Saturday, February 14, 2015

How To Use Contrast To Your Advantage In (Urbex) Photography

Light Contrast
The Sound of Silence - Mojave, California
I was recently asked to explain contrast. How does one use it to create great images?

The perception was that in order to have a contrasty photograph, all that one needed to do was boost contrast in post-processing. Yet that wasn't giving the person the results that he desired.

Contrast is a space in a photograph where light areas and dark areas meet. High contrast is an area where bright white and dark black touch each other.
Barn In Black & White - Tehachapi, California
One can have both bright white and dark black in a photograph, but if those two areas do not meet, you may not have a contrasty photograph. An image can be tonally flat yet encompass the full gray scale.

The reason contrast is important is because the viewer's eyes will automatically be drawn first to the point of highest contrast in a photograph. Where light and dark touch is what the viewer is going to see first.

Contrast can either work to your advantage or disadvantage. You see, having a contrasty image means nothing if it take's the viewer's eyes somewhere that you do not want them to go. Contrast must be used purposefully to make the viewer see what you want them to see.
Copy Machine - Mojave, California
Using contrast to your advantage in photography means paying attention to where the contrast is prior to capturing an image. You have to look at where contrast exists and decide if it will work to your advantage or disadvantage. If it will be a disadvantage, don't include it in the photograph. If it will be to your advantage, make sure that you are thoughtfully using it.

By thoughtfully using contrast I mean that you may have to move closer or further, left or right, up or down, and/or adjust the timing to place the contrast just where you want it to be so that the viewer will be drawn to exactly where you want them to. You have to think about all of this prior to opening the shutter. This is called photographic vision.

As you can see, having a contrasty image doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how much contrast is added in post-processing, but how the photographer uses the light at the scene to get the results that he or she is looking for. In fact, most of these photographs had a very minimal amount of contrast added in post-processing.

Color Contrast
Shoot Me - Newberry Springs, California
Color contrast is similar to light contrast except instead of light and dark areas together, it is two colors opposite the color wheel together. Color contrast can be just as effective as light contrast.

Colors that are opposite on the color wheel are blue and yellow/orange and red and green, for example. For colors to contrast with each other the match doesn't have to be precise. This is similar to light contrast in that it doesn't have to be bright white and dark black, but good contrast can occur with shades of gray.
Drywall Screws - Tehachapi, California
Red will pop against green and yellow/orange will pop against blue. The opposite is true: green will pop against red and blue will pop against yellow/orange.

Just like with light contrast, color contrast must be thoughtfully used. It can be to your advantage or disadvantage in a photograph. You can grab the attention of the viewer and direct their eyes with it. Just be sure it is where you want their eyes to go and not to some distraction in the background. Be purposeful and thoughtful, and you'll be impressed by the results.

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