I’m sure all of you will at some point yank the levels sliders, put an S in your curves or any other means to bring contrast to your images. It’s the most basic form of image processing and will to some extent improve your picture. No news there. But try to broaden your horizon and think of contrast in other ways! There are many other concepts of contrast, which will vastly improve your images:
1) Contrast in Luminance: As just mentioned, but try to bring in the contrast when you shoot instead of having to create a roller coaster in your curves dialog. Place dark and bright objects in your frame, work with lighting to create dark and bright areas. To illustrate this, here’s a shot by Edward Steichen:
2) Contrast in Color: Same as with regular contrast in terms of brightness you can use color to do the same thing. Bring highly saturated and almost colorless elements into your frame. A colorful dress in front of a white, gray or black seamless background for instance - the fashion mags are full of it, because it works. Don’t limit yourself though, it might be just the other way around and not limited to the subject to backdrop relationship. (Just promise to stay clear of color keys / selective desaturation - that’s just nasty!). There’s more though: Ever heard of complimentary colors? Have a look at the color star below:
Red and Green, Orange and Blue, Violet and Yellow and all the shades in between, opposite of each other on the color star are complimentary colors. They contrast each other because they are on the exact opposite of the spectrum. (Don’t get confused with the RGB color wheel you may be accustomed to when editing your images. In RGB for example, Cyan would be opposite of Red and you would shift those to balance out the image. What we are looking for here is the impact to they eye, which doesn’t see in RGB color space.) You will want to bring one pair of adjacent colors into your frame to create complimentary color contrast.
3) Geometrical Contrast: Every good image will have some sort of graphical element(s) to it. Graphic design uses geometrical shapes at it’s core, there’s no reason you shouldn’t make use of this in your photography. Just as there are endless geometrical shapes, there are endless possibilities to make them work for you and contrast them: frame something big against something small, shoot straight lines and ad curves to the mix, combine soft gradients with clearly defined shapes, fine textures against coarse structures, etc. Here’s another example: (Is it a coincidence that the good examples come from the old masters?)
4) Contrast in Composition: Contrast creates tension by placing opposing elements in a relation to one another (Remember your curves when editing images: The straight line across the gradient becomes bent, because you bring tension to it by shifting the values on it!) One of the most important elements in a photo is the composition - make sure you use it to create tension! How about shifting your subject to the side of the frame, or even shift it partially out of the frame even? A centered subject is like a linear contrast curve. Catch my drift? By shifting your subject in your composition you create negative (empty) space in the frame, empty space vs. filled space: compositional contrast! Plus your client will love you, because they can place type all over the place! (Which effectively destroys the concept of empty vs. filled space, but photography and typography yet again are a type of contrast which works really well - all is good!) To illustrate this I’ll use a shot I did yesterday. I was up on a ladder shooting down on the studio floor and loving the texture of it. So I decided to frame her at edge and voila, much more interesting already:
Just make sure you frame boldly! If you’re going to crop something off, do it for real, make it look intentional or else it will seem like you don’t even know how to spell composition.
5) Contextual Contrast: When I was in film school, on of the first things we learned in editing and directing class was to juxtapose. Juxtaposition in literary terms is synonymous with contrast: Two objects which oppose each other. In film editing it means you cut from one thing to something which contrasts it. Works just as well in photography by bringing contextually opposing elements to your frame. A cute child in war zone for example, or a cyborg from outer space at the altar with a human bride, a dirty off-road truck parked inside a clean room at NASA, a swimming pool filled with people wearing winter jackets, or skiers wearing… I have to stop msyelf. Your possibilities are endless… like showing Batman in his pyjamas:
Use any combination of the various forms of contrast in your photography and you are already winning! And as always, these rules (if you want to call it that) are meant to be broken. Make sure you master these first and then explicitly let go of them. As long as you know what you are doing and why, things will turn out nicely!
If any of you can think of additional forms of contrast, make sure to hit the comments and share!
Posted by nicolas_henri on May 15th, 2009 :: Filed under Artist Technique, Photography
Tags :: 5 pointers, color, contrast, geometrics, juxtaposition, tension
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