Thanks to our partner, Rocky Nook, for this chapter on making photos jump off the screen using conrtrast from “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Composition”. This title and many and more books for photographers are right here.

Contrast is instinctive

If you have ever watched a newborn baby closely, you may have noticed how intensely their eyes are drawn to contrast. Even before their vision is fully developed, they gravitate toward high-contrast scenes and objects.

Tones and colors

You can compose scenes that contrast all kinds of things, including tones (highlights vs. shadows) and color (one color playing against another). Both are powerful ways to add interest to your images—for young and old alike.

The steep tonal contrast of the opening photograph shows how playing shadows against highlights can add interest and drama to an otherwise common scene. (As a bonus, the black and white treatment unites the bright, curved ceiling with the wall below to create a subtle and curved leading line.)

The striking combination of rich blues with warm golds below is an example of color contrast that’s hard to resist.

The gold sculpture stands out from the contrasting blue background.
The gold sculpture stands out from the contrasting blue background.

Contrasting elements

For an extra boost, try combining contrasting colors with another contrasting element, such as lines. The contrast of the playful colors are made even stronger by the lines on the rug that run perpendicular to the line of the crib’s wooden frame. All that contrast makes for a whole lot of punch for a simple and impromptu iPhone capture.

The lines on the rug run perpendicular to the crib’s wooden frame leading the eye to the baby and his bunny.

In each of these examples, notice how the contrast is maximized by keeping the rest of the composition simple to avoid distracting elements. The more you add to a scene, the more diluted the contrast becomes. Other ways to experiment with contrast includes contrasting the subject matter itself. A portrait of a beautifully aged grandparent alongside the freshness of a new baby can have a powerful impact. Contrasting your subject with the surrounding scene or background can also make a statement. (Think of the scene in Titanic where the musicians continued to provide an elegant soundtrack on the deck of the doomed ship while surrounded by panic and chaos as it actively sank. Morbid? Yes. But also an undeniably memorable contrast.)