What is Contrast in Photography?

Contrast refers to the difference between light and dark elements. With a high contrast, you'll see a huge distinction between the brightest and darkest sections of a photo. On the other hand, images that lack contrast have very little differentiation, so they might display a uniform grey, stark white, or solid black. So what is contrast in photography, and how can shutterbugs use it to create dazzling compositions? Below, we've outlined the different kinds of contrast, which depend on the prominent colors and tones in a photo. 

High Tone and Low Tone

Images can have a wide variety of tones, which range from black to white. These tones inform the overall contrast, and we refer to the extremes as "high" and "low" tones. High tone photos exhibit the greatest difference between light and dark elements, so they usually have lots of white and black sections, with very little in between. Conversely, low tone photos exhibit much less variation between tones, so they have few shadows and highlights as a result. 

As a general rule of thumb, high tone photos display extreme contrast, while low tone photos tend to be soft and uniform. Harsh sunlight tends to produce high tones, while fog and clouds result in low tones. Neither style is better or worse, it just depends on the feeling you're going for.

High Key and Low Key

Next, key is used in photography to convey a specific mood, and all photos can be placed a spectrum that ranges from "high key" to "low key". High key photos are positive and youthful, with more light tones, while low key photos are melancholy and intense, with lots of dark tones. It's important to note that key is not the same as contrast. For example, a high key photo will have plenty of white and grey tones, but not as many dark tones, resulting in a moderate (or low) contrast.    

Tonal Contrast

Generally, the best way to shoot for tonal contrast is by imagining the final photo in black and white. This helps you to think of photography in tonal terms, so you can feature tones that convey a desired mood. For example, dark tones tend to feel spooky and mysterious, while light tones feel inviting and relaxing. One way to create a high tonal contrast is with silhouettes, because they show the biggest difference between light and dark tones. You can also shoot light objects on a dark background, or vice versa.  

Color Contrast

So far, we've only mentioned key and tone, but contrast can also be achieved with color. Photographers can add drama to their images by showcasing two or more colors that contrast with each other. Blue and yellow offer the most extreme color contrast because they clash so strongly, and this makes both colors stand out even more. Generally, light colors contrast with dark colors, and cool colors contrast with hot colors.

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