Contrast – The Blood Of Photography, The Blood Of Life
Whoa, heavy title much? Yeah, that’s right. Contrast, where would we be without it? Our brains, as massive and sexy as they are, can’t tell us if something is cold or hot, bright or dark, even funny or sad without contrast.
What makes some images stand out while our eyes just skip over other photographs? Contrast, that’s what!
Think I’m crazy? Who said that? Show yourself! Go to your kitchen and get three bowls. Put ice water in one, hot tap water in another (not hot enough to burn yourself, chum), and then room temperature water in the third. Put your left hand in the cold water and your right in the hot for about 45 seconds. Now put both your hands in the bowl with the room temperature water. Your left hand will feel like it’s in hot water, your right will feel like it’s in cold. ELECTRIC GUITAR SOLO – Science!
What about sound? Yep. Even Rock and Roll falls slave to the master that is contrast. Driving down the road in your Model T, not a care in the world, music at just the right volume. You stop at the local five and dime for an egg cream and when you get back in your car – CRIPES that’s loud! Did some hooligan tamper with your knob? Nope. Contrast.
Sight works the same way. Our eyes are drawn to areas of Contrast. If a room was all white – I mean all white, no shadows or highlights, no contrast, well, you’d have a lot of trouble rearranging the furniture. Heck, you couldn’t see the furniture in the first place.
But it’s not just our physical senses that Contrast makes its bitch. Perceptions get it too. Would you pay $1.99 a gallon to fill up your gas tank? Gladly. That’s cheep, right? Well, remember when it hit $1.99 on the way up from $1.49. Back then two Washington’s for a gallon was like, “No way! Rip off!” Slam! – Contrast strikes again.
So what does this have to do with photography? I sometimes find myself forgetting to use one of our most powerful tools in the photo world. Contrast. Maybe you do to. Or maybe you use it in just one or two directions. But Contrast can be used to create more compelling photography in several ways.
Brightness – now this is the one most people start out with, but some never go beyond it. Whether you use a hair light to separate your model from the background, underexpose the ambient and bring your subject up with a strobe, or any of the million other ways to show a Contrast of brightness in your image, you are bringing to the picture party the power to draw the person’s pupil.
Focus – if you are using a short depth of field when you shoot, then you are using the Contrast of what is in focus to what is blurry to influence where the viewer will look in your photograph.
Color – learn your color wheel and then forget it. In the color spectrum there are “opposites.” Some colors blend, others pop off of one another. Find these combinations in nature or deliberately put them in your images. Contrast.
Shape – I’ll put size and pattern in with this one since they are so closely related. If you have a bunch of apples and you stick a banana in there, you have yourself the making of a dirty limerick and an image with Contrast in shape that can control your audience’s focus.
Emotion – yeah, now I’m getting into the parts where you may need to dig deep. It’s worth it, trust me. Someone in your photo looks sad? Put someone else in their laughing their ass off and suddenly the audience has a much stronger reaction than before. Don’t thank me. Thank Contrast. It’s not just for the heavy stuff either, no!
Comedy – it’s funnier with Contrast, too. What’s funnier than a guy bouncing off of a closed sliding glass door? Not much. Contrast!
There is plenty more contrast-y-nessness out there if you look hard enough. Dirty/clean. Dry/wet. Lonely and whatever the hell the opposite of loneliness is. You get my point.
So, smarty-pants, now that you’ve got the viewers eyes in your hands, what you going to do with it? You can make them look at any part of the photograph that you want using Contrast. Now give them something fascinating, powerful, thought provoking, or funny to look at, put it in that spot, and you might have just taken the greatest photograph ever! Well, at least in contrast.