by Harry Flashman
Shapes, patterns and contrasts
Sometimes the commonest or simplest items can produce eye-catching
photographs. No difficult shots, no special effects, no exotic lenses, just
great shots by the simple technique of keeping one’s eyes open.
The secret to all this is to remember repetitive shapes, contrasting shapes,
contrasting colors and shadows. In other words, these types of images rely
totally on vision and composition.
Remembering that the ‘rules’ of composition are merely there to be broken,
and very often a dramatic shot comes from trying something different.
The secret of great photography is not just in correct exposure and
placement in the frame. You will get plenty of dull photographs that are
perfectly exposed and with the subject at the intersection of thirds. You
need to remember contrast!
Contrast in photographic composition is an effective means of directing the
viewer’s attention to the center of interest. When I speak of contrast, I am
referring to both tonal contrast, as in black-and-white photography, and
color contrast as it relates to color photography.
In B&W photography, contrast is the difference in subject tones from
white-to-gray-to-black or from the lightest tone to the darkest tone. In
color photography different colors create the contrast.
Tonal contrast is generally expressed as high contrast which has extreme
black and whites, or low contrast which has nothing but graduated greys. The
photograph used this week is an example of very high contrast, so much so
that detail is blown out, but this is not designed to be a portrait, this
was designed to be a photograph that hits you between the eyes.
Now you can wander around all day looking for a girl in a white swimsuit on
a white sandy beach, or you can manipulate a photograph to produce that
image. If you have an advanced digital camera, you can program it to record
black and white only and then go from there, but if not, no fear, your
software will allow you to do this post camera. First convert the color shot
to grey scale, then play with the brightness and contrast, and you will very
quickly produce a shot like the one used here.
Now high contrast should not be confused with high key. A high key black and
white shot is one where the photo shows mostly light tones. Conversely, a
low key shot is one that has mainly dark tones. Low key and high key
pictures convey mood and atmosphere. Low key suggests seriousness and
mystery and is wonderful for Halloween photographs. However, high key
creates a feeling of delicacy and lightness. A portrait of a blonde in white
against a white background is an example of high key.
High contrast gives very black blacks and very white whites, and usually
with nothing in between. Low contrast, on the other hand, still has blacks
and whites, but everything is predominantly grey, giving a flat scene which
still has tones, but in which highlights and shadows have very little
difference in densities. In other words, all tones within the scene are very
similar in appearance. However, remember that if you are shooting in
automatic mode, the camera will be set to deliver 18 percent grey, and not
Now to contrast in color. This is where an artist’s color wheel comes in
handy. By picking colors from opposite sides on the wheel, you immediately
have stunning contrasts. Blue and yellow is a classic example. Another is
bright red against a luminescent green background.
Cold colors (bluish) and warm colors (reddish) almost always contrast. Cold
colors recede, while warm colors advance. Light colors contrast against dark
ones, and a bold color offsets a weak color.
Color contrast is an effective compositional element in color photography,
just as tone is in black-and-white photography. Colors with opposite
characteristics contrast strongly when placed together. Each color
accentuates the qualities of the other and makes the color images stand out
dramatically. Color contrast is enhanced when you create the contrast of
detail against mass. An example is a single, bright, red flower in a clear,
glass vase photographed against a bright, green background.