Understanding Contrast in Photography

May 29

5 min. to read

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This article will cover the basics of different types of contrast in photography — from high contrast to low contrast to tonal and color contrast.

Contrast in photography is the visual ratio of different tones in an image. This difference is what creates the textures, highlights, shadows, colors and clarity in a photograph. In this article, the Skylum team is going to breakdown the different degrees of contrast used in photography to help you better understand its purpose.    

And, to help you create even more stellar shots!

Tonal Contrast 

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Tonal contrast refers to the difference in bright and dark areas in a photo. This composition is what makes the subjects within the photo appear defined or undefined through the differentiated details due to the contrast of blacks, whites, and grays. 

High Contrast 

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A high contrast image has a wide range of tones full of blacks and whites with dark shadows and bright highlights. These images will have intense colors and deep textures –– creating very profound end results. (Think of a photo taken in the bright sunlight.)

Low Contrast 

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A low contrast image blends light and dark areas, creating a more flat or soft photo. There are hardly any highlights and shadows and the images are composed mostly in shades of gray. This dullness in the composition of lights and darks will mute the colors in the image. (Think of a photo taken on a foggy morning.)

High-Key and Low-Key

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High-Key and Low-Key photos are both low contrast types of images. A high-key photo will have bright tones and contains mostly light grays and whites. A low-key photo will have dim tones, mostly shadows, and contains mostly dark grays and blacks.

Color Contrast 

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Color contrast has to do with how colors interact with one another –– where they lie on the color wheel. The way color characteristics accentuate each other defines the image’s contrast appearance. Think of a landscape shot — the dull colors are lower in contrast and the vibrant colors are higher in contrast. This composition is what creates the mood of the image. You can “warm” an image up by bringing out the reds and yellows or make an image more “cold” by bringing out the blues and greens.

Editing Contrast 

When editing a photo’s contrast, the goal is to either increase the contrast to make an image more exciting and dramatic or decrease the contrast to make an image more ethereal and soft. Luminar makes it easy to make such adjustments, with a variety of presets and filters that include specific sliders to adjust Tonal Contrast or Color contrast.  

A great way to practice understanding these different forms of contrast is through taking a photo in both color and black and white –– adjusting the tones both in camera through exposure, shutter and color settings and also, by experimenting in post edits. Play with lighting and the time of day, as well as the subjects you are photographing, to see how you can bring out different unique styles in our photos.

Are you more drawn to one form of contrast over the another? Why? Figure out what works for you and have fun with it. 

There is never a right or wrong way when it comes to your creative decision on how to capture moments that are important to you.

From all of us at the Skylum team, may your days be filled with contrasts of all sorts. 

Use Aurora HDR for free for 14 days.

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