How much contrast should I have?

by Craig Walker   Last Updated August 11, 2019 22:18 PM - source

Or rather:

  • What artistic effect does a high-contrast photo have on the viewer?
  • What artistic effect does a low-contrast photo have on the viewer?
  • How do I know when high contrast is "too much" or low contrast "too little"?
  • When should I be looking to increase/decrease contrast?

I see various tips & techniques for "increasing contrast" and "limiting contrast." The techniques are straightforward; knowing when to use them isn't.

Answers 2

At the end of the day it's just a matter of judgement - if there was a simple rule Adobe would have come up with a "content aware contrast" tool by now ;)

A very high level contrast is going to generate some instant "wow" factor that can be hard to resist when people are first learning how to edit images. Often the results come off as brash and overcooked. It takes time to develop a certain amount of subtly, and be confident that you don't need to crank the contrast up to 11.

I would start by asking myself is it even a good image? Will contrast enhance what's already there, or am I trying to compensate for failings in the lighting, subject matter or composition?

The next thing I would be would be to experiment. Certain subject matters and lighting patters do suit a large amount of contrast. Try out the various looks and see if you can make an informed decision on what is the best look. At the end of the day it's your image and your vision.

Here's an example based on a portfolio shoot I did a few years ago. The model picked the following shot, which I had set up with a fairly dramatic lighting scheme which usually benefits from high contrast post processing. Here's the processed image:

When I was processing another image from the shoot for my own purposes I immediately went straight for the maximum punch Dave Hill-esque band promo look:

But then something in me decided to see how far the other direction I could push the image. I could see quickly I was onto something, but it took me a little while longer to get it to look as good as I wanted. I think the extra effort was worth it, this image is now a benchmark I use when trying to decide whether to increase contrast. It looks a little flat compared to the other version, but if you come back and look at it in isolation I think it's definitely better, to me it looks more refined, and somehow more expensive...

I see various tips & techniques for "increasing contrast" and "limiting contrast." The techniques or straightforward; knowing when to use them isn't.

That's a very important point you raise there, and one reason I would advice against going to any one of the thousand websites that offer Photoshop tutorials for every effect under the sun. I think that by figuring out how to do things yourself you are more likely to develop a sense of when to apply certain techniques rather than how to apply them.

Matt Grum
Matt Grum
December 19, 2010 18:24 PM

I don't think there's really a pat answer to that question. My general take, and it's just a matter of opinion, is that many photos can benefit from some contrast adjustments and when to do them becomes a judgement call. For myself, I'll usually do some contrast adjustments, trying out various options on an image, as a seperate layer in Photoshop, and then see which "looks" better to me.

Anyways, high contrast images tend to a feel of more depth, more of a bolder look to them. Done right, the images can have a lot of punch in them triggering emotion. Low contrast images are flatter, more subtle and, when done right, can create a more subtle emotional response.

John Cavan
John Cavan
December 19, 2010 18:34 PM

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