How to use tonal contrast in photography

What is contrast in photography?

Like in life, contrast in photography is the use of opposites. As they say, variety is the spice of life, so just the presence of contrast in a photo makes it more engaging, because the difference is interesting. Unlike my senior school math teacher who spoke in a monotone!

But there’s more to contrast than just variety. It’s an element of design, a composition tool photographers use to add to atmosphere and influence the feeling of a photo.

Tonal contrast is a highly effective way of making the subject stand out in a photo, which makes the image more engaging. 

To understand why read about the Gestalt principle of figure to ground in my tutorial on Gestalt theory.

A low contrast photo without shadows

How do you use contrast in photos?

Contrast can be created in a number of ways. The three most common are:

I’ve written about color contrast and juxtaposition, so now let’s explore how to use tonal contrast in photography.

Why use tonal contrast in photography?

Using a tonal contrast that matches the mood of a photo enhances the message and helps the viewer understand the photo. When you create emotion in an image, you engage the viewer and hold their attention longer.

Have you noticed how toothpaste adverts are very bright and white? That’s because we associate bright, light images with positive, upbeat feelings. So it emphasizes the message of good health. 

On the other hand, can you imagine if the scenes in Breaking Bad were all light, bright and without shadows? It just wouldn’t gel. The contrast of light and dark is a visual clue that it’s a gritty, dramatic subject.

That said, shadows aren’t just for crime. Images with shadows evoke deep emotions.

Wide tonal range with soft shadows This image uses a broad range of tonal contrast from dark to light, with most of the tones falling into the midtone to light area, as you can see in the histogram below. The feeling is lighthearted and happy.

Broad tonal range histogram

How do you create tonal contrast in an image?

You need light and dark areas in an image for tonal contrast. The bigger the difference between the two, the greater the tonal range will be and therefore the tonal contrast.

Light is the ultimate creator of tonal contrast in photos, because with light comes shadow. The trick lies in recognizing the impact of light and then mastering how you use it to control shadows.

1. Use direction of light for contrast in photos

The direction of light falling on your subject impacts the shadows and therefore the amount of contrast in an image:

  • Front lighting photos – ideal light direction for flat lighting, i.e. for photos without shadows
  • Side lighting photos – light skims across your subject to create form and emphasize texture by creating shadows
  • Backlighting photos – perfect for deep shadows and bright highlights that define the edges of your subject

Light direction is very important, but it’s just one aspect of light and how light works to affect tones in photography.

2. How quality of light affects contrast in photos

When we talk about quality of the light, we’re describing how hard or soft it is. This also has a big impact on the tonal contrast of the scene.

Soft light tonal contrast

Soft light creates soft shadows, if any.

Think of an overcast day – the heavier the clouds the more faded shadows will be until there are no shadows. The image at the top of this article was shot at the end of a very overcast day once the sun had dipped below the horizon. These sorts of days are ideally suited to low contrast photography.

Hard light tonal contrast

Hard light creates bright highlights and deep shadows.

Think of a bright sunny day – lots of light, but also strong shadows. So on a sunny day high contrast photography is easy to achieve.

Which brings us to the next point…

What’s the difference between low contrast and high contrast photography?

Tonal contrast isn’t about how light or dark a photo is, but the difference between the tonal values of the lightest area and the darkest area.

Low contrast photography

With low contrast photography, the range of tones in a photo is very narrow. In other words, there isn’t a big difference between the brightest part of the image and the darkest part.

If you have a look at the histogram of a low contrast photo, you’ll see that the histogram spikes are bunched together, usually to the right of the histogram for a light, low contrast image, as with the image below.

Low contrast light and airy scene

Light and airy photo style histogram reading

You could also have a dark low contrast image, in which case the histogram will be bunched to the left. Low contrast doesn’t mean bright, it just means that there’s a small tonal value difference between light and dark.

High contrast photography

On the other hand, high contrast photos encompass a broad range of tones, from deep shadows to bright highlights.

The histogram will be wide ranging, because it’ll contain information in all areas from black to white. In a very high contrast image you’ll see tones all the way from deepest black on the left to brightest white on the right.

You can adjust the image in post processing to deepen the shadows and raise the highlights further using the tone curve. In Lightroom, for example, you use the whites, blacks, highlights and shadows sliders to increase tonal contrast, as well as the tone curve tool.

Dark and moody style high contrast photo of couple

Lightroom histogram of dark and moody style photo

Using contrast for different photography styles

If we compare these popular styles of photography you can see how the use of contrast affects mood in a photo.

Contrast for a light and airy style

The light and airy style is really popular for lifestyle family photography. It conveys a happy summer vibe and reminds you of those carefree days of your childhood.

There are minimal shadows, colors are muted and skies are often blown out. If you look at the histogram, most, if not all, of the information is to the right in the lights and highlights area.

In post production, shadows are lifted further to reduce tonal contrast. Sometimes vibrance is reduced to mute the brighter colors and so reduce color contrast.

A low contrast photo without shadows

Light and airy low contrast photo

Contrast for a dark and moody style

The dark and moody style for couple photography, because shadows convey deep emotions in portrait photography.

Windy days that catch long hair and dramatic skies are perfect for dark and moody. Again, because this style is full of emotion. Hair and clothes blowing in the wind conveys a sense of movement.

Shadows are deep, but soft. No hard edges.

Deep contrast between light and dark The histogram is bunched to the left in the shadows and then spreads out across darks and midtones in the middle, but doesn’t extend to the highlights on the right.

Dark and moody histogram reading

Contrast for a dramatic style

I love dramatic light for boudoir and fitness photography. It’s bold and eye catching, but at the same time feels intimate, because of all the shadows.

Dramatic images are high contrast photos. They’re predominantly dark with deep shadows and occasional highlights. Perfect for emphasizing curves and defining muscle tone.

Dramatic lighting for boudoir photography

High contrast histogram reading

Tonal contrast in conclusion

When planning a photoshoot, think first about the feeling you want to create in the photo. This decides the type of light you need to create the contrast that suits the style of the shoot.

If you use natural light, deciding on tonal contrast determines:

  • The time of day you shoot
  • Where you shoot (in full sun, open shade or indoors)
  • Where you position your subject in relation to the sun (back to the sun, facing the sun or side on)

Likewise, using flash to light your subject, or a combination of flash and ambient light determines where you position the light in relation to your subject. Light direction has a big impact on the contrast in the photos and therefore the feeling.

How you process the photos in post production is impacted by the intention you set out with before you took your first photo.

Online Lightroom workshop for professional photo editing

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If you have any questions about using tonal contrast in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my contrast tips have helped you to understand how contrast impacts an image, share that too.

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