Contrast: The Effects of Light on a Scene


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May 10, 2021
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Have you ever taken a photo that didn't turn out quite right? You thought it would be fine, but when you reviewed it later on your computer, things were just off. You couldn't put your finger on exactly what went wrong, but something definitely went awry. Oftentimes, when taking photographs under certain lighting conditions, unexpected results can arise. Taking photos during bright sunlight, with a flash at night, or any other time there's harsh direct sunlight can truly ruin an otherwise fine setting. Think about capturing photos of flowers at high noon on a bright sunny summer day. I can't ever remember the last time I successfully did that. Now think about taking photos of those same flowers just as the sun is setting. Even the least experienced photographer can make those photos look good.

Welcome to Contrast​

What is contrast? Simply put, it's the rate of difference between light and dark areas of a photo. Different types of contrast are formed because of different types of lighting. When discussing contrast in terms of photography, we generally speak about it as a result of either hard or soft light. We've all heard of these types of light before. Hard light is sharp and focused. It causes high contrast. Conversely, soft light results in lower contrast in photographs due to its scattered and spread out nature. Hard light is derived from a smaller light source than soft light is (in relation to the scene). Think about the sun in a clear sky. That's a very small light source compared to the size of a scene. It would cause harsh high contrast results. Now think about that same sunlight, but hidden behind an overcast sky. The sunlight that was once very direct is now scattered and dissipated because of the cloud cover. The clouds act as a filter.

Have you experimented with different light sources while taking photos? If you were to take pictures of a flower in a vase on a table with your only light source being a small but powerful flashlight, you'd definitely see some very high contrast results. But if you were to turn the lights on in the room and then use a diffused lamp to illuminate the flower and vase, the contrast would be much less noticeable. It's like comparing a naked light bulb to a light bulb behind a sheer curtain. The one behind the curtain would offer a lot more softness.

A lot of the hardness and softness of lighting is caused by the shadows that result from the light source. If we use the flashlight analogy again, think about how bright the face of a subject might be compared to the rear of the subject. Because the light source is so concentrated and focused, none of that light can reach around to the area behind. When a light source is broader and less concentrated (diffused) though, that light can bend around the subject and fill in areas the hard light would never be able to.

Low & High Contrast Histograms​

If you ever want to know exactly low and high your photo's contrast will be, all you need to do is check out your camera's histogram before you take your shot. If you meter a scene and both the left and right side of the histogram show data, then you've got a higher contrast scene. If most of the data is concentrated in the center though, you've got yourself a low contrast scene. Remember, the left side of a histogram shows how much dark area an image will contain and the right side shows how much light area an image will contain.

Thank you Ehab Amin.

Hard Light vs. Soft Light​

In this section, I'll discuss the effects both hard and soft light can have upon different types of photographs. I'll stick with three different subjects; portraits, buildings, and landscapes. Results of these types of images can range wildly, just by changing the lighting involved.

Portraits: When someone is taking a photo of themself or having a portrait done, rarely do they want to accentuate any flaws they may have. While hard light may offer dramatic and interesting portrait shots, it doesn't lend itself to beauty very much. We've all seen dark and dank murder mystery movies where the evil villain is shown in the harshest of light with the deepest of shadows. That type of hard light is used for effect. It's definitely not used to soften one's features so they appear more pleasant to look at. By softening the light on someone's face, wrinkles, blemishes, and unattractive features seem to melt away. It's for this very reason that we increase the exposure for photos of models and babies. The fewer lines and shadows, the better.

Buildings: It really depends on what you're after when taking photos of a building or buildings. If you're after the stark edges of a cluster of skyscrapers against a bright sky. then definitely use more direct sunlight to capture that type of look. The reflection of light off the glass coupled with the definition of the buildings' edges will offer a modern and sharp result. However, if you're looking for a more gentle representation of a historic brick building in someplace like, say, Greenwich Village, NYC, you certainly wouldn't want to modernize the shot by adding the distinct edges that only hard light would cause. You'd want softer lighting to tone things down and dissipate those edges. Now, if you're capturing photos of sunlight filtering through the dark steps of a fire escape on the side of a building, then yes, you'd want full sun or the more direct light from a street lamp, but in general, a softer image would be called for in cases like these. Just be careful not to go too soft, lest you lose some necessary detail.

Landscapes: There are a few generally agreed upon principles when taking landscape shots. First, hard light is better used for inorganic objects, such as sand dunes, rocky mountains, or rock formations. When it comes to organic subjects such as plants, trees, and meadows, you would definitely want to use softer light. Second, almost always use diffused light when taking close up shots of organic subjects. They just come out better and are much more attractive to look at. When photographing organic subjects from a distance though, be careful about going too soft. Without shadows, you can lose a lot of detail and your photos may end up looking bland. With landscape photography, it's more about time of day than the type of lighting used. At 7pm in the summertime, even though there may be full sun, you almost can't go wrong because of the sun's angle in the sky. As well as its beautiful orange color. You can't forget about the color.

Do you have any perspectives on contrast as it pertains to photography? Did I miss anything above? I'd surely love to hear from you below. Go ahead and ask questions or add some of what you know. Thanks!
Contrast: The Effects of Light on a Scene was posted on 06-16-2021 by 15Katey in the Photography forum.

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