Contrast in photographic composition is an effective means of directing the viewer's attention to the center of interest. Positioning of subject elements to create contrast gives them added emphasis and directs the viewer's attention.
When we speak of contrast as it relates to composition, we are referring to both tonal contrast, as in black-and-white photography, and color contrast as it relates to color photography. In black-and-white 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 contrast.
In black-and-white photography, contrast is considered either high, normal, or low. A high-contrast scene or photograph consists primarily of white and black with few or no middle gray tones. A black sailor in a white uniform against a light background is an example of a high-contrast (contrasty) scene. Most scenes you photograph have normal contrast. There will probably be elements within the scene that are very light or white, some that are very dark or black, and many tones or colors that reproduce as various tones of gray.
A low-contrast (flat) scene has colors or tones in which highlights and shadows have very little difference in densities. In other words, all colors or tones within the scene are very similar in appearance. A white sailor in a white uniform against a light background is an example of a scene with low contrast.
In black-and-white photography, high contrast conveys a sense of hardness and is characteristic of strength and power. Low contrast conveys a sense of softness and is characteristic of gentleness and mildness.
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.
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.
HIGH- AND LOW-KEY COLORS.High-key color pictures contain large areas of light desaturated colors (pastels) with very few middle colors or shadows. Intentionally overexposing color film (exposing for the shadows) helps to create a high-key effect.
A low-key effect is created when the scene is dominated by shadows and weak lighting. Low-key pictures tend to have large areas of shadow, few highlights, and degraded colors. Naturally dark subjects are best for low-key pictures. Low-key color pictures can be induced by exposing color film for the highlights.
Framing is another technique photographers use to direct the viewer's attention to the primary subject of a picture. Positioned around the subject, a tree, an archway, or even people, for example, can create a frame within the picture area. Subjects enclosed by a frame become separated from the rest of the picture and are emphasized. Looking across a broad expanse of land or water at some object can make a rather dull uninteresting view. Moving back a few feet and framing the object between trees improves the composition.
An element used as a frame should not draw attention to itself. Ideally, the frame should relate to the theme of the picture; for example, a line of aircraft parked on the flight line framed by the wing and prop of another aircraft.
Not only is framing an effective means of directing the viewer's attention, it can also be used to obscure undesirable foregrounds and backgrounds. The illusion of depth can be created in a picture by the effective use of framing (fig. 5-19).
A large percentage of otherwise good pictures is ruined, because they include unnecessary or distracting foreground. This common fault can result from the photographer standing too far away from their subject when they take a picture, or the fact that normal focal length or standard lenses cover a relatively wide angle of view.
Undesirable foreground can be eliminated by moving in closer to the subject, by making pictures with a longer than standard focal-length lens, or by changing viewpoint or camera angle. Many already existing pictures can be improved by enlarging only a section of the negative and by cropping out meaningless or distracting foreground. In most cases, the foreground should be sharply focused and of sufficient depth to furnish substantial support for the subject. No object in the foreground should ever be so prominent that it distracts from the subject. You should clear the foreground of items that have no connection with the picture. The ultimate example of carelessness on the part of the photographer is to leave his or her camera case where it shows in the picture. Generally, the foreground contains the leading line that is the line that leads the eye into the photograph and toward the point of interest. Whether this line is an object or series of objects or shadows, it should be sharply focused. A fuzzy, out-of-focus foreground usually irritates the senses and detracts from emphasis on the subject matter.
The background is almost as important an element in good composition as the camera angle. Too often it is overlooked when composing a scene since the photographer normally gives so much attention to the subject. Be particularly observant of the background to see that it contains nothing distracting. A tree or pole that was unnoticed in the distance behind a person when composing the scene may appear in the photograph to be growing out of his or her collar or supporting his or her head.
The background should be subordinate to the main subject in both tone and interest. It should also make the subject stand out and present it to best advantage. Unsharpness and blur are effective ways for separating the subject from the background. Unsharpness can be accomplished by using a relatively large f/stop to render the background out of focus. In the case of subjects in motion, the subject can be pictured sharply and the background blurred by panning the subject (fig. 5-20). Occasionally, you may want to reverse these effects and record the subject unsharp or blurred and the background sharp. This is done to create the impression of the subject being closer to the viewer or to express motion by holding the camera still as you use a shutter speed that is too slow to "stop" the motion.
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