Why and how to add contrast to your images

Why and how to add contrast to your images

Have you ever gotten home after spending a day out shooting really excited to look at the images that you just took just to find out that they are not nearly as good as you were expecting them to be? They probably lack contrast Contrast is one of the most important elements in photography and here I’m not talking only about the slider in Lightroom to increase or decrease the contrast Let’s see what contrast is, why it’s important and how we can add more of it into our images Contrast means difference to me is what separates the subject, what we are trying to capture, from everything else It’s the main tool we have to tell stories with our images one of the most common mistakes in photography is to expect what we see with our eyes to feel the same in an image The thing is, a camera doesn’t see things the same way that we do with our eyes not only because there are physical differences, but because of the brain and senses the brain interprets what is getting from the eyes and the senses add a context to what we are seeing it might be hard to notice, but when you are looking at something that little something is the only thing in focus in your vision and everything else is out of focus, it’s still there because you need to be aware of your surroundings just in case something happens but your brain and your eyes are completely focused on that thing that you are looking at This is why depth of field is really important in photography, it kind of does the same it helps us isolate things from others that are further away or closer to us what happens is, if we are walking through the woods, for example, and we see something that we like a tree in the distance, and we like the way that tree looks chances are that we aren’t going to be able to make a good image of that tree unless it’s separated by some distance from the other trees, it has a clean background so we can use a fast lens to actually isolate that tree otherwise, there’s going to be too much noise, it’s not going to be enough contrast between the subject and everything else The idea behind contrast is to help the viewer and to give them an anchor, a place to look at at first when they first look at the image, and from there they can expand to the rest of the image if they want to and if the image calls for that but at least to have something to look at when there’s not enough contrast in the image it’s very hard to make the viewer pay attention to just that one thing that you were trying to show We need to understand that sometimes, we just can’t create enough contrast to make a good image and we just need to move on What I’m looking for in my images is usually to have a high contrast between the subject and the background, foreground, whatever it is that is not the actual subject that I’m trying to capture and that could be achieved in different ways with shapes, textures, and of course the difference in color, black and white, luminance now, we are going to look at some sample images that I have here to try to clarify these concepts that I’m talking about so these first 2 images are just to show you that, as I said, we need contrast between the subject and everything else we don’t want contrast, or as little as possible happening in the background or the foreground, and within the subject itself this was at Lago di Garda, and we have this platform one of the images is just a snapshot, I froze the movement of the water so you can see the waves even though there’s contrast between the platform and everything else, the image is not bad per se There’s contrast in the water, between the waves and the parts where the water is more still and calm and there’s contrast against the mountains in the background as well one of the ways to decrease the contrast in the background is to use long exposures I love using long exposures, and what that did, as you can see in this image is to remove all the details in the water, so that increases the contrast between the water and the actual subject We don’t need long exposures all the time, for example in these images that I’m showing you now Here, I’m using the shape of a dock it’s the same concept, the water was very, very calm at this lake, Lago di Varese it was foggy as well, you know where I’m going you need to use the weather to your advantage: foggy weather, snow, stuff that declutters the background and adds contrast between the subject and everything else This other example of the ducks at sunrise once again, the background disappears because of the fog, and that adds contrast between the background and the subject, the ducks because it decreases the contrast in the background Otherwise, we’d have some mountains, some trees, some houses in the background that right now you cannot see that increases the contrast between the subject and the background I’m showing you more examples now, but I hope it’s clear what I’m trying to say here another trick that I use to add contrast between the subject and everything else is I crash the blacks, it’s pretty obvious I remove as much detail as possible in the shadows, you can see here this path in the Cies Islands it was to make the path stand out from everything else if I were to show every single leave, tree, and bush around the path, the path would stand out less and it’d make, in my opinion, for a slightly worse image because the eye doesn’t directly go there, to the path Another of my favorites is to use silhouettes as you can see here in this photo of New York, or the photos that I made in Washington DC it’s always contrasting a bright background against a dark subject, and just hint what that subject is without showing all the details in the subject the contrast between that subject and the background is huge here, and it doesn’t work for everything only for some things like buildings, because you can still see what they are, you can have an idea sometimes it might be just too much, for other situations Another idea I suggested was to use shapes, and something I like to do is to place poles, trees, vertical stuff against further away backgrounds as you can see here, I think I made this image in New Mexico or the ones that I made at the Golden Gate bridge, like that telephone pole against the bridge then, textures! Textures are very important as well, as you can see here I have the grass in the foreground and showing the deer in the background of course, we have the classic contrast that we are looking for when using Black and White that is white vs black, like this example of this horse that I took in Northern Spain another image I made, of these 3 trees in the snow all of those work because it’s white vs black, and that works very well always of course there are exceptions to this rule and sometimes I’m looking for contrast, but very subtle And the best example is the image I made at the White Dunes in New Mexico as you can see, there’s contrast between the dunes and the Moon, the main subjects I’m trying to capture they are brighter than the sky, slightly darker but the contrast here is much more subtle and this works very well, when it works, it works very well even more than having higher contrast between the elements in the photo but you have to be careful, make sure that the viewer is going to understand what they are looking at or at least have an idea because they might lose interest if they don’t have an anchor to look at one thing that we can do to check if the image has enough contrast is to blur out the image applying a filter this image doesn’t have any filter applied to it, this was almost straight out of camera that way but as you can see, you are still able to recognize what the subject is, even if the subject is a little bit abstract you don’t know what it is, or what is going on here you still see clearly from the beginning, this is the subject and everything else is the background, or the foreground the context for that subject if we blur out our images and we are still able to see that, that’s a good sign These were just a few examples of how I create and increase contrast in my images of course I also use the slider in Lightroom, my images are very high contrasty in that sense as well but that’s to crash the blacks and to make those whites a little bit brighter to remove details on both sides of the histogram so the subject can stand out even more That’s all I had about this, I hope this video was helpful Thank you so much for watching, and see you in the next one!

14 thoughts on “Why and how to add contrast to your images”

  1. One of the things I like about your photos is your use of high contrast – particularly as your photos are often quite minimalist, in a similar way to Michael Kenna's, etc. That said, some subjects work better with a punchier contrast curve and others benefit from more subtle contrast and tonal control. Keep up the great work.

  2. Thank you, Adrian! Good subject and more so from a photographer that excels at making the subject stand out. Fantastic, as you already used us.

  3. This guy is the present and the future of photography. I just love his work and I keep track of it constantly. Big up Adrián.

  4. Great video as always! I actually went up to Cape Disappointment hoping to shoot but now it is blocked off by the Coast Guard :/

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