But contrast isn't just important in black and white, and not every photo needs to have a complete range of tones to be an effective image. Understanding contrast and how it can help the viewer interact with a photo is an important step in developing your photographic skills.
There are two types of contrast. "Tonal" contrast is the one you're probably most familiar with; it's the difference between the lightest part of the image and the darkest. This is the sort of contrast you're concerned with when you try to make sure that your images contain both a true black and a pure white.
The second type of contrast is color contrast. This type of contrast is concerned with color characteristics, and the way different colors can either enhance or subdue one another.
Contrast in black and white images is usually described with one of three labels: high, low or normal. Low contrast images have little or no highlights or shadows, and are really just shades of gray without much variation between one shade and another. Low contrast images are often described as "flat" or "soft." High contrast images are on the other end of the spectrum; a high contrast image consists of mainly blacks and whites with very few grays. High contrast images can seem stark and dramatic. Images with contrast in the normal range will have a few blacks and whites with a broad range of grays in between.
Images can also be classified in terms of "high key" and "low key," (not to be confused with "high contrast" and "low contrast"). A high key image is one that contains mostly light grays and whites, while and low key image is the opposite: low key images contain mostly darker grays and blacks. You can use key to convey certain moods - low key images appear solemn, dramatic, mysterious or even malevolent. High key images, as you might have guessed, are the opposite. They convey a lighter, upbeat mood and can give the viewer a sense of happiness or even (especially in portraits) youthfulness.
Tonal contrast doesn't just exist in black and white images, it's also important in color. Color photographers often neglect tonal contrast, though, because color tends to overwhelm tone. Try not to fall into this trap when you're shooting in color, because good tone can improve any image, even a color one. Look for different color tones as well as blacks and whites; for example, a scene with trees, grass and other plants may contain some very dark greens offset by some much lighter ones. You can also capture high and low key color photos; a high key color image will have few shadows and more light or pastel colors, while a low key one will have more shadows and darker, richer colors.
To use tonal contrast, try viewing every scene as if you were shooting it in black and white, even if you never plan to make the photo a black and white image. Think about the mood you want to convey with your image; if it's an eerie or dramatic one, try to find a range of dark tones. If you're going for a light, fresh mood, look for the whites and light grays. Use high contrast for scenes with greater drama and lower contrast for those that you want to appear calming or relaxing.
Color contrast is a little more difficult to master, though not so difficult that most people can't pick it up fairly quickly. Colors that are opposite or near-opposite each other on the color wheel - red and green, for example, and orange and blue - have opposing characteristics and therefore accentuate one another. (Hint: you can also think of this in terms of "cold" colors vs. "warm" ones. Blues and greens are in the cooler range, while reds and yellows are warmer.) Color strengths can also be combined for dramatic effect; for example, mixing the light blue of the sky with the dark blue of the ocean.
Color saturation is also important in creating contrast in a color image. Weak colors are lower in contrast, while more vibrant colors are higher in contrast. You can use saturation to create drama in much the same way as you can use opposing colors.
It is generally easier to control contrast in post-processing than it is with your camera. If you're not happy with the way your camera captured the contrast in a scene, Photoshop Elements (or any photo editing program) makes it pretty easy to correct. The brightness/contrast sliders allow you to quickly brighten or darken an image or various tones in an image while maintaining a true black and a pure white. Scenes lacking in contrast often be fixed quickly in post-processing, and scenes that do have normal contrast can be adjusted to make them higher or lower in contrast, depending on the mood you want to convey.
To get a feel for how contrast affects your photos, try desaturating your favorite color image in Photoshop Elements. Does the image have a good range of tones? Does it have a black and a white? Is it high key or low key? Play around with the contrast to see how it affects the mood of the image.
When you're out in the field, try bracketing shots by exposing them at 1/3rd stop above and 1/3rd stop below, as well as at the reading your meter gives you. Now try shooting a pale object against a very dark background, then shoot a dark object against a pale background. Compare images from both experiments in terms of mood. Which ones are more dramatic? Which ones seem more peaceful? Which ones are serious in mood, and which ones are more light-hearted?
Like most photography skills, mastering contrast requires you to adjust the way you view the world. You can become more skillful at this by trying to see each scene as your camera would see it - not in terms of objects but in terms of color, highlights, shadows, and all those tones in between. Studying and analyzing your own images as well as those taken by other photographers will also help you understand contrast and eventually master it.
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