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Contrast is a term which, when used in a photographic context, possibly causes more confusion than most others. You may hear definitions which refers to the differences between the foreground and the background, how bright the colors are, and often that contrast only applies in black and white photography.
These definitions are either wrong, or they're incomplete, so let's end any confusion by properly explaining what contrast is in photography.
Definition of Contrast In Photography
The proper definition of contrast in photography is that it is visual differences within an image that promotes its clarity, and specifically those differences will produce a variance in texture, colors, textures, and tones.
Within a color photograph, the contrast will influence how the different colors within an image stand out from each other, whereas in black and white photograph contrast will relate to differences between the lightest and the darkest parts of the image. As well as these, contrast can apply to several other aspects of an image.
Contrast in an Image's Tones
When someone describes the contrast in tones within an image, they are normally referring to the variances in relation to the dark and bright areas of the photograph. These differences in brightness are probably what most people mean when they discuss contrast.
The level of contrast in bright and dark areas go a long way to determining how well defined the image will be, and it is particularly applicable to the clarity of black and white photographs.
What Does High Contrast Mean?
Where an image or photograph is described as having 'high contrast' it means that the dark and bright areas of the image are very clearly defined. Within a black and white image this could mean seeing several shades of blacks and dark grays with the darker areas, and within the lighter areas seeing specific areas of light grey and white.
When a color image has high contrast, every color will be defined intensely to the point of being very vivid. This is desirable when you want the whole spectrum of possible colors to be clearly detailed with the same effect as though you had taken the photograph in the brightest of sunny conditions.
What Does Low Contrast Mean?
You won't be surprised to learn that it means the opposite of high contrast, in the sense that different levels of brightness are not clear, and colors are poorly defined. These sorts of images are often referred to as 'soft' photographs.
In low contrast black and white images lots of gray areas are present versus the whites and blacks of high contrast images. For color photographs with low contrast, the most noticeable differences are that the colors are diminished and not very strong. To stick with the weather analogy, instead of bright sunshine, imagine taking the photograph on a dull, cloudy morning.
What is Color Contrast?
As you may know, colors as they relate to graphics and images, are normally represented by a color wheel. If we imagine yellow at the top of this wheel and go clockwise, we'll go through oranges, reds, purples, blues, greens and end up back at yellow once we have gone all the way around.
The colors that we pass through first (yellow, orange, red) are known as 'warm ' colors, and the 'cold' colors are the blues, purples, and greens. Adjusting color contrast means making the image warmer or colder, by either enhancing the reddish colors and diminishing the blues, or conversely making it colder by doing the opposite.
For example, if you are photographing the ocean and wanted it to have a colder appearance you would bring out the blue and green colors, whereas a wooded scene in autumn might be enhanced by increasing the color contrast in favor of the warmer red and orange colors. Note the terms warm and cold refer to the color temperature and is not a reference to the temperature outside.
Editing Contrast of Photographs
With programs such as Photoshop, InPixio, Movavi, and Corel Paintshop, the array of edits, adjustments, and enhancements you can make to digital photographs, is limited only your imagination, assuming you know how to use the software to its full potential.
Contrast is obviously one of the aspects of an image which you can adjust, either to improve it or to give it an effect that was not present when the image was taken.
A dullish image can be brought to life by increasing the contrast so that the colors are made more vivid and alive. Alternatively, you can add atmosphere to an image by turning down the contrast so that many shades melt into each other.