Composition Tip – Using Contrast


October 27, 2020

Composition Tip - Using Contrast

Contrast can be one of the most powerful visual elements across any art discipline. By placing subjects or tones of opposite nature side by side, the artist can create a powerful juxtaposition. In photography, there are many ways to achieve this effect and really make a photo come alive. In this article we will discuss the different types of contrast and tips for implementing them into your photography.

Types Of Contrast

For most just getting on the digital photo train, contrast strictly means an adjustment layer to enhance the strength of dark and light tones. While this technique can be a great way to create appeal to a once flat and boring photograph, it is not the only way to create opposing elements. Contrast can be much more than light and dark, some other forms include:

  • Contrasting sizes of subjects
  • Contrasting subject matter based on meaning
  • Contrasting textures
  • Contrasting lines and compositions
  • Contrasting colour

Size Of Subjects

Perhaps the goal in taking a photograph is to make a statement on how magnificent old redwood trees are in size. In order to demonstrate this, size needs to be put in perspective; otherwise, those strictly seeing the photograph will not fully appreciate the trees’ magnitude.

Contrast in size can be achieved by comparing one subject of relative familiarity, with that of another. For the example below, using humans hiking demonstrate contrast in size to the enormous mountains they are hiking through.

Subject Matter Based On Meaning

We’ve all been exposed to opposing ideas in photographs, but it may not have registered as being a type of contrast. As an example, imagine a homeless man in the street. The artist wants to capture the contrasting classes of wealth in his city. In order to do this he waits awhile until a wealthy looking gentleman crosses the homeless man’s path. The photo shows a man in a business suit looking away as he walks by this homeless man.

The contrast appears in the idea, not the tones. While sometimes difficult to achieve, contrasting ideas or subjects can be incredibly powerful to see in an image.

Take for example the image below – the contrast in this image is the soft toys hanging over what looks like a city scape. It’s unexpected, so it makes you look twice.

Contrasting Texture

Much like the contrasting of tones (dark and light) texture relies on what can be seen. National Geographic has featured many publications using the contrast of two subjects skin. For instance, the old hands of a field worker resting on the shoulder of a boy who appears to be following the same course in life. The texture of the man’s hands tells a story of how his occupation has changed him, only possible because of the contrast created next to the young boy.

In this instance of street photography in Hong Kong, the texture contrast is in the canopy of the surrounding buildings and the street. The canopies are soft and smooth in texture, and the street is busy – so your eye is drawn to that look-through between the shops.

Lines and Compositions

Lines alone can be a very strong aspect to a good photo. They have the ability to lead our eyes through and to the subject of the image. The opposition of lines can add tension in the photo, confusing the eye and creating a feeling of discomfort.

Where you place your subject is important too. Using the rule of thirds you can create contrast between the emphasis of your subject and the background. Drawing attention to the subject and away from the rest of the photo is exactly what contrast serves to do.

Like in this example taken in Yellowstone National Park (still one of our all-time favourite photography destinations), the contrast is in the space that is empty, versus the space that is filled. Your eyes are drawn to the subject because of this stark contrast.

Light Contrast

And of course, we have light contrast – in this instance, we are talking specifically about the contrast of light on dark. Like in these images below:



Colour Contrast:

Finally, we have the contrast that can be formed by contrasting one colour against another. This serves to bring attention to one specific subject over another and is a great way to draw your viewer’s eye to a subject. Take for example this photo of Charlotte creates great colour contrast with the pink tones on the yellow/green. The main subject becomes clear and stands out nicely against the background.

In summary, contrast is an amazing way to create stunning effects. Play around with some of these ideas and let us know how you go!

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