You may have heard know-it-all photographers gnawing over an image, referring to it either as flat or, on the other side of the scale, too contrasty – but what exactly do they mean?
Essentially, they’re describing one of the biggest differentiating factors between ordinary and extraordinary photos. Contrast is the difference between the dark and light areas in a photograph. Ideally blacks should be nice and deep and the highlights should be a crisp white. When there isn’t enough contrast, blacks tend to be a little muddy or grey and/ or whites aren’t quite white enough. These shots appear less distinct and colours tend to be muted.
So how do you manage contrast when you’re out shooting? The first step is to recognise a flat scene, such as a landscape on an overcast day. When shooting in these conditions, try to underexpose by between a third and two-thirds of a stop, as digital images store more information in the darker areas than the lighter spots. This means you’ll be able to bring out information in the darker areas when processing the image, allowing you to increase the contrast. It’s best to set your camera on RAW and process the images in your digital darkroom after shooting.
It’s also worth carrying a few neutral-density, graduated filters in the field or learning how to add them in a digital darkroom later to help you manipulate the image by burning in certain areas and holding back others to deliver a vibrant final image with balanced contrast between light and dark.
Striking the balance is important and being able to recognise a flat picture is critical to your ability to produce a fabulous final image. One of the best ways of learning is to experiment using processing software, but beware of overdoing your adjustments; as with most things in image processing, changes to contrast should be made in moderation.
About the example above
The effects of playing with contrast can be easily seen when looking at these two images. They are exactly the same picture but the one on the left has had most of the contrast removed while on the right contrast has been accentuated in the digital darkroom. Notice how the image which lacks contrast is dull and grey with little detail definition.