In most of your image editing endeavors, you probably find yourself striving to achieve more contrast in your images. This probably leads you to crank up black points, and make sure your whites are as white as possible. There are times, though, when less contrast will give you a better image. I first covered this idea in 2005, in this article. Recently, the subject came to my attention again, as I decided that the best way to handle an image was to dramatically reduce the contrast. This time, I took a different approach to solving the problem.
I started with this somewhat boring picture of a tree in Zion National Park:
I had been struck with the way it was growing by itself from the edge of the cliff, and it made an imposing verticle line straight up the middle of the vista. In this picture, though, it’s kind of lost against the red rock in the background, and the blown-out sky.
My first impulse was to convert it to black and white, hoping that I’d get more separation of the tree from the background, but that didn’t get me very far:
I fiddled quite a bit with lightening one shade or another, and finally decided that part of my problem was that the image simply didn’t have much contrast. The tree is entirely in shade, and there’s not much light on the far cliff wall, either. Consequently, there’s no light that I can play up, or set off against shadows. The image has a generally uniform lighting that’s pretty boring.
Since the image was already low on contrast, I decided to consider that a "feature" and exagerrate it even more.
If you regularly use Photoshop’s Levels control, then you’re probably already use to the Input sliders, the white, gamma, and black sliders that sit below the histogram display. Levels has two "output" sliders that sit below the gray ramp at the bottom of the dialog. These are great tools for reducing contrast.
If I slide the black slider to the right, blacks in the image will shift from black to light gray, as I redefine black as a lighter tone.
(Conversely, I could drag the white slider to the left to darken whites into light grays.)
The result on my image is this:
Of course, now the image simply looks like an image with lousy contrast. Nevertheless, I still like where this effect is going. I used an Adjustment Layer to apply the Levels adjustment, and of course, Adjustment Layers have built-in masks, so I can very easily paint in a mask to attenuate the contrast reduction. This allowed me to de-contrast the background, while preserving the normal contrast in some parts of the foreground. The result was this:
Finally, I decided that the balance of the composition was a little goofy, because it’s often hard to compose around tall, skinny things. I also had an idea that I wanted to print this image large, and hang it in a rather skinny location in my house, so I gave it a hefty crop. I also used the white output slider to restore some tone to the sky, and masked this in using a gradient mask and some careful mask work around the tree.
The image prints very nicely, and because I’ve preserved a fair amount of contrast on the tree, the lack of contrast on the background doesn’t look like an exposure or image editing flaw.
So, remember that more contrast isn’t always better, sometimes it’s just more. And when it comes time to reduce contrast in an image, don’t forget about the Levels output sliders.