How To Shoot High Contrast Photography

Brandon LazovicJune 2, 2020

Are your pictures dull and uninspiring? Consider using high contrast to take advantage of natural light and negative space to improve the aesthetics of your pictures.

Read my latest guide that will walk you through how to shoot high contrast photography.

High Contrast Photo Takeaways

Here are a few takeaways when shooting high contrast photos:

  • The easiest and most common use of contrast is through tonal contrast, where black and white elements are juxtaposed alongside one another.
  • Contrast is often associated with color, but textures and shapes are other elements to consider when creating a high contrast photo.
  • Adjust the contrast settings in your DSLR camera to shoot in black-and-white or bump up the contrast metering manually by +1 or +2
  • Keep your surroundings in mind and avoid wide open spaces when shooting outdoors
  • Stick to the golden hour to get the best shadows from the rising or setting sun
  • You can use natural lighting or manipulate the environment through studio lights

What Is High Contrast Photography?

High contrast photography involves using strong contrast elements in your photo. The easiest and most common use of contrast is through tonal contrast, where black and white elements are juxtaposed alongside one another, such as in low key photography. These kinds of photos will have a lot of blacks and whites while minimizing the overall amount of gray tone between elements or subjects.

While the most common type of contrast is tonal, other photographers will use high contrast to make a specific subject or element stand out in a picture. Examples of this include a red umbrella against a rainy backdrop or the vibrant purples of a flower standing out from a garden.

Contrast is often associated with color, but textures and shapes are other elements to consider when creating a high contrast photo.

Explaining High Contrast

Like I mentioned, high contrast focuses on the brights and darks of a photo. If you were to look at the histogram, a normal photo covers the highlights, shadows, mid-tones and everything in between. In contrast (pun intended), high contrast photographs push the light tones in the middle to the sides to create those extremes.

What Is Contrast?

Contrast is defined as "the relative difference between light and dark print or negative."

With high contrast, this means that there is a wide range of light and dark areas, with the light focusing heavily on these areas.

Examples Of High Contrast Photos

Below are several different types of high contrast photos that you can reference:

Under The Bridge

This is a cool contrast photo because the forefront is underexposed, creating a silhouette of the bridge in contrast to the skyline.

Color contrast

This example takes advantage of the muted tones of the background to provide emphasis to the red of the bike, drawing the viewer's eye to the subject rather than the background.

Black And White Contrast

Not all high contrast photos need to be shot in color. What might be a dull photo in color can provide great contrast when converted to gray scale like in the above shot.

Against The Sun

This shoot goes directly toward the sun, providing emphasis to the foreground, while creating silhouettes among the treeline.

How Do I Shoot A High Contrast Photo?

How To Shoot High Contrast Photography – 2018 Photography Challenge Photo 2

Shooting a high contrast photograph doesn’t take a lot of skill, just a little preparation and adjustment of your camera settings.

Tonal Contrast

To achieve tonal contrast, you can adjust your contrast settings in your DSLR camera to shoot in black-and-white mode, reducing the amount of color editing work after the shoot.

If you’re looking for a more striking color contrast, adjust the contrast parameter and bump it up by +1 or +2 for a more pronounced effect by changing it from automatic mode to manual.

Composition Considerations

You should also take into consideration the composition of your photo by placing elements and subjects in a manner which will maximize their contrast. Barring outdoor shots, you can create a higher level of contrast through a single source of light in an otherwise dark room.

I use the Rembrandt Lighting Technique to this effect in a previous photography challenge using the light from photography studio lights, but you can use natural light in the room if it’s is strong enough.

If you plan on shooting outside, you should stick to more enclosed areas such as streets or alleyways in the case of urban photography.

Exposure Settings

The sun is the other biggest factor in producing high contrast photos; try to shoot in the morning or evening golden hours as the lower angle of the sun creates longer shadows to intensify the look of the picture.

One risk of shooting high contrast photos is overexposure, and blowing out highlights. Make sure that your ISO levels are set low, and you may even attempt to underexpose your photo to make sure other elements aren't blown out.

Metering Mode

Most photographers will use automatic mode on their cameras, but this isn't ideal for high contrast photos.

Instead of automatic mode, use spot metering for more precision when creating a higher contrast.

Compensating For Exposure

Like I mentioned before with exposure settings, you should set the compensation on your camera to -1; this will underexpose your photo by one stop, which can prevent highlight blowouts.

If you're shooting directly against the sun, underexpose your photo by 3 stops.

Post Editing

Because I typically underexpose my shots when shooting high contrast photos, I may increase the exposure during the post editing process.

This allows me to retain the highlights/shadows captured in the original photo.

I'll also significantly increase the contrast levels by +30 or +50, and desaturate specific colors to create a more natural effect due to the strong contrast bump.

Black and white photos also work really well with high contrast, depending on the style of work I'm trying to perform.

High Contrast Photography Editing Example

How To Shoot High Contrast Photography – 2018 Photography Challenge Photo 3

Below are the edits I made to one of my photos to create a strong contrast:

  • Exposure: +0.20
  • Contrast: +30
  • Highlights: +30
  • Shadows: -30
  • Whites: +30
  • Blacks: -30
  • Clarity: +30
  • Vibrance: +30
  • Saturation: +30

13 Tips For Creating High-Contrast Photos

Beyond the guide that I've provided above, here are X tips on how to take stunning high-contrast photos:

Choose A Light Or Dark Background

The background is extremely important when shooting high-contrast photos. Your subject and background need to work well together.

When shooting a subject, the background should typically be uniform in color, and either very dark or very light. Once you've determined the type of background you want, you can then choose your subject, so they naturally contrast (so if you choose a dark background, make sure your subject is very light in comparison).

Shooting In Harsh Sunlight

I mentioned this before, but most photographers love to shoot during "golden hour" in the early morning or late afternoon.

However, when the sun is low in the sky, the light is soft, which isn't what you want for some high contrast photos.

On bright, sunny days when the sun is high in the sky, the light is harsh, but creates strong natural contrast with dark shadows and bright whites.

Simplify Your Compositions

The simplest photos can make for the best photos. When considering your composition, make sure that your images aren't distracting the viewer from the subject focus.

Use Contrasting Colors

It might seem obvious to use contrasting colors with high contrast photography, but combining certain colors can naturally create contrast.

For example, blue and green don't pop when placed side-by-side, whereas yellow and blue contrast well.

When shooting with subjects, you could also use colored props as a way to introduce contrast, like an umbrella or fruit.

Adjust Value Tones

Not all black and white photos need high contrast to be effective; sometimes the beauty in a photo lies within the grey tones. You can opt to have a mostly grey subject with small amounts of grey and black flecked in the background.

Choose The Right Composition

I've talked about using leading lines in photography, but try to use a composition that features straight lines, or offers dramatic angles, to lead the viewer's eye and reel them into the photo.

Also consider that some backgrounds aren't always alterable to suit your needs; as an example, a colorful outdoor photo will look bland when converted to grayscale.

Avoid Blank Skies In Landscape Photos

When converting from color to grayscale, a blank sky will lead to a rather dull final product, unless you're going for a minimalist style of photo.

Not All Photos Have To Be In Black And White

Some subjects rely on their color to stand out in the background, such as flowers. Play with your tones to either desaturate certain colors to make your subject stand out without washing everything out in grayscale.

Play With Filters

Filters can have a great effect for your shot. As an example, a polarizer or split grad can create a more dramatic shot for your black and white photo.

Use Light & Shade To Your Advantage

Sometimes conditions aren't ideal for color photography. You can use light and shade to your advantage; a bright sun will create strong shadows that would create blown out areas in color, but make for perfect contrast in black and white.

Shoot Into The Light

I mentioned this earlier, but shooting straight into the light can create silhouettes for black and white photography. You can either expose the foreground to overexpose the background, or expose the background for the perfect silhouette.

Outdoor Photography

When shooting street photography, avoid big open spaces and focus on shooting in smaller alleys or covered areas.

A requirement for outdoor photos involves the sun; high contrast photography is difficult without a bright sun, no matter how much post-processing you perform.

Aim to shoot in the morning or evening to help boost the amount of contrast for your photos. You can also attempt to shoot at night, if there are bright light sources such as street lamps or shop windows.

Black and White Photography

Another way to achieve high contrast is by looking beyond colors and shoot in black and white.

To capture a great shot, you'll have to determine where your viewer's eye will be drawn, whether it's the shapes, light or textures within the image.

The main consideration is ensuring that your subject stands out compared to the background, whether it's a lighter or darker tone.

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