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Photography Basics: How to Take High Contrast Photos

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Ever wondered what is the biggest challenge when it comes to outdoor photography? Shooting during midday can especially be a tough task. This is because of the contrast created by the sun as compared to the dark foreground. Human eyes are of course sensitive and can see thing better in a high contrast as compared to any kind of sensor. With continuous technological advancements, this issue might be fixed in the future. But, for now, you would have to make the adjustments yourself. The most asked question is how to take high contrast photos.

But, to understand that, you first need to know what is the contrast in photography. Let us have a look at the high contrast photography definition first. Contrast is the scale of difference between the black and white in the images. Without contrast, you wouldn't get a picture because there would not be any difference between light and dark. Everything would literally be black, white, or perhaps a single shade of grey. 

In high contrast photography, everything appears to be way too bright and that doesn’t look too great. In such situations, if the camera exposes the sky, the foreground might appear dark and vice versa. The challenge is real and there are a few things that you can do to get stunning pictures regardless of the lighting. Listed below are a few tips and tricks that you can adopt and mesmerize your viewers and clear your confusion on how to take high contrast photos



How to Take High Contrast Photos: 8 Tips that You Should Follow 

Make your photos look naturally beautiful by mastering the challenging photography skill- how to take high contrast photos. Let’s get straight into it:

Tip #1: Black And White is the Way to Go 

If your mind is pondering over how to take high contrast photos then we suggest go black and white. One of the biggest reasons as to why photographers avoid converting the pictures to black and white is because they lack contrast. To convert the pictures and to make them look astounding, you would need tones that range from pure white to pure black. More than often, the photographers after converting their pictures find out that the pictures appear bland and flat. In such situations, the high contrast photos can actually benefit you. 

When you are shooting during midday, you are ought to get a high contrast. What happens is that people mostly find such pictures boring because they are used to seeing midday. By converting the pictures to black and white, this issue can easily be solved. This is because; people aren’t used to seeing the world from a black and white perspective and hence the same picture appears more compelling. This means that if you find that your picture is overly contrasted; high contrast photography black white would be the best option.  

black and white photography
Escape high contrast situation wit black and white mode

Tip #2: Fill the Entire Frame with Your Subject 

If you are taking the picture during midday when you know that the pictures would be highly contrasted, fill the entire frame with your subject. You could do this by zooming onto your subject or walking close to it. But, what’s the use of it? Well, by doing so, your camera would get an appropriate metering off of the subject only. Also, the background wouldn’t have any effect on the subject’s metering. 

In case you are shooting in Shutter Priority or Aperture, all you would need to do is lock the exposure by simply pressing the Auto Exposure Lock (AEL) button. With the help of AEL, the exposure calculated from the subject would be held. This means that this exposure would not change automatically when you return back to the original composition. 

The next useful tip would be to set your exposure to zero in case you are shooting in manual mode. Recompose the picture again after setting the exposure. Your metering might tell you that you are either overexposed or underexposed. However, you would want to ignore that as the exposure that you have set now is basically based on the exposure of the subject solely. 

Tip #3: Utilize a Graduated Neutral Density Filter

If you were wondering, how to take high contrast photos, this is one of the easiest ways to achieve it. Here we would talk about darkening the sky in such a way that is kind of similar to the foreground's exposure. To achieve this, you would need a graduated neutral density filter. But, what are these? Well, these are square filters which fit in the holders that are attached to the front of the lens. 

The filter’s top part is dark and the bottom of this filter would fade with the clear glass of the lens at the bottom. As can be seen, it would darken the sky while the foreground would remain as it is. Make sure to keep the brightness values within the dynamic range of the camera. With this, you would get the perfect high contrast images that you want. 

polarising filters
Neutral filters to avoid high contrast photos

Tip #4: Fix the Issue During Post-Production 

This is perhaps the best thing that you can do to fix the high contrast images. You could use Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom to correct the overly contrasting images. Both of this post-processing software has sliders which can help you add a better look to a rather dark foreground. Of course, you wouldn't be able to bring back the sky that appears completely blown out but you might be amazed at the results.

For a sky that seems overly lit, you could pull down the highlighter slider which would help in adding a bit of detail to your picture. If you find that the foreground is way too dark, you could brighten it a bit in Lightroom with the help of Shadows slider. All you would need to do is pull the shadow slider towards the right and instantly you would see the darker tones brightening up. The trick is to experiment in the post-processing stage. By adjusting a few things here and there, you would be able to succeed with high contrast colour photography. 

Tip #5: Spot Metering 

In case you are wondering how to take high contrast photos, this method is what you can adopt. Spot metering is one of the most popular, easier and quicker ways generally adapted to expose the subject in a high contrasting situation. What spot metering does is that it takes a reading from a rather small portion of the scene. You would get the chance to choose the spot that you want to meter. 

The only disadvantage of this method is the fact that as the spot metering is based on just one point of the whole image, the metering might vary. This is especially true if you shift the metering from one part of the subject to other or the subject isn’t properly toned in brightness. 

Tip #6: Blend the Exposure 

Another easy way to deal with contrast photography is to bracket the pictures and then blend them later on. Usually, most of the modern cameras have this function wherein you would be able to set the amount that you want underexposed or overexposed. This means that when you hit the shutter button, the camera will capture three pictures. One of the images would be at normal exposure, one would be underexposed and one of it would be underexposed. A few cameras might even allow you to take five or six pictures in a row. 

Later on, you can easily blend these pictures in Photoshop. For the final picture, use parts of each exposure. You could use the darker foreground from the underexposed picture, the bright sky from the overexposed picture and so on. Take different elements from differently exposed pictures and blend them together. The final result would be a stunning high contrast image. 

3 different exposure
Different Exposures for one shot

Tip #7: Blending into an HDR File

When it comes to high contrast photography, using High Dynamic Range or HDR software can be quite a challenge for some people. But, if used as it is supposed to be, it can give you a beautiful picture with perfect contrast. It is quite similar to the method that has been discussed earlier on blending images of different exposures together. Here too you would be taking three or images at different exposures. The easiest way to achieve that is by setting up your tripod and using the timer function of the camera. If you want, you could use the shutter release too. 

Most of the cameras these days have a feature known as bracketing with the help of which you can take multiple pictures at different exposures. The aperture and ISO remain constant while the shutter speed varies. Now, create an HDR file using any method that you find convenient. Once done that, bring the three exposures along with the HDR image into Photoshop. Now you would have four layers displayed and all you need to do is blend. 

Place the image that looks the best on the top. After that, begin to blend the images. If you feel that a layer doesn’t seem that impressive, simply delete it. This method is used by photographers even though it requires a bit of effort because it gives them complete control of the image’s exposure level. This method would offer you the advantage and features of HDR software without the HDR-look. In the end, you will have a picture with the perfect contrast lighting.

Tip #8: A Fill Flash is the Best Solution 

We saved the best for the last! Fill flash is the ultimate way to click high contrast photos

We are talking about high-contrast so how is a flash going to help you with contrast lighting? The question makes sense as people assume that flash is something that can only be beneficial in situations where the lighting isn’t too great. But, a fill flash can help you in taking impressive pictures in situations that we are talking about here. 

It might seem a bit confusing at first but the flash would actually fill a few harsh shadows. This way you would easily be able to deal with the high contrast photos. When using fill flash, you would be required to set the exposure settings of the camera in such a way that the sky remains perfectly exposed. You could try and click a few pictures without using the flash to get a fair idea of what you are supposed to be doing. Once done that, use the flash to bring more light in the foreground and prevent it from being dark. 

To make the image look more natural, dial back on the flash exposure compensation or the flash unit’s power. If you have been puzzled about how to take high contrast portraits, this solution would help you with it. The final result would be a stunning picture with the perfect balance of lighting.  

fill flash technique
Fill flash will bring a difference in your photos (source)

Summing Up 

Dealing with the lighting situation might seem like a tough job especially if you are just a beginner. But, the key to getting perfect and impressive pictures is practice. Experiment with light while you are shooting and during the post-processing stage. Pay attention to your subject and composition. Just by going through multiple articles, you wouldn’t be able to succeed. Getting that perfect image requires a sharp eye and years of experience. Head out, click a lot of images and you would definitely improve with practice. 

We really hope that this guide has helped you with how to take high contrast photos and we hope you would utilize a few tips. If you have any other useful tips, please feel free to share them with us in the comment section below. 

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