I've noticed a lot of my pictures look muddy. They don't have very high contrast. I know I can post process some pictures, but what is the secret to having nice contrast in a picture?
Based on the photograph you posted, there actually is quite a bit of contrast. In general, I think the photo is pretty good, if a bit soft (from a lighting standpoint.) You noted that you shot the photo without flash on an overcast day, which is the primary reason for lack of any defining shadows or "lighting contrast", if you will.
I would recommend using additional lighting if your primary light is very diffuse (like an overcast sky.) Perhaps and off-axis flash or something. A strong enough light that comes from an angle to create shadows and bring out depth in your subject.
Another word about contrast...it is not entirely tonal. Color also brings its own contrast, in a more complex form. With monochrome, you only have different levels of brightness to create contrast. With color, different colors of the same tone can also create contrast. Complementary colors, primaries, secondaries, split complements, etc. can all create varying forms of contrast in a scene, even if they are the same brightness level.
If you intend to shoot monochromatic photos, you will be lacking the element of color contrast, and will need to find ways to enhance tonal contrast. In diffuse lighting, this can be difficult, and sometimes you just need to resort to handling it in post-process. A technique that can probably be very helpful without actually overdoing any contrast adjustments is "local contrast enhancement". This is a technique that aims to improve contrast where it is necessary in smaller areas, without affecting what may be very good contrast from an overall scene standpoint.
Here is a copy of your image with some local contrast enhancement, using Unsharp Mask @ Amount 18%, Radius 97, Threshold 0. The left half is the original, the right half has local contrast enhancement, for comparison:
Please, don't try to fix it later. Another teacher (where I teach photography too) says there should be no such thing as photo-correction, only photo-enhancement. Actually, I don't believe in the latter either ;)
You have to be able to produce sharp pictures with good clarity and plenty of details straight out of the camera.
If you are not, then hundreds of things can be wrong but without an example we cannot tell you what. Some of the most common problems:
- Camera shake: You have to be above a certain shutter-speed (depending on your lens' focal-length and whether it is stabilized) or use a GOOD tripod.
- Too high ISO: Cameras can reach very high-ISO nowadays but it does not mean they should, particularly small cameras with ISO above 1600 will make everything muddy. When lowering the ISO, take care not to use a too-slow shutter-speed though.
- Noise reduction: Some cameras have noise-reduction enabled by default which causes details to show up as muddy. Among small cameras, particularly those with a lot of megapixels (10+) you generally don't even have a choice.
- Out-of-focus: Your camera may tell you that things are in focus but it can still be wrong. If you are using an old-lens on a modern camera, this can happen quite a bit. Some high-end DSLRs allow you to correct this using 'focus micro-adjustments'.
- Your camera or lens is crappy: The biggest mistake when buying a DSLR is spending all your money on the camera and then buying the cheapest lens you can find. I'd say all modern DSLRs are quite good now, but not so of all lenses. Tiny camera with too many megapixels.
Can you post an example? (even a text link to an image hosted elsewhere)
Here are a few common solutions:
- Adjust the levels in photoshop or some other tool, using either auto-levels, or just manually pull the whitepoint down to the top of the histogram and the black point up to the bottom (for example: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/levels.htm)
- Local contrast enhancement: Use unsharp mask, amount: 10%, radius: 200pixels, threshold: 0 (for example: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/contrast-enhancement.shtml)
Aside from what you can do in post, I'd suggest look at the lighting you're taking pictures in. Try taking pictures using window-light only, or on a cloudy day. Avoid bright sunny days. Colors really stand out on cloudy days I find.
Shoot with good/interesting light!
See the image below, the reason (ultimately) that the image has nice contrast is the original image has contrast on her face, e.g. once side is quite bright, and the other quite dark, because there is a window beside her.
Try: putting your subject inside, with the lights off, facing you parallel to a window, so the light from the window hits the side of their face.
Also, I post processed this photo, adjusted the exposure (probably down), adjusted black and white levels etc.
Here's a go at improving the image's contrast in post. Note:
- It'd probably be easier to do this starting with the original image
- We're starting in a difficult spot, the shirt is very bright and the face has very little contrast on it
Steps I took:
- Used the 'curves' tool in photoshop to increase contrast every where except the shirt
- Used the dodge tool to lighten up the eyes (I'm not sure I did a great job of it)
- Made it black and white
- Added some overall contrast with UnsharpMark (see LCE in my other answer)
- Ran the smart sharpen filter at 25% at 0.8 pixels for a bit of sharpening
Another cause might be your lens. Long zooms, with their large number of elements and multiple surfaces can significantly degrade contrast and colour. In my case when I moved from an 18-125mm lens to a high quality 17-70mm lens the images had significantly better contrast and better colours. It didn't hurt either that they were so much sharper.
Are you using flash? Pictures with harsh flash tend have a washed out look, with dark harsh shadows.
In my experience non-SLRs (Point and Shoot / pocket cameras) get terrible results in-doors without a flash, even in situations that seem well lit to the human eye. Photos may look waxy from too much noise reduction (which is necessary in low light to get a steady shot, hand-held).
A lot of the time the secret is to have good lighting in the first place. Sometimes a subject just won't look good no matter how good your camera is or how you set your camera settings, if the lighting is too harsh and shadowy. This can also happen in bright daylight, for example. The shadows show up black and the bright parts overexpose--- the camera may not be able to handle the dynamic range.