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In The Practicing Photographer, photographer and teacher Ben Long shares a weekly serving of photographic instruction and inspiration. Each installment focuses on a photographic shooting scenario, a piece of gear, or a software technique. Each installment concludes with a call to action designed to inspire you to pick up your camera (or your mouse or smartphone) to try the technique for yourself.
- I don't know if it's bugging you, but through so many shooting and post-production tutorials I hear myself saying to you, "Oh, here's how you get more contrast. Here's how you get more contrast." I'm always talking about increasing contrast and honestly for most images, an increase in contrast ends up being a good thing. It improves color saturation. It improves detail and black-and-white images. That said, there are times when it's okay to go low contrast In fact, there are times when going low contrast is a better choice and so I felt like I should give equal time-- well not equal time-- I felt I should give a tiny little smidgen of time to the low contrast idea, just to let you know that that is another tool in your toolbox that you should be paying attention to.
I have here an image of a countryside in South Africa. It's a pretty monotonous image. I was struck by these two trees sitting here and the haze in the background. There's no need to add more contrast to this image because if I do, all the greens are going to merge together. So instead, I went to black-and-white and it's mostly a uniform tone, but when I drain a whole bunch of contrast out of the background, then I actually get contrast. I get contrast between the trees and the background, but I get a much nicer image, a prettier image, a dreamy image, an image that's easier to read.
And most important, by draining that contrast out, I know what the subject of my image is: it's those two trees. This is case where I was able to save an image that really wasn't going anywhere by draining a lot of contrast out of it. Sticking with our tree theme, here's a tree in Zion National Park in southern Utah. This is way up on an edge of a cliff and I just really liked how this tree was clinging to the edge of this cliff and standing there, it looked really cool. But boy, separating it from the background was really difficult. I couldn't figure out how to do it exposure wise.
When I got into post and started working with it, I couldn't figure out how do it and so finally I dropped the contrast of the image. I dropped the contrast of the image overall. I dropped more contrast in all of the image but the tree. So again I'm actually, you could argue, increasing the contrast of the scene because now the tree's really standing out against the light background. But this is case where really draining a lot of detail out makes for a much, much more evocative image. I've talked a lot about the idea of abstraction, that the more we can abstract an image, the more engaging it is for the viewer and I think anytime you remove detail, you're doing that and I've removed a lot of detail; not just the color, but a lot of tonal information.
Still, the image is a little bit busy. There's still just too much drawing the eye down here and up here and up here and I worked for a while tonally trying to figure that out and I realized there's a very easy solution: just crop it to being really narrow. And I normally don't go for really weird aspect ratios like this, but because the tree has such a strong vertical shape, I think it works well in this frame. So again, a case where removing contrast is making for an image that's much more attractive and much more effective. There are two easy ways to remove contrast in Photoshop with an exposure adjustment layer.
You can just drag the gamma slider to decrease contrast and the levels adjustment, you can use the output sliders. So, don't forget about this. Don't get stuck on increasing contrast all the time. Remember that a drain in contrast is often the solution to a really tricky problem.
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