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Let there be light

Picture perfect: photography hints from a pro


Low tonal range with saturated orange, complementary warm and cold colours (blue). Picture Ken Finegan/Newspics

Low tonal range with saturated orange, complementary warm and cold colours (blue). Picture Ken Finegan/Newspics

Low tonal range with saturated orange, complementary warm and cold colours (blue). Picture Ken Finegan/Newspics

Last week we looked at White Balance and changing the way the cameras 'see' different colours and temperatures and the way we, as photographers can manipulate or change that with our camera settings. This week I want to bring us another step in the observation and understanding of light and how it affects the images we make. We will look at light in general, tonal range, contrast and colour and the way it influences us and our images.

From last week's tips we know there are many types of light and our cameras have pre-sets that can cope with them to give us the most natural colour. But different light tends to suit different genres of photography and different moods or atmospheres. In general soft light, such as an overcast day or subtle window light suits portraiture. This tends to give a portrait subtle qualities which are not too harsh and suits many soft skin tones.

Harsh light can and is used, in portraiture but to create a portrait with a specific quality or atmosphere depending on what the photographer wants to create. One photographer that springs to mind is Bill Brandt, who's work tends to be very 'contrasty' but wonderful and Japanese photographer, Daido Moriyama who's work is very dynamic and confrontational.

Studio lighting for portraits can recreate all of the subtleties of window light and harsh light but may not be an option for many a photographer starting off on their hobby or profession. We will discuss studio lighting at a later date.

Strong direct sunlight tends to suit architecture, in bringing out the colour of the materials used in buildings. The saturation of colours under this type of light tends to explode giving up all of the detail in the building. But, again depending on the type of image you are trying to make such as atmospheric urban landscapes, dull or flat light, even moon or street lighting may be best. A photographer that springs to mind for this genre is Brassai, especially his black and white images of Paris by Night.

These images, especially black and white depend on contrast. When talking to students I tell them to think in 'contrast rather than colour' (I'll explain this later in this article) and levels of light as many colours have the same tonal range in black and white.

Put simply, tonal range is the range of tones between the lightest and darkest areas of an image. (please see illustration) An image with a large or wide tonal range will have very dark (black) and very light (white) sections or parts within the photograph and will appear as an image with good contrast. Whereas an image with a small tonal range will be more limited in its tonality and produce a flat image, lacking in contrast.


Knowing how to use contrast will assist you in creating amazing images. There are two types, Tonal Contrast and Colour Contrast. Tonal (as we discussed earlier) refers to the difference in tones from the lightest tone to the darkest tone, from white to grey to black. Colour Contrast refers to the way colours interact with each other. (Please see Colour Wheel Illustration)

How does colour contrast affects your images?

This type of contrast is concerned with colour qualities or characteristics, and the way different colours can either enhance or conflict with one another.

Working in colour, some photographers often neglect tonal contrast because colour tends to overwhelm their thought process. Great tone can improve any image, especially a colour one. I would always look for different colour tones, such as a landscape with elements that contain some very dark tones offset by lighter ones. As we said in an earlier tips article the 'golden hour' tends to have more shadows and darker, richer colours. A greater colour tonal range and contrast.

Colour contrast is difficult to master, but if you think initially as if you were making a black and white image to see the level of contrast you will grasp colour contrast without too much difficulty. Colour saturation is very important in creating contrast in a colour image. Weak pastel colours are lower in contrast, while more vibrant colours are higher in contrast.

Colour contrast depends on how colours interact and work with each another, where they are positioned on the colour wheel. The way colours accentuate each other, defines the image's contrast appearance.

Colours with opposite characteristics, like blue and yellow, complement each other when placed together and highlight the qualities of the other colour. Cold colours and warm colours almost always contrast, light colours contrast against dark ones and bold colours offset weak or pastel colours. The colour wheel is your best point of reference.

Silhouettes are a great example of tonal contrast. These are created with a distinct difference between dark and light areas. Colour contrasted images contain complementary colours creating images that grab the viewers attention. Remember to create a silhouette, expose for the light in the background of the image and not the subject.

Strong colour contrast is a great way to compensate for the lack of tonal contrast. An image with low tonal contrast can be improved by using a contrasting or complementary colour into it.

A photo with low contrasting colours, for example, yellow and orange, can look great if a tonal contrast is accomplished by using lighter and darker yellows and oranges. Photos with low contrasting colours are quieter but generally great for seasonal and landscape images. Colour contrast works best when using few and larger colour elements. As more colours are introduced then tonal contrast takes over.

Using colours, contrast and tonal range will assist you in producing stunning images.

So 'till next week, enjoy your camera and stay safe.

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