You are here: Home > Tutorials > 5. Design Elements 05 : Light and Contrast

<< Previous | Next >>


 Light and Contrast
Tone, Colour and Subject Characteristics



Contrast is a key concept in the language of photography. Contrast stresses the difference between graphic elements in an image – contrasts of tone, of colour, and of qualities (for example big/small, smooth/rough)

Tonal Contrast

The quality and direction of light is a major consideration for photographers – the major consideration in many ways because as  Wikipedia tells us that the word ’photograph’ was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek φῶς (phos) ‘light’ and γραφή (graphê) ‘representation by means of lines’  or ‘drawing’, together meaning ‘drawing with light’.

Light produces two kinds of contrast: brightness (or tone) and colour contrasts. Tones can vary from absolute white to absolute black – the greatest tonal contrast an image may have is when just these two tones are present. Monochrome images depend entirely on tonal contrasts to distinguish visual elements like line and shape and black and white images can often be more powerful because they do not have the complexity – and distractions – of colour images. David Prakel in his book ‘Composition’ (p87) quotes Canadian photographer Ted Grant, ‘When you photograph people in colour, you are photographing their clothes. When you photograph them in black and white, you photograph their souls’. 

In perhaps the majority of images, information is normally carried in the mid-tones with shadows and highlights contributing to ‘mood’ – an image with a wide ‘tonal range’ has information in the shadows (blacks) and highlights (whites)  as well as mid-tone greys. A ‘high-key’ image is one with a predominance of light tones and a low-key image is one with a predominance of dark tones – although there may well be a full range of tones. How much detail is retained in the shadows and highlights is an important consideration for the photographer (see Michael Freeman, ‘A Photographer’s Eye’, page 110) and is a major factor in controlling exposure when the image is taken.


The quality and direction of light substantially affects contrasts of tone. For example, strong side-lighting (hard light) from the sun creates striking (harsh) contrasts between light and shade and emphasises texture. Harsh light enhances depth perception. Front lighting tends to flatten perspective by eliminating tonal contrast because the shadows may fall behind the subject. Backlighting can suggest perspective by creating ahadows that fall toward the camera.


Diffuse (soft) light creates an entirely different effect, lessening or eliminating shadows and concentrating almost all detail in the mid-tones.  The transition from one tone to another is very gradual.


Tonal contrast is one technique for drawing attention to the element(s) of the image the photographer wishes to present as most significant – for example the centre of interest may be light in tone against a dark background – or vice versa. Tonal contrasts can create shapes or lines to give an image structure and interest.




Chiaroscuro (Italian light-dark) refers to a technique in art – associated for example with Caravaggio (1571 –1610) - where there is a bold contrast between light and dark tones. As Wikipedia’s entry puts it ‘Caravaggio put the oscuro (shadows) into chiaroscuro’. Chiaroscuro was practiced long before he came on the scene by Leonardo da Vinci for example,  but ‘it was Caravaggio who made the technique definitive, darkening the shadows and transfixing the subject in a blinding shaft of light’. Caravaggio and his followers used a harsh, dramatic light to isolate their figures and heighten their emotional tension.


Another outstanding master of chiaroscuro was Rembrandt, who used it with remarkable psychological effect in his paintings, drawings, and etchings. Peter Paul Rubens, and Diego Velazquez also used  chiaroscuro to great effect.


With a chiaroscuro ‘design’ most of the image is dark with contrasting highlight areas. How much detail is retained in the shadows is an important consideration for the photographer – and this will vary from image to image – even within the same subject set. While chiaroscuro is most often used in the photographic studio, (often referred to as Rembrantdt lighting) opportunities often arise in the travel context. For my Cuban photographs, light from the door of a tobacco drying barn provided the strong directional light. In Morocco, a small window light in a desert ‘auberge’  during a sand storm provided the light source.


Colour Contrast


Colour theory is a very large field of it’s own (and where there are many differences of opinion) but I recommend consulting one or two websites to understand concepts like the colour circle (or wheel or triangle) and colour theory.

Colour contrasts can be discussed in several ways in relation to creating emphasis and mood in images. Colours across the colour circle (complementary colours) like red/green, yellow/violet, and  blue/orange are often said to create strong contrasts and visual tension whereas colours near each other on the colour wheel (analogous colours) for example green/blue/violet create a harmonious mood.

As Michael Freeman in ‘The Photographer’s Eye’, points out, most of the natural world is composed of muted colours – green brown, pastels, greys and landscapes are subtle ‘quiet’ images. This has produced two interesting responses from photographers wishing to inject more drama into landscapes. First the favouring of monochrome – the wonderful photographer of Devon, James Ravillious once said that the countryside was just too green – and the creation of ‘punchy’ contrasty prints – that’s why Ansell Adams invented the zone system of exposure and printing (


Second, the use of rather stylized ‘unrealistically’ saturated images by modern landscape photographers like Joe Cornish or David Noton or Charlie Waite  (initially using Velvia film now simulated in Photoshop).

The idea of (contrasting) ‘warm’ and ‘cool’  is commonplace. The Wikipedia article on colour theory notes that warm colours are often said to be hues from red through yellow, browns and tans included; cool colors are often said to be the hues from blue green through blue violet, most grays included (in fact, the determination of whether a color appears warm or cool is relative - any colour can be made to appear warm or cool by its context with other colours). The greatest contrast is sometimes said to be between red orange and greenish blue (perhaps accounting for the popularity of sunsets over seascapes among photographers). Colour differences are not just about hue but about darkness/brightness and level of saturation/intensity. Warm and saturated colours tend to advance or stand out; cool and dull colours ‘retreat’. 

Colour ‘accent’ is another  useful idea – where a contrasting colour is placed in a context of predominantly  contrasting hues., for example, a bright red rose against a dull, virtually monochromic background.

Contrasts of Subject Characteristics

Michael Freeman (‘The Photographer’s Eye’, p34) introduces an entirely distinctive sense of contrast originating from the Bauhaus philosophy of the 1920s where students were asked (in order to stimulate their imagination and vision) to produce pairs of contrasting photographs and then contrasts within photographs of elements like soft/hard; light/dark; straight/curved; pointed/blunt; liquid/solid; much/little; delicate/tough; smooth/rough; strong/weak; light/heavy; still/moving; young/old; many/few;  black/white.

<< Previous | Next >>