Understanding what is high contrast in photography and how to use it helps photographers create striking, visually appealing and emotionally impactful images.
Our eyes are drawn to contrast like moths to a lightbulb and our minds are entertained by contrasting ideas.
What is high contrast in photography
High contrast in photography doesn’t refer only to the difference between light and dark, which is the most commonly known type of contrast in photography.
Types of contrast in photography
The three different types of contrast in photography, whether low or high, are: tonal contrast, color contrast and conceptual contrast.
- Tonal contrast is the difference in brightness between the lightest and darkest areas of an image for dramatic effect. It creates a sense of depth that makes a photo feel more three dimensional.
- Color contrast is the difference in hue, saturation, and brightness between different colors in an image. It establishes harmony or contrast, depending on whether the difference in colors is low contrast or high contrast respectively.
- Conceptual contrast uses contrasting elements, or concepts, in photography composition to make a statement or introduce tension and so creates an image interesting.
Tone is most obvious in black and white images, without the distraction of color. The last image in this article is from the same shoot, with the same conceptual contrast idea, but completely different in every other way.
Below is the histogram of this image, showing most data in the blacks and shadows on the right and in the whites and highlights on the left.
High contrast vs low contrast
High contrast images are bold, striking, and dynamic, while low contrast images are calmer and less dramatic.
The three ways high contrast vs low contrast photos differ are:
- High tonal contrast images are dramatic with deep blacks and bright whites. On the other hand, the narrower dynamic range of tonal values in low contrast images creates a softer, calmer effect.
- High color contrast photography uses bright colors. But not just any mix of bright colors, they’re complementary colors. A low contrast image uses analogous colors for harmony.
- High conceptual contrast creates dynamic, sometimes challenging images. Whereas a harmonious concept is low contrast and soothing.
So using high contrast techniques across an entire image heavily impacts the mood.
Now let’s take a closer look at creating high contrast images with a combination of techniques focused on tonal contrast, color contrast and conceptual contrast.
High tonal contrast photography
Tonal contrast between dark tones and light tones in photos can be created in several different ways.
Tonal values and dynamic range
The dynamic range of digital cameras is the range of brightness values, from pure black to pure white, that a camera’s sensor can capture. So it determines how much contrast you can capture in an image.
Some cameras, usually the more expensive models, have a higher dynamic range. This ability to capture a wide range of tones means you can have a higher contrast of dark blacks and bright highlights in photos.
However, using an entry level or mid-range digital camera doesn’t mean you can’t create high contrast photos. So don’t let it stop you experimenting with high tonal contrast portraits.
I took this photo on a sunny day outdoors and used the open shade of a building for soft lighting. The tonal contrast comes from the model’s dark skin tones contrasting with her white outfit and the white wall, which draws attention to her.
The histogram below shows most data in the whites and highlights areas which takes up most of the image. The small peak of data in the blacks is her dark skin tones.
Background and subject contrast
In portrait photography the subject is the most important part of an image, but the background usually takes up a large part of the image. So for the best results, contrast background and subject for high contrast photographs that make your subject stand out.
2 ways to contrast background and subject for high contrast portraits:
- Photograph your subject in white clothing against a dark background, or dark clothing against a light background
- Draw attention to a subject’s face with a dark background for a light toned subject wearing dark clothing, or use a bright background for a subject with darker skin tones wearing white
I photographed this low key image in the studio using studio strobes and a black background. To add to the high tonal contrast I asked the model to wear black sports clothes and a black hat. It helped that she also had dark hair.
Lighting for high contrast in photography
You can create dramatic portraits with either natural light or artificial light sources.
Because light and dark are essential to high tonal contrast photography, you need bright highlights and dark shadows. However, deciding on the level of contrast in a portrait comes down to personal choice and how you use lighting.
Here’s how to use light, natural or artificial, for high contrast portraits:
- Use a strong directional light source to light your subject, with good contrast between highlight and shadow areas
- Use dramatic portrait lighting setups like Rembrandt lighting, split lighting and rim lighting to create deep shadows and bright highlights and add form to your subject’s facial features
- Silhouette photography is the ultimate example of high contrast portraits as they consist of a light background with a dark, underexposed subject
This photo was taken just a few meters from the earlier one, but this time I positioned the model in full sun to take advantage of the hard lighting and deep shadows. Her white clothing contrasts with the gray wall and dark wood.
In this photos’s histogram you can see the full dynamic range of tones with major peaks in the blacks and whites areas.
Natural light conditions
The best natural lighting conditions for high contrast portrait photography is bright, direct sunlight.
- Bright sunlight is hard light that produces dark shadows and bright highlights, especially at midday, for dramatic portraits with a lot of contrast
On cloudy overcast days the light is too soft for high tonal contrast images, but it’s ideal for low contrast photography.
Create high contrast portraits with flash or continuous lighting indoors or outdoors in low light conditions. Outdoors, off camera flash is particularly useful as it’s a stronger light source than LED lighting, and can be used any time of day, depending on the type of flash.
How to use artificial light for high contrast images:
- Direct lighting creates a dramatic effect with strong contrast between the light and dark areas of the image. For hard shadows use a bare bulb or flash with a silver reflective umbrella for hard light. For softer shadows attach a stripbox to a flash
- Use Low key lighting and create a dark background with lighting, to contrast with your subject’s bright tones
Color contrast in photography
Using contrasting colors together in an image creates a complementary color scheme, and therefore a high level of contrast.
Understanding color theory, which is about how colors interact with each other, helps you choose color schemes for contrast in photography.
However, you don’t have to memorize it, because we have the color wheel to figure out which colors work best together for different moods.
Using the color wheel for color contrast
The color wheel is split into two halves:
- Warm colors
- Cool colors
It makes sense that for contrasting colors, you need to select a color from either the warm side or the cold side and then its opposite color on the other side of the wheel. These are called complementary colors.
So simply refer to the color wheel and choose opposing complementary colors.
When the model put on her red jacket to warm up between shots I immediately saw how intensely the red contrasted with the blue sky. So I chose a low angle to fill the background with sky and make the most of the contrasting colors …and we carried on shooting.
High color contrast in photos
However, just selecting complementary colors isn’t enough. To create a high color contrast, the colors need to be vibrant colors, not muted pastels.
Intense colors, like bright red or blue side by side also create high contrast images.
This is one of my favorite outdoor locations for so many reasons, but mainly because it’s so interesting! I styled the model in a man’s business suit that was too large to contrast conceptually with the rundown background of a ruined fishing boat and discarded nets. There’s so much contrast in this image, including the smooth texture of the business suit contrasts with the rough textures of wood, nets and weeds.
Conceptual techniques for high contrast photography
Conceptual contrast uses contrasting elements in an image, like rough and smooth, and contrasting concepts, like joy and despair. This juxtaposition of contrasting ideas creates visual impact and can be dramatic, even challenging. Sometimes it simply underlines the story of the image.
Conceptual contrast highlights a specific feature or detail of the subject to grab and hold the viewer’s attention.
Texture and contrast
Enhancing texture in high contrast images with hard side lighting and adding contrast in post production increases the sense of touch in an image.
Contrasting rough texture with smooth texture is visually impactful and can tell a story. For example:
- A portrait of a grandmother holding her newborn grandchild can be captured in a way that speaks about the passing of time, birth and death, new and old
- To convey the concept, use side lighting to emphasize the lined texture of the grandmother’s skin next to the baby’s smooth skin
- Then enhance tonal range in post production for greater contrast
Editing high contrast photos for extra impact
For the best results with high tonal and color contrast images shoot in RAW file format as you can manipulate tones and colors more than with JPEG images.
Some of the best photo editing software programs are:
- Capture One
- Adobe Lightroom
- Camera RAW
Lightroom tools for increasing contrast in post
I use Lightroom, but other editing software works similarly to increase the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the image.
Here are a few quick tips to help you get the best results:
- Increase the contrast slider in the Lightroom basic panel for a more dramatic image
- Create an S-curve with the Lightroom tone curve tool to darken blacks and brighten lights for greater contrast
- Increase whites for a crisper image with brighter highlights
- Decrease shadows and blacks sliders for darker shadows
- Both the saturation and vibrance sliders can increase or reduce the intensity of colors in an image to increase contrast. However, use the saturation slider sparingly as you can easily ruin an image with too much saturation
High contrast in photography conclusion
High contrast portrait photography draws attention to the subject of the photo and holds the viewer’s imagination by capturing a large difference in tones, colors and conceptual elements.
Here are a few suggestions for creating visual impact with high contrast in portrait photography:
- Consider the dynamic range of a scene and how it can be enhanced with lighting for a more dynamic image with darker tones
- Think through the message and purpose of the image and combine opposing elements to create emotional impact
- Pay attention to the colors of a scene and contrast it with the subject’s clothing for high visual impact
- Seek texture contrast in locations to enhance an aspect of the subject, make a statement or add interest to a portrait
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