There are many individual elements of what makes an image appear a certain way. Framing, exposure, film speed, camera quality, printing method - all of these have a say in your final product. Contrast is one of the most important and easily manipulated elements of a photograph and, when used properly, can take your images to a whole new level.
Put simply, contrast is the difference between the lights and darks in your images. In terms or black and white photography, high contrast prints have very dark black and super bright whites with no shades in between, while low contrast images will have more grey. In color photos, contrast is used to describe the color intensity and how the colors stand out in relation to each other. While there's no "perfect" level of contrast, a good rule of thumb is to try and create images that have pure black, pure white, and every shade in between. This is not as easy as it sounds!
Contrast in Action
As a photographer, you'll probably find a set amount of contrast that works for you. Some photographers like high contrast while others like low, so it really depends upon what works for you. As long as your images convey the message you want to pass on, no one is going to call you on the phone and tell you to change your photographs around.
If you want to see an example of excellent normal contrast, take a look at the photographs of Ansel Adams. His landscape photographs in black and white cover every base possible in terms of greys, blacks, and whites, and are quite powerful because of it. For an example of high-contrast, recent films such as Sin City and The Spirit used high-contrast imagery to augment their story.
There are a few things you can do to adjust the contrast of your images. Different types of film or digital camera settings will give your pictures different amounts of contrast. For example, slide film has a high contrast ratio compared to regular film. You can also "push" your film while developing it by allowing it to soak in the developer longer than recommended - the longer it sits, the higher your contrast will be. Be careful that you don't over-develop your film because, unlike prints, it can't be redone once you develop it.
In the darkroom, you can apply a filter to your enlarger to change the contrast of your images. A #1 filter will be a slight contrast bump, whereas a #4 filter will dramatically increase the level of contrast in the final image. If you're using digital, most photo editing software has a contrast option built in that will allow you to mimic darkroom filters and adjustments for similar results. Contrast is unlimited in what you can do with it so play around and take it to the limit and see what happens.
Contrast can control the focal point of an image, as in where your viewers look. It can help further define important parts of your photograph as well as create a higher quality image when done properly. Use the "pure white, pure black" rule in every picture and you'll see a huge difference in the prints you will produce. Once you understand what degree of contrast works in your photos, you'll start to see how you can use contrast in the real world to shoot even better pictures. As always, the best way to get better is to keep practicing!
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