There are few things you can use to produce impact in your image making exploits that are more powerful than the concept of contrast. Contrast is such a naturally provocative element that it can produce strong results in a wide variety of ways via many different photographic genres. I’ll focus here on nature photography, but it should be a simple matter to see how you can apply the approach to numerous other areas.
Let’s take a look at a few examples to help illustrate the point.
One particularly useful way to use contrast is in the most photographically elementary way: light. By focusing on contrasts in luminosity and applying your exposure settings and compositional choices accordingly, you can create some pretty dramatic results where they otherwise wouldn’t exist.
For instance, in the image accompanying this subtopic, I slightly underexposed the scene so that the backlit leaves would be enhanced as the background ridge—already shadowed—naturally became darker, better serving to enhance the contrast in the highlights and shadows. I also chose to fill the frame with the tree, the better to keep the focus on the patterned nature of the composition.
Sometimes, colors we see in a scene provide a natural sense of pleasing contrast. If you’re not already familiar with the color wheel concept, I recommend taking a look at it. Colors on opposite ends of the wheel from one another form some of the most pleasing visual complements: red-green, for instance, and blue-yellow (even though the latter isn’t a true opposite pairing).
The examples accompanying this sub-topic illustrate the points: the red-green contrast of the farm setting (with a bit of additional coloring provided by the pinkish dawn sky and the yellow foliage). Ditto the contrast of the foliage with the red canyon walls.
Occasionally it’s the physical elements of the scene that provide the contrast (occasionally—but not always—in conjunction with a color or luminosity contrast). This can be thought of as a metaphorical contrast, which can be particularly powerful because it produces a juxtaposition of ideas in the mind of the viewer. An oasis in a desert setting is an example of this sort of concept; a lone tree in an otherwise featureless plain serves the same purpose. These kinds of visuals work because they serve as pattern-breakers—things that naturally catch our eye (a natural contrast) because they’re so unexpected.
Sometimes the contrast that’s provided is of a seemingly tactile nature—a hard/soft, sharp/blurred or rough/smooth contrast. These distinctions can create what amounts to a physical feeling on the part of the viewer—a rather powerful effect for a two-dimensional visual object to produce.
Other forms of contrasting elements, be they physical or thematic, also exist. Seek out these contrasts in your search for images. You don’t, strictly speaking, need contrasts to produce effective images, but it rarely hurts to deploy them. Making the effort to look for contrasts in the world around you, and finding different ways of presenting them, form an excellent exercise in the art of seeing.
In some cases, you may even find a thematic contrast without traditional luminous contrast. Open your mind to the various possibilities and you’ll find plenty of opportunities to use contrast to your image making benefit.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.