Elements of Composition – Contrast and Tonal Range

These two subjects are so closely related that it is nearly impossible to discuss them separately, however they are different and each impacts an image in its own way.

Contrast derives its importance from the way the brain and eye work together to view the world. As I discussed here the eye does not see the whole but rather jumps from one key area of an image to another and the brain smooths over the gaps. In general the eye instinctively jumps to the point of the scene with the highest contrast and as such white against dark grey or black is extremely powerful whereas a lighter grey against a darker grey would be more subtle. A knowing photographer can use this to manipulate contrast and guide the viewer’s focus to wherever he or she desires.

Lay Brothers Refectory, Fountains Abbey - Bruce Barnbaum

A masterful combination of contrast, tonal range and movement work together in this image by Bruce Barnbaum

In very general terms high contrast gives an image ‘pop’ whereas low contrast is gentler. Each one has it’s place depending on what you are trying to express in the photograph. For example if you were to be photographing dancing or sports you might want to make the images quite contrasty to add a sense of excitement whereas if you are photographing children or a family portrait then you may want to lower the overall contrast to add a sense of gentleness and peace.

It is very important to realise that  the tonal range of an image has no relation on the contrast. Take these examples:

Low Contrast

Low Contrast

 This first image has a tonal range of white to black however it would be considered a low contrast image because every tone is next to a tone that is imperceptibly lighter or dark. There is no contrast here at all.

High Contrast

High Contrast

This second image has an identical tonal range to the first one however; the leap from black to white is the strongest contrast possible.

Thus image contrast depends on tonal juxtapositions, not tonal range.

A tonal range of an image can generally be described as either ‘high key’ with light tones predominating or ‘low key’ darker tone more apparent.

High Key

High Key

Low Key

Low Key

Each approach has its own resonance and there is a strong emotional distinction between the two of them. In very general terms darker tones lead to sombre images whereas lighter tones are more optimistic. Of course there are many exceptions to this but it is a good place to start.

As a final word of warning I have seen many photo’s hurt by inappropriate contrast. There seems to be a fixation, in particular with beginners, to massively overcook the contrast in their images believing it to be an easy way to create dynamic photography. It is always worth considering what you are trying to say with an image before you push up the contrast slider in Lightroom. Will it really benefit from the muddy blacks, bright whites and destruction of the middle greys? Probably not.

The difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘photographic seeing’

Just a few days ago I was chatting with some fellow photographers about our most important moments of personal revelation in our chosen field. Anyone who has played about even half seriously with a camera has had one of these moments, I remember my first one happening the day I bought a ‘nifty fifty’ lens and I realised how useful a tool manipulating the depth of field could be when it came to isolating a subject.

Everyone I spoke to had their own experience but the one we all came back to as being the most important in terms of personal development was when we discovered the concept of ‘photographic seeing’.

‘Photographic  Seeing’ is based on the very simple but often overlooked realisation that the sensor does not deal with light in the same way that the eye does. The human eye can scan a scene and make impossibly quick adjustments between the extremes of light and dark. This information is then further flattened by the brain to produce the image we ‘see’.  The camera has no such luxury. It cannot smooth the edges, flatten the bright peaks or boost the dark troughs. It can only reproduce exactly what has passed through its lens.

Thus the concept of ‘photographic seeing’ is looking at a scene and seeing not from the perspective of the eye but of the camera. To observe a subject and know with certainty how it would look reproduced in a print or on screen and, much more importantly, what you could change to improve the image.  It sounds tough but fortunately this is an ability that can be taught and refined quite easily by practising a couple of simple exercises.

First of all look out of your nearest window and imagine it as a photograph. Take a second to look at the light. What are the brightest and darkest areas of the frame? These are the parts that will draw the eye most forcefully (they eye is guided by the dark and drawn towards the light) so next ask where do these spots sit in the frame? Are they at the edge or in the centre? Are the bright and dark spots next to each other or creating a high contrast or are they separated out? Finally, and most importantly, do these bright and dark spots help or hinder the subject? Do they take the eye towards the subject or away from it?

If you take the time to do this a couple of times a day it soon becomes second nature. It doesn’t take long at all before you start doing it automatically and I guarantee your photography will improve dramatically as a result.

The next step is a little trickier but equally worthwhile. Once you have analysed a scene take a second to think how the light could change it. What if the sun was in a different place in the sky? What if it was a cloudy day? Where would the shadows fall? Where would catch the light? Would this help or hinder your image? If you are having trouble visualising then grab an egg and a torch and try this:

Light is photography Ergo, if the light changes the photograph must always change too.

Once you have spent a little time practising these skills your ‘photographic seeing’ will dramatically improve and with it the quality of your photographs.

If you would like to do a little more in depth reading I can recommend “The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression” by Bruce Barnbaum and “The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos” by Michael Freeman