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Sunday, 24 January 2010

Color, Tone and Contrast

Before really diving into this topic, I want to take a moment to talk about your intent when taking pictures. When you’re taking a picture, ask yourself, “What is this a photo of?” Once you know the answer, whether it’s and object, a person, an emotion, a mood, etc., you can use the tips and tools in the Professional Photos section of the blog to help you achieve that intent.

In this post, I am going to focus on the main compositional elements—color, tone and contrast—and how you can use them to create the photo you intended.

Color plays an important role in your overall composition, and understanding it can help you improve the quality of your photos. If you look at a color wheel, you’ll see a great guide to contrasting colors, which are those opposite one another on the wheel. One of the easiest color contrasts to play with are oranges and blues, and reds and greens, so think of these contrasting colors when you’re composing your kids in their brightly colored clothes playing in grass. It’s a simple formula, but having the contrasting colors really adds an aesthetic element to the final shot.

Chiaroscuro 4

For this post, the definition of tone refers to shades from dark to light. Tone is important both when shooting in color and in black and white as well as with subjects that have a lot of black, gray or light in them. A great photo can be all one color, as seen in the Pro Shots photo below, with just tones from dark to light separating the texture and subject. Tone is often associated with mood, so if you’re trying to communicate a certain mood through your photos, explore the realm of tone to convey your intention.

Contrast is best explained by its extremes. Extremely high-contrast photos have a lot of white and black and very little (or nothing) in between. Extremely low-contrast photos have no distinct white or black but instead an overall gray or even color scheme. What can contrast do for a photo? Well, Ansel Adams made his mark by mastering contrast and the tonal scale with his famous images. When you look at his photos, they “pop” thanks to the contrasting and tonal elements.

Chiaroscuro 3

Contrast is one of the easiest things to check for with a digital camera. If your camera offers a histogram view, look for rises on both the left and right side of your histogram—this indicated that you have some contrast in your photo. If you see a big peak in the middle of your histogram but nothing to the right or left, then you’re lacking contrast. Remember, if you don’t have a histogram view on your camera, you may have one on your digital photo/editing software.

Chiaro-who? Chiaroscuro is an Italian word meaning “clear-dark,” which is a fancy way of explaining the combination of color, tone and contrast to make really pleasing photographs.

Once you know what you’re looking for, Chiaroscuro is easy to recognize. A good example of this technique is a window-lit person, where one side of the face is well lit but the light falls off rather dramatically on the other side of their face and the remainder of the room, or a patch of foliage lit by the sun breaking through trees above but the remainder of the forest behind it is in darkness. Another great place to see examples of Chiaroscuro is in Hollywood, such as The Godfather trilogy.

Chiaroscuro 1

Now that you know the elements for creating stunning compositions, we want to see what you can do. Share links to your photos in the comments section that exemplify color, tone, contrast or Chiaroscuro!

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