In this article, you will find out how to use contrast in photography, more specifically how to use contrast in photo editing/post-production. This is one of my favorite ways to use when I want to make my photos sharper or softer.
In fact, by playing with contrast you can not only make an image stronger but also softer, giving it the “dreamy look”.
Don’t worry, everything will be clearer to you soon.
Here are the themes we will address in this article:
- What is contrast and how to use it in Lightroom
- How to make your photos more impactful
- An overview of the tools to use
- How to create a dreamy effect
How to use contrast in Lightroom
Let’s start with the basics. What am I referring to when I speak of contrast? This editing command present in Lightroom is also found in all existing photo editing apps and also in Instagram. Have you ever noticed? Maybe you have already used it without really knowing the changes made.
In general, contrast is used in photography to increase the perceptual depth of a photo and avoid the classic “flat shot”. Please note, the final effect is achieved by combining several tools. By changing the contrast, it is in fact also necessary to change the shadows, the highlights, and sometimes even the sharpness.
We will see everything calmly. Now let’s focus on the first point: what does the contrast tool do?
As you can see in the images above, if you add contrast, the image will tend to become darker and more saturated with color. While decreasing the contrast results in a duller and lighter effect. You can see in the upper left how the histogram changes.
As you know, a balanced image will never have the histogram all shifted to the left or right, but it will be balanced even if more tending towards one extreme.
The art lies in knowing how to find the right balance between all of these elements. You can’t just copy the same setting on all your photos and expect them to be perfect. Each one will have been exposed differently and this will affect the final result.
That’s why creating Lightroom presets that work flawlessly on all images is a non-trivial challenge. Be wary of those packages you find online and sold by inexperienced photographers. Creating a series of presets is very easy, but will they really work? It’s not for sure.
How to use contrast to make your photos more punchy
I personally love adding contrast to my images. I find that the final result gives more strength, especially when it comes to street photography and landscape photography.
Here’s what you need to be careful with if you decide to increase the contrast. Every time you add contrast, two crucial things happen: blacks become more intense and colors more saturated.
These two changes don’t necessarily have to coexist. Maybe you want to get more depth without interfering with the rest of the colors. Know that it will not be enough for you to go and change only the saturation level.
When to change the contrast? I usually edit it right after I adjust the exposure and do it at the beginning of the photo retouching process. It may happen that during editing I go back and fix it again, but most of the time I let the contrast dictate the mood of my image.
It all depends on the theme you have chosen, on the atmosphere you want to enhance, but above all on how the addition or a decrease, in contrast, can benefit the subject portrayed. It’s okay to stick to one theme, but if it doesn’t suit your image, there’s no point in trying too hard.
The tools to use with the contrast tool
There are very few cases in which by changing the contrast you will not have to change anything else. 9/10 times you will also have to deal with:
- Sharpness and structure
All these tools go hand in hand, so I advise you not to snub them. Let’s see them briefly.
Shadows obviously control the darkest areas of the image. Changing the indicator will brighten or fade the blacks.
Highlights control the brighter areas. Here applies the same concept as the shadows, but obviously, the lighter parts will change.
Sharpness and structure can get confused. The first focuses on the details and, if used excessively can give an ultra retouched and decidedly fake effect. Meanwhile, the structure affects the whole image and accentuates the texture of the objects. You can see it kind of as a contour highlighter.
Do not forget about saturation which, as I mentioned before, is increased together with the increase in contrast. This is why it is important to find the right balance.
Unless your goal is to get a “fake” effect, I advise against using too high levels in each of these tools.
How to create a dreamy effect through contrast
Of course, the opposite effect can also be achieved. If you are curious about how to create a soft image with a matte effect, keep reading!
Given that this genre is not particularly my style, I will try to explain it to you as best as I can. So far we have used contrast to achieve depth, make blacks more vivid and thus avoid a 2D effect.
Now we will do the opposite, but we will try to avoid the 2D effect anyway.
By now you should have understood how it works. To obtain the dreamy look we will decrease the contrast to create a sort of veil that will soften our image. As always, balance is the key so, try not to overdo it.
Please note, this technique does not only affect light-toned photos but also applies to more moody and darker photos. The points in common will be an opaque matte effect, soft edges, and little contrast between the various elements.
In my opinion, in this case even more than in the first, it is essential to have the right image. Not everything will work with this technique. And most importantly, you’ll have to make a lot more changes to the rest of the settings to ensure that the final result remains natural.
I leave you some inspirational photos as an example.
I hope as always to have given you some ideas to start from and to have clarified all your doubts. If you would like to have a more detailed and in-depth guide just let me know in a comment or write me!
Are you interest in how to create impactful composition directly in the field? Read my tips on the dedicated article. Just click on the image down below!