Contrast Theory: How to improve the impact of your photos

Source : Posenature

Contrast and human functioning

Before talking about photography, let’s try to understand a little bit how the human body and mind work. A vast subject that has caused a lot of ink to flow… What is the most annoying thing for a human being? Answer: routine, monotony, dead calm. How can you lose the attention of your interlocutor? Speak to him in a completely flat tone, don’t rhythm your sentences, speak in a low voice!

Conversely, have you noticed that your attention is captured as soon as an event breaks the monotony of the moment? If during a discussion I suddenly point a gun at you, chances are you’re going to have a monstrous adrenaline rush. Why would I do that? Because it’s a huge contrast!

And yes, as you will have understood, the human body reacts mainly to contrasts, to sudden changes in situations, to things that rub and immediately catch the eye. Think about it for 5 minutes. This phenomenon is infinitely expandable and can be used in many different areas. Here are some other situations to convince you of this:

  • You are in a car, lost in your thoughts. If the driver accelerates calmly, you hardly notice the acceleration, but what will happen if he suddenly goes from 50km/h to 150km/h in a few seconds?
  • You are quietly reading an exciting new article, when the author suggests you listen to a piece of music to accompany this exquisite moment: “Don’t stop me now” by the band Queen. Intoxicated by Freddie Mercury’s sweet voice and his finely placed piano notes, you continue reading this article, soothed and happy to learn more and more about photography. When all of a sudden… BAM!! “‘CAUSE I’M HAVING A GOOD TIIIIIIME!” In less than 5 seconds you go from a state of tranquility to a desire to jump around. Nothing stops you anymore !
  • In a mess: you’re focused on your macramé when a door slams. The elevator is freefalling from the 5th to the 3rd floor. You are rocked by the sound of rain when a thunderclap breaks the silence. You’re quietly reading a book when your wife says, “What’s up?!” (stress spike!)… Shall we continue?



What happened? Your eyes were naturally attracted by what they thought was different from the situation at the time (here capital letters + bold text + red colour contrasting with normal text). It’s a truth, we only experience very strong emotions when something different happens, when a particular event disturbs our routine.

Some people use drugs to reach these hormone peaks, others practice extreme sports, others have sex. So isn’t there a way to turn this phenomenon to our advantage, to create images with a much more impactful visual aspect? Yes, there is. And that’s what we’re going to see immediately with the theory of contrast in photography.

Color contrastColor contrast

Does the law of simultaneous color contrast mean anything to you? No ? Yet it has been used for centuries by the greatest painters, whether Leonardo da Vinci or Van Gogh, who used it by instinct. It was first enunciated in 1839, by the chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul. The law of simultaneous colour contrast is a characteristic of human colour perception.

Let’s look at what Wikipedia tells us: “The tone of two patches of colour appears more different when they are observed juxtaposed than when they are observed separately against a common neutral background. If the patches differ in brightness, the juxtaposition increases the perception of the difference in brightness; if the patches differ in hue, the difference in hue is magnified. Both effects can occur simultaneously.” – Wikipedia

Difficult to understand despite these explanations? Basically, it means that the same color will be much prettier and brighter if it is close to another well defined color, rather than next to another one (see the illustration opposite with the squares).

Referred to photography, this means that the whole image will be much more harmonious if it has certain colour associations. Ok, but how do you know which associations work when you don’t know anything about them? Which color will have the most impact next to another? Well, all this has also been theorized and is called complementary colors, which can be found very easily thanks to the chromatic circle.


chromatic circle

How does it work? It’s quite simple. Choose one of the colours of the circle: its complementary colour will be the one on the opposite side. For example, orange will go perfectly well with blue, while yellow will make a nice purple. Be careful not to be too strict with this rule, however, since a red will also work very well around a greenish yellow or a bluish green. Think above all in terms of harmony and colour shades.

As with all rules, sometimes you have to know how to break or adapt them. Now that you have understood the theory of colour contrast and complementary colours, try to put all this into practice directly in the field: look for a beautiful red ladybird in the middle of a very green plant, photograph a robin (which actually has an orange throat…) against a background of blue sky, etc… The possibilities are endless, so have fun!

color contrast

Brightness contrast

Why do we find a city lit at night much prettier than by day? Why does a sunset make us feel so emotional? It seems natural to you, but it is actually because there is a very strong contrast between the light and dark parts of what you are looking at. This extreme amplitude between the dark and the light naturally causes us to feel strong sensations.

Who has never been captivated by a high-contrast black and white photo? Who has never been hypnotized by the reflection of a candle flame in the eyes of his sweetheart in the dark? Brightness contrast is extremely powerful, especially in photography, because it gives a very strong visual aspect to the images and provokes emotions that a “normal” photo is not able to reproduce.

Brightness contrast theory