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Part four of six (for friends interested in my work)
(Access previous parts: one, two, and three)


Does my image speak in a manner consistent with its theme and mission? Should it whisper in subdued, intimate tones or declare its message in a clear and loud voice?¬† Contrast (the second C) helps determine such things. In its simplest sense contrast is the difference in brightness between light and dark areas of an image, and is what determines its “impact” or “presence.”

To be a little more specific than “light and dark” (a.k.a. “Tone contrast“) I usually look for, and may adjust several different types of contrast in an image.

* Macro contrast is about differences between large areas (dark sky over snow-covered field).

* Micro contrast, also known as sharpness, has a lot to do with defining the areas at or near the edges of bright and dark regions.

* Color contrast. Complementary colors set each other off more than colors which are of a slightly different hue from each other. Or I may exploit differences in saturation levels by selectively boosting one color while de-saturating another.

Depending on the image, I may also have many other types of contrast to work with, such as…

* Subject contrast –think jagged mountain peaks next to a calm water surface

* Texture, as in soft furry animal laying on a smooth hard rock

* Focus; sharp vs. blurry

* Size differences, which can be either real or illusory (as in “Forced Perspective” photography)

* Direction — My image may have strong lines leading to the main subject. ¬† These may have more of an impact if they come from different directions than if they are parallel to each other

* Motion or perceived motion differences, as in the ‘motion blur’ that I could get by “panning” my camera, or by introducing motion blur in post-processing

No… I don’t go through a mental checklist on all these things in a sort of… paint-by-the-numbers mechanistic way to develop an image. What I do is to simply look for differences to exploit. Developing contrast is about working with inherent differences to optimize the impact of my image, whether my objective is to make it louder, or softer, or selectively both.

I chose this image (”Myrtle Falls” on Mount Rainer) to go with this part, because of its many different types of contrast. (See how many you can identify.)

Note that optimizing contrast does not mean forcing every part of the image to speak loudly and clearly, any more than optimizing “Light” means opening up all the shadows (as we all may have seen -or done- in bad HDR processing).

My first attempt to develop this image, a few years ago, produced an awful-looking …mess! I was eager to bring Mt. Rainier’s glaciers into sharp, clear relief; and… I succeeded, but in the end something looked terribly wrong and unnatural.

It was a mistake, I now understand, to have tried to increase contrast throughout every part of this image. As it happens the thin layer of fog that was there in the real scene, gave the glaciers a soft, ghost-like appearance, which contrasted nicely with the sharp, detailed waterfalls in the foreground. This created a nice sense of depth and mystery… which I had promptly…wiped out, in trying to ‘optimize’ contrast (as I mis-understood it then).

Eventually I realized that the only sensible way to develop this image was to *both* increase and decrease contrast, selectively applying different amounts in different parts of the image, enhancing what was already there.

[[Btw... speaking of increasing contrast, perhaps this is counter-intuitive, but contrast is usually highest under moderate light conditions; not too bright or too dark, not in the deepest part of the 'golden hour,' when the light is dominated by a strong color cast, and definitely not under intense mid-day sunlight which can produce confusing values of hue and luminosity (See also an excellent short article relevant to all this, in a recent issue of Scientific American magazine.)]]

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