Images need light and shade, or ‘global contrast’

This photograph illustrates the idea of ‘global contrast‘. It’s not a very appealing term, but it’s the most descriptive one I can think of. If you want to be more artistic about it, you could call it ‘light and shade’.

Photographs need more than just a full range of tones, from black to white. To have any kind of graphic impact, they need areas of dark and areas of light, especially in black and white.

There’s this idea, perhaps coming from the old days of darkrooms and camera clubs, that even the darkest parts of a picture should have some visible detail and texture, and the lightest parts too. That’s certainly an expression of the darkroom technician’s skill, but that’s just craft, not artistic interpretation.

This is a bit of an issue with photography. The technical skills required to take photographs get muddled up with the creative and visual impact of the photographs themselves. It’s easy to get so pre-occupied with following technical ‘rules’ that you can’t see past them to what actually makes a satisfying photo.

1 & 2 | Global contrast

I’m not going to say the image above is ‘art’, but I am quite happy with the way it’s turned out. By making no attempt to recover any detail from the fence posts in the foreground, I’ve been able to concentrate on the gradations of tone in the sea and the sky, which is where the interest is.

I haven’t shown the histogram. It’s not pretty, even before the black frame and white surround are added.

If I HAD brought out the shadow detail, I think that would have weakened the visual strength of the silhouetted fence and probably distracted from the sea and the sky with its own textures. I would have had a photograph of two things, not one.

3 | Borders and frames

As you’ll see, I also like borders and frames. A black frame like this helps enclose and define the edges of the picture. It makes the framing and deliberate rather than arbitrary. If you don’t have a border, there’s always the idea that a picture has been cropped to fit the aspect ratio of the container, not cropped for creative reasons.

The border also helps to set a solid black for the whole image – though seeing this photo against a white screen makes me think I should have pushed the highlights a little further to make the sky a fraction less muddy.

This is one of the difficulties of preparing a photo for display – what it’s displayed against will affect its apparent brightness.

For those who are interested, this was from a RAW file processed in Capture One to maximise the dynamic range, then exported as a JPEG and edited in Exposure X6, which has some really nice black and white and border presets, and seems to have a very delicate way with monochromatic tones.

4 | Composition

The foreground reflection comes from shooting at ground level, with the camera just millimetres above the surface of a puddle. Whoever it was that invented tilting screens – thank you. If I had to shoot it (or crop it) again, I would probably arrange the posts more centrally, because the off-center composition is starting to bother me now. The picture was taken on a Sony A7C with the Sony FE 28-60mm kit lens.

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