Power of Contrast
February 25th, 2017 by David LaBelle

Watching for contrasts adds life to your photos while helping viewers understand what you see. Above, a contrast captured on the streets of Florence, Italy.

Contrast is a powerful teaching tool and important player in writing and photographic composition. Contrasts come in shapes, colors, tones, sizes of subjects, even emotions.

Though most of us seldom stop to analyze or internalize all the contrasts offered to us daily, they help us process visual information instantly.

Just as our perception of color changes depending on the colors around them—red against green looks and, more importantly, feels different than red against gray or white—the way we perceive a subject often changes with the environment surrounding it.

Contrast in tone is a way to create an instant focal point. For example, a white horse against a shadowed or dark background draws immediate attention, just as a dark horse against a white, snowy backdrop tells our eyes what is important. When everything is white except for one dark subject, we see the subject first because it is in contrast to the overwhelming white space.

But there are other, often subtle, contrasts to be used as clues to help the reader or viewer see the picture you saw.

Contrasting actions or emotions in a single photographic scene can be a powerful communications device.

A photograph showing a person crying while someone nearby is laughing grabs our attention. The contrast is striking and disturbing—like a needle sliding across the vinyl grooves of record. We want to know more about the context of what our eyes are seeing.

I remember doing a fashion shoot using several beautiful models, dressed in sheer, flowing white garments in a dark, greasy junkyard. The mounds of twisted steel and smashed car bodies provided a stark and effective backdrop to the flowing lines and shapes of the models and garments.

I once gave an advanced photojournalism class a semester-long project, “Rich man, poor man.” Students documented individuals of similar age in different socioeconomic classes, making photographs of the subjects’ environment and possessions, housing, job, workplace and transportation.

The contrasts were shocking. One student showed a young man with a pool on the roof of his penthouse and another man’s tiny shack in a government housing project.

Seeing the man in the small apartment would not have had the same impact if not paired with the man relaxing in the pool holding a drink.

I am always on the hunt for visual contradictions—scenes like a cold, hungry homeless person looking through a glass window while the wealthy eat their fill in a warm restaurant.

One of my favorite pictures made by the late Margaret Bourke White shows people standing in a food line during the Louisville, Kentucky, flood of 1937 with a billboard backdrop of a happy family riding in a fancy car with the heading “World’s Highest Standard Of Living.” The contrast is immediate and unmistakable.

Remember, pictures with contrasting emotions often need words to explain them. Without proper context, we can arrive at inaccurate conclusions. We must be careful when contrasts become unfair or inaccurate judgments.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.