It’s a Matter of (high) Contrast

Making high contrast, work for you.

There’s one thing that most experienced photographers tend to run from, that’s extreme light often called high contrast. In reality, the highest contrast light is really extreme back or side light. I think most photographers today have learned to use silhouetting as a way to make those extremes work for them. Reducing primary objects to black, and allowing the colors from a sunrise or sunset to remain rich is the best example of true high contrast. Also, holding details in primary subjects and letting shaded backgrounds “fade to black”, is also popular. That is also one of my personal favorite styles of image making. The high contrast light of midday, is another matter. I learned a long time ago, that if you have to make pictures around midday, you can make ‘some” images work for you.

My first suggestion is if it is truly high noon, then begin to look at your subject in the abstract. Let the bright spots and dark spots become your picture. The truth is, most people, photographers or not, do not like using  contrasts of light and dark to create abstracts. The real secret is pretty simple, wait for 10, maybe 15 minutes depending on the time of year, and that slight shift to side or even back light, will open up a new way to look at certain subjects.

The two shots below have just enough back to sidelight, to create dimension and texture. Just enough. I of course walked around these scenes to compose the subjects, and the light. All photographers in any light will benefit by understanding composing light. If I could have chosen the light to make these pictures in, it would have been extremely low contrast overcast. I generally used what nature gave me and lived by the premise that I could photograph “most” scenes in a pleasing way. I do believe, high contrast side (not top) to back light, works better with small landscapes, than with grand. You have so much more control, and you can show much more detail with intimate landscapes like those I am showing you, than with giant subjects that take in so much of the land. Small landscapes, sometimes will actually make the photographer seem more in control.

Ultimately, any image we produce should be about how those pictures make viewers feel, not whether they understand how smart or arttistic we are.



Of course those of you who are experienced photographers know that high contrast wildlife photography is a whole different animal… to speak.

Light and dark spots (contrast) with animals is a tough sell in most cases. Often at that time of day, especially in summer, I would switch to macros where I can control the contrast, much the same as with small landscapes rather than grand. In some cases with close-up photography, you can even use photographic umbrellas to turn sun into shade, or use reflectors to fill in the shadow areas. With wild animals, they will dictate much of what you will do. With contrasty sidelight I often found, that a group of animals, with some looking one way, and some another, works quite well. In other words, if you have some subjects with their faces showing in light, then some shadowed figures will work. The mystery is gone. Now you might actually want mystery, with shadowy wildlife figures, but that’s for another day. These pigeons are in and out of the sun, and they sort of even out the contrast.  Generally with a group image like you see below, most viewers will see the whole image or the entire group as one subject, rather than subdivide it into individual birds.dsc_4588-01


This Red-tailed Hawk was photographed moments after the pigeons, only it was on the other side of the road.  The direction of the sun is still somewhat from one side, and that is perfect. The bird is well-lit but has just enough shadows to display texture and dimension. These pictures were also made in winter which means that the sun is fairly low in the southern sky rather than straight above at midday. In fact, these images were made on Christmas day, 2008. At my peak, there was rarely such a thing as a day I would not create pictures.dsc_4635-01

I will finish our photos for the day by repeating today’s first image with an HDR version right after it.

HDR (high dynamic range) imaging was just beginning when I made these pictures, but it never entered my mind when I made them. If that is what I intended to do, I would have made multiple bracketed exposures of this same shot. I would have a least made one exposure as I thought it should be, and one underexposure and one over. As is, I did something I have done a few times in the past, I took the original shot, and in the editing process, over exposed ( maybe 2 stops) a copy, and underexposed another copy the same amount. I joined them with my seldom used HDR software. The result is, that the combined exposure has somewhat lower contrast than the original. That’s because the shadows have been filled from the over exposed copy. It is more luminescent, despite having less contrast. At times, I have saved unusable landscapes with this method. In this case, I did not care for it. I saw that scene as a high contrast scene when I was there making the pictures. I decided that a scene like that can work if I simply address it as a blessing rather than a curse. Often, it’s about having an open mind, and ‘seeing” the world as beautiful. All light can be good.dsc_6596


Have a great day and may God Bless,                                                                                                 Wayne


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