Seek Out Contrast


Every rule or guideline in photography has an exception. A lot of what we like in our images is subjective, although composition and lighting principles give us a common framework to critique our work as well as the work of others. One important aspect of an image is the quality of light.

Is the light soft, omnidirectional? Is it the warm light of sunrise or  bluish midday light? I often find myself shooting in less than desirable light, trying to find images that will work even in the middle of the day. On a sunny day, contrast becomes a big problem, and may ruin a shot I would normally take in better light. There are some great HDR (high dynamic range) techniques to help eliminate contrast, but not all contrast is bad.

Instead of trying to eliminate contrast, I often seek it out to improve my images. How so? Contrasty scenes often have a large shadowed background that can work to your advantage in an image. This iguana group portrait is a good example. I was teaching a photo workshop for Photo Quest Adventures in the Galapagos Islands, and we were shooting at midday on island hikes. We found a huge group of iguanas on the beach of one island, all lined up side by side. At first I shot the iguanas against the sunny beach. This image worked, but the background was a little busy and and the light not very interesting, just straight, bright sun.



But then I realized that if I got down at ground level, I could line up the iguanas against a black cave in some reef rocks. This black background created lots of visual weight and interest, instantly giving the image more pop. Better yet, by lining up the iguanas with the black cave, I created great separation for their heads. When I shoot adventure sports I use the same principle. I may have models run on a sunny ridge with a shadowed mountainside behind them. Or maybe, I will have a rock climber scale a sunny arête with shadowed cliffs behind it.  Without contrast, these images would be very mediocre. But with the added drama of strong contrast, they look great.  

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