(Adapted from my eBook, “Twelve Ways to Improve Your Photography”. Available free, here.)
When most photographers think of “contrast”, they think of differences between light and dark. But there are many more forms of contrast than just “tonal contrast”.
There are differences in colour that create contrast, differences in saturation, sharpness, and apparent size as well. These create differences that draw a viewer’s eye. We will always be drawn to areas of higher contrast and will generally perceive these areas as being somehow more important.
In a sort of hierarchy of contrasts, our eye-brain visual system is drawn more to the contrast of light over dark, warm over cool, sharp over soft, and saturated over pastel.
Just try not to look at the warm glow of light from the cabin of the boat in the image below.
Evolution has also hard-wired us to instantly recognize, and be irresistibly drawn to, the human form. Even though the sun is larger, brighter, warmer and more saturated than the figure on the cliff, where does your eye go first in this image?
These eye-brain preferences create visual weight in objects possessing them, and objects with higher visual weight will always draw a viewer’s eye more than those around it with less. We can use this to lead the viewer’s eye to what is important, to what we want them to look at in our images. Visual weight is also one of the few things we can influence significantly in post-production.
Conceptual contrast is a bit more obscure. It’s the contrast between different visual elements in an image. A classic example is a young child holding her grandfather’s hand — a contrast between young and old. Similarly, a surfboard carried through the streets of Cassis, a town in southern France dating to the first century, is a contrast between ancient and modern.
Spring flowers photographed against weathered shutters are a contrast between re-birth and decay.
Waves crashing on a rocky shore is a contrast between wet and dry, between hard and soft, or between force and resistance.
Playing areas of differing contrast against one another will help to draw the viewer’s eye and create a visual path for them. This can help to clarify the message you are trying to convey with your images. Conceptual contrast may be more difficult to find, and you may not recognize it until you are back home reviewing your images. But you must start thinking in these terms to recognize it at all. Incorporating these ideas will help elevate your images above the ordinary and make them more engaging and impactful.
-BPSOP Instructor – Mark English