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Contrast - Photography Composition Techniques

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/12/2009

Using contrast in your photos will undoubtedly produce stunning results. Contrast is an attention-grabbing method which can turn an okay photo into a dazzling masterpiece.

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    This article belongs to a series of photography composition techniques. To start from the beginning, please refer to The Big Picture – Photography Composition Techniques.

    The compositional technique of creating contrast to enhance an image is certainly not a new approach. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci is attributed as having said “Of different colors equally perfect, that will appear most excellent which is seen near its direct contrary blue near yellow, green near red: because each color is more distinctly seen when opposed to its contrary than to any other similar to it."

    There are two forms of contrast: tonal contrast and colour contrast. Both can produce outstanding results. With both forms, high contrast will create a vibrant, solid and loud image that will steal the attention of the viewer. Low contrast will produce a warm and soft image, creating a soothing or mellow image.

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    Tonal Contrast

    Tonal contrast is used in black and white photography. High-tonal contrast photos are composed using black’s and white’s with very little or no use of grey’s. Medium-tonal contrast photos are ones in which there is a blend of darks, lights and greys. Low-tonal contrast photos use similar shades, very little difference from the darkest part of the photo to the lightest.

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    Colour Contrast

    To achieve high-colour contrast, one can look at the colour wheel for guidance.

    (Click on images to enlarge)

    contrast color wheel 

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    The opposite colour is one that compliments the other, resulting in a high-contrast photo. Using colours which are close to each other on the colour wheel will create a low-contrast photo.

    If your goal is to achieve a high-contrast image, there are two things you should keep in mind to help your photo’s overall result:

    1. Less is more. Bringing additional colours into the image will decrease the level of contrast. The viewer’s attention will tend to shift away from your focal points when other colours are present.
    2. Ratio Impact. Having more of one contrasting colour will help your focal point stand out, as opposed to having equal amounts of both contrasting colours. For example, a photograph of single red poppy set against a field of green will have greater contrast and impact than a photograph of a poppy set against a sea of other poppies and, accordingly, the poppy in the first picture would stand out far more than the poppy in the second picture.
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    Photo by thomieh


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    Photo by mikelens

    contrast in photography