Experimenting With Less Contrast

Posted by & filed under Features.

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:

Zion Tree

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.

One Response to “Experimenting With Less Contrast”

  1. Stanley Anderson

    I was going to post this in the Composition course entry which I am currently doing on Lynda.com (and loving it, as I have all your other courses there). But upon looking at this entry, particularly the final cropping step, I suddenly realized that my comment/question could (not sure) perhaps be directly related here. So this is my comment/question:

    In physics there is a distinction between “stable” and “unstable” balance points. In an unstable balance point, any slight deviation will to produce feedback that tends to make it even more unbalanced, which then leads via the continued feedback to produce greater and greater instability. This is in contrast to a “stable” balance point where a slight deviation produces feedback that “steers” the system back toward the stable position. A typical example is two forks stuck together into a “V” shape that, when balanced on a finger inside the intersection pont of the arms of the “V” creates a stable balance point — ie, if you push one arm of the V to the side a bit, it will swing back to the central position. Contrast this with trying to balance the “V” on the outside of the intersection with the “arms” pointing upward. Then any slightest “push” will quickly make it collapse.

    Anyway, to the composition course. I haven’t finished it yet, so perhaps you cover something about this later in the course. But while you were talking about balance in composition, and in connection with some of the sample images you displayed, I began to wonder if there is any compositional aspect to the idea of stable or unstable balance points. In particular, when you talked about and displayed the picture of the moon way up high in the center above the tree, I thought of perhaps that being possibly illustrating more of an “unstable” balance point whereas a horizontal balance might be more representative of a “stable” balance point. But I’m not at all sure here. And of course I’m not implying that for compositional aspects stable or unstable balance points would be good or bad, but that it might depend on the situation and the intent of the photographer.

    And the same thought occurred to me when I saw your comments above about the final crop step.

    Anyway, I’m not at all sure of any of this — just, as Indiana Jones says in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “I’m making this up as I go”. But I wonder if you have any thoughts along this line?

    –Stanley Anderson

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