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Or rather:

  • What artistic effect does a high-contrast photo have on the viewer?
  • What artistic effect does a low-contrast photo have on the viewer?
  • How do I know when high contrast is "too much" or low contrast "too little"?
  • When should I be looking to increase/decrease contrast?

I see various tips & techniques for "increasing contrast" and "limiting contrast." The techniques are straightforward; knowing when to use them isn't.

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You said "The techniques are straightforward; knowing when to use them isn't." Recognizing that means you're paying attention and asking the right questions :) –  ahockley Dec 19 '10 at 19:42
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Michael Freeman's book Perfect Exposure (which I just finished reading) covers a lot of this. It's exactly about when to use techniques, and a lot of of the subject material deals with contrast (both locally and globally). That doesn't really answer your question, but it's another one of those books I can't recommend highly enough. –  mattdm Dec 19 '10 at 20:18
    
@mattdm: I think saying "It's a big topic, go read this book that deals with it" is a perfectly fine answer. :-) –  Craig Walker Dec 20 '10 at 6:20
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@ahockley: thanks :-) Frankly I'd like to see more of these "when" type questions on photo.se and the rest of the Internet in general. All the gear & technique does get tiring after a while. :-) –  Craig Walker Dec 20 '10 at 6:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted

At the end of the day it's just a matter of judgement - if there was a simple rule Adobe would have come up with a "content aware contrast" tool by now ;)

A very high level contrast is going to generate some instant "wow" factor that can be hard to resist when people are first learning how to edit images. Often the results come off as brash and overcooked. It takes time to develop a certain amount of subtly, and be confident that you don't need to crank the contrast up to 11.

I would start by asking myself is it even a good image? Will contrast enhance what's already there, or am I trying to compensate for failings in the lighting, subject matter or composition?

The next thing I would be would be to experiment. Certain subject matters and lighting patters do suit a large amount of contrast. Try out the various looks and see if you can make an informed decision on what is the best look. At the end of the day it's your image and your vision.

Here's an example based on a portfolio shoot I did a few years ago. The model picked the following shot, which I had set up with a fairly dramatic lighting scheme which usually benefits from high contrast post processing. Here's the processed image:

When I was processing another image from the shoot for my own purposes I immediately went straight for the maximum punch Dave Hill-esque band promo look:

But then something in me decided to see how far the other direction I could push the image. I could see quickly I was onto something, but it took me a little while longer to get it to look as good as I wanted. I think the extra effort was worth it, this image is now a benchmark I use when trying to decide whether to increase contrast. It looks a little flat compared to the other version, but if you come back and look at it in isolation I think it's definitely better, to me it looks more refined, and somehow more expensive...

I see various tips & techniques for "increasing contrast" and "limiting contrast." The techniques or straightforward; knowing when to use them isn't.

That's a very important point you raise there, and one reason I would advice against going to any one of the thousand websites that offer Photoshop tutorials for every effect under the sun. I think that by figuring out how to do things yourself you are more likely to develop a sense of when to apply certain techniques rather than how to apply them.

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Excellent, excellent pics, and a perfect illustration of how different effects come from differing contrast. –  Craig Walker Dec 20 '10 at 6:22
    
For pure visual impact, I like the former one of the two identical-two shots. But I could easily see where the 2nd might be preferable, depending on the effect you're trying to achieve. –  Craig Walker Dec 20 '10 at 6:23

I don't think there's really a pat answer to that question. My general take, and it's just a matter of opinion, is that many photos can benefit from some contrast adjustments and when to do them becomes a judgement call. For myself, I'll usually do some contrast adjustments, trying out various options on an image, as a seperate layer in Photoshop, and then see which "looks" better to me.

Anyways, high contrast images tend to a feel of more depth, more of a bolder look to them. Done right, the images can have a lot of punch in them triggering emotion. Low contrast images are flatter, more subtle and, when done right, can create a more subtle emotional response.

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That's 2 answers for "bold vs subtle", which is the kind of stuff I was hoping for. Thanks! –  Craig Walker Dec 19 '10 at 18:52

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