Contrast is the heart of almost everything in a photograph. It’s the contrast between things that lets us see them and understand them. Without contrast we couldn’t focus, tell a story, or create either impact or information in an image. If you can find the contrast in a scene, you are closer to finding the heart of the image. Here are three kinds of contrast and ways in which you can use them to make stronger—better—images.
Aside from the content itself (which trumps everything), the heart of a black and white photograph is the quality of the tonal contrast. In many ways, the same is true of a colour image, though that contrast is in colour more than it is in tone. Tonal contrast distinguishes elements from each other and gives an image its rhythm. That doesn’t mean you need absolute white and black in every image, but using it intentionally is important. It’s a rare image that is mostly grey and still succeeds. My common feedback to students showing me their black and white work is that some finessing with the tone curve in Photoshop or Lightroom would make it stronger, specifically allowing the photographer to be more intentional about which parts of the image draw the eye.
Again, the same is true of colour contrast, though colour introduces more complexity because not all hues go well together. There’s contrast that works and contrast that just kind of clashes. The photographer who understands the subtleties of colour contrast (i.e., yellow v. blue, cyan v. red, and green v. magenta as starting points) will be able to create greater depth and more skillfully push and pull the eye around the image.
Scale is a contrast of sizes: big v. small. Scale can be used to show how large something is in relation to a smaller element, or vice versa. This is only one kind of element v. element contrast, but there are so many others (e.g., smooth v. textured). What is important to grasp is the power of contrast itself in exaggerating the smallness (or bigness) of the elements. You can show an elephant in an image and without frame of reference, it’s nearly impossible to know how large the elephant is. Put a mouse at its feet and, depending on the other decisions you make (particularly what you crop out and your use of perspective), you will exaggerate the size of one or the other.
The same power of contrast created by establishing the difference between large and small elements (or hard v. soft, static v. dynamic, or round v. square) can be harnessed in communicating concepts. If you want to show how old someone looks, place them next to someone young. If you want to show how serious they are, place them next to someone laughing. The list is endless: modern v. traditional; organic v. man-made. There are few ideas that can be communicated visually that do not have their opposite. It’s not the only way to show these concepts in a photograph; if overused, the technique loses its power like any other technique. But consider using contrast of concepts within an image the next time you need to show something that has an obvious matching, but opposite, value.
We see things because of contrast. Our brains seem trained to notice it, and give extra attention to processing it. That can be a contrast of tones, colours, shapes, textures, sizes, or ideas, but whatever it is, used well (and intentionally), the introduction and refinement of the use of contrast in your images can make them stronger, leading attention to the ideas and emotions you want your photographs to express.