“Contrast” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in photography. Lots of image editors have contrast sliders, and it’s something that novice photographers are told to look for in the world around them. But what does it really mean?
The contrast between two things is the difference between them. In photography, we most often use the term to refer to the differences between the darkest areas and the lightest areas of an image—which is called tonal contrast. However, there are two other types of contrast worth knowing about: color contrast and compositional contrast. Let’s dig in.
The Different Kinds of Contrast
What Is Tonal Contrast?
Every photo has darker areas and lighter areas. It’s what gives shape to the scene. The darker areas are normally called “shadows,” while the brighter areas are known as the “highlights.” The difference between the shadows and the highlights, then, is the tonal contrast.
In a high-contrast image, there’s a dramatic difference between the two. There are dark shadows, bright highlights, and less in the way of “midtones.”
Low-contrast images come in a couple of different forms. You have high-key images, which are bright and low contrast.
And then low-key images, which are dark and low contrast.
But there are also other images where there’s just a gradual transition between fairly middle grays (and no fancy name).
Finally, there are images that have, for lack of a better term, normal levels of contrast. They look pretty close to what you see in regular life. Sometimes, they might feel a touch on the unexciting or “flat” side. This is where most unedited photos start out, although this look can also be a deliberate choice on the part of the photographer.
It’s important to note that your camera doesn’t see the world exactly as you do. Camera sensors can only capture a limited number of different tones, and modern screens can display even less. Your eyes actually have a much greater “dynamic range“—the amount of contrast that they can detect—than any camera. This is why smartphone photos are often too bright or too dark.
What Is Color Contrast?
In addition to having tonal contrast, photos can also have color contrast. This is where there’s any big difference in the prominent colors in the image. It can also take a couple of different forms.
You can have contrast between different colors. For example, yellow and blue are very different colors, so this photo has a lot of color contrast.
You can also have contrast between the intensity of the different colors. In this photo, everything is a muted sort of green, except for the child’s bold yellow jacket.
In images without much color contrast, everything is composed of similar colors with varying intensities.
Or, alternately, the different colors are similar in intensity and everything just looks pretty normal.
What Is Compositional Contrast?
Compositional contrast is the most abstract form of it. It’s the contrast between the different elements or ideas in your image.
For example, in this photo, there’s a compositional contrast between my friend and the massive amount of nature.
Or, in this shot, there’s a contrast between the seriousness of the Soviet tank monument and the carefree children playing on it.
Compositional contrast is the hardest form of it to teach, as it’s much more personal. It’s about how you see the world and what you want your photos to say, rather than the specific tones or colors in them.
However, it can also be the most interesting. Imagine how boring the photo of the mountains would be without the person in it, or how dull the tank would look without the kids climbing on it?
For the rest of this article, we’re going to mostly look at tonal and color contrast. However, as you explore photography more, you should try and add compositional contrast to your images. It can really get you great shots.
Global and Local Contrast
Contrast can be global, where it’s present in the whole image, or local, where it’s concentrated in a small area.
This photo has a lot of contrast. There’s tonal contrast, color contrast, and even compositional contrast.
But this photo, for the most part, doesn’t have much contrast—except for that bright yellow jacket. This is local contrast.
Even in really contrasty shots, however, there will still be areas with more local contrast than others. This is a pretty high-contrast photo overall, but there’s still more contrast around the tractor and the hay bales than in the dark foreground or the bright sky.
This is incredibly important because of what contrast does in our photos.
What Does Contrast Do to Photos?
The human visual system doesn’t process everything in the same way. It’s drawn to faces, movement, and—yep, contrast.
Let’s look at that photo of the tractor again. I’m guessing that as soon as you looked at it, your eyes were drawn straight to the tractor in the middle of the scene. The dark shadows around the edges with the brighter, contrast-filled center, literally draw your eyes to it.
What about this photo?
Straight to the skier? Again, the tonal and color contrast attract your eye. Looking elsewhere actually takes effort.
For photographers, this is incredibly powerful, as you can use it to guide your viewers to look where you want them to. A lot of the contrast was already in the two photos above, but I deliberately emphasized it with how I took and edited them.
Also, a big side effect of this is that, to most people, contrast just looks cool, dramatic, and interesting. If you’re scrolling through Instagram, you are much more likely to be drawn to a photo with a lot of contrast than one without. (You can use that to get more likes.)
Contrast Can Be Bad
With all that said, contrast isn’t always a good thing. Too much contrast—or contrast in the wrong areas—can detract from your photos.
Take this photo, for example. I’ve added far too much contrast. It looks silly rather than dramatic or interesting.
Similarly, taking photos on bright, sunny days can get you very contrasty, but pretty ugly shots. Super-harsh shadows aren’t always a good thing.
Also, while local contrast can guide people to look where you want them to, it can also make them look at things that you don’t want them to see. The classic example is pimples or spots.
The local contrast that they add is why you notice them straight away in photos.
How to Add Contrast to Your Images
Contrast starts with what you’re photographing. The more dramatic the difference between the shadows and the highlights in the scene, the more contrast there will be in the final photo.
Taking photos on bright, sunny days is normally going too far, but the two hours after sunrise and before sunset are the perfect times to experiment. Not only will you have good tonal contrast from the strong, directional sunlight, but there will also be an opportunity for good color contrast with the golden or orange light.Of course, a lot of contrast in photos is added or tweaked in post-production. It’s one of the big changes that filters in apps like Instagram make to your photos. Most image editors also have a contrast slider that you can play around with. However, you can get better results with manual editing if you put the time into it.