Don't be afraid.

Like a lot of photographers, I was afraid of contrast when I first started. I thought that for photos to be "good" or "professional" they had to be super bright and every single part of the subject had to be equally lit.

But... when shooting in natural light (which is what I do), GOOD LUCK getting even lighting 24/7. It just ain't gonna happen.

This can be minimized, however, by learning how to use natural light to your advantage. We will talk more about natural light in another post, but for now, let's talk about contrast!

Look at these photos...

And pick which one you like best.

The first one has almost no contrast, the shadows are up a touch, and the blackness setting has not been touched.

The second is overdone - I pulled everything down a little too much.

The third one is perfect in my opinion. The contrast and black areas pull out the highlights really well so that your eye picks up on the subject first. It also highlights the detail in the rippling water, which was my main focus in this photo.

"I love contrast. When you look at my photos, you can tell I'm not scared of the dark."

You get to make the rules

I love contrast. When you look at my photos, you can tell I'm not scared of the dark. I balance it of course, but I love using contrast to help elevate my photos depending on the vibe we're going for.

You don't have to love contrast as much as I do!

I know plenty of photographers who shoot and edit in a "light and airy" style. That's definitely not my thing, but I respect their art.

If you don't know your style yet, you can experiement with different contrast techniques. If you KNOW you want to minimize contrast a little more than I do, it's important to help yourself out during sessions by paying attention to where your light source is and how intense of a shadow you are working with.

THEN you have to manipulate light.

Woah what.

Manipulate light?

Ok don't freak out. I'm not a magician haha! What I mean is, you have to make your light work for you. If you're trying to avoid a harsh shadow on half of your subject's face, try placing your light source behind your subject. This will create shadows around them, but leave a more even lighting on their face.

It helps to use a reflector in this situation!

"Contrast starts during shooting. Don't make the mistake of thinking you can completely correct intense shadows in editing."

Super Important Tip

If you are shooting in dappled lighting (under trees where you're getting rays of light that creates an uneven light on your subject), it is VITAL to pay attention to it.

This might work to your advantage. I used dappled lighting to create a cool effect on Sarah in the photo below. However, most of the time you want to avoid dappled lighting.

This means you'll probably have to move your client around a bit to find a good spot (like I did above). If it's taking too long to find a spot, try turning the other way and putting the light behind them or move to a different spot entirely.

If you're shooting families, please please avoid dappled light (unless you're trying to be artistic). It's sooo hard to edit afterwards (dad's bald head might be glowing while mom's face is in intense shadows... been there and it's not fun).

Light Painting

This is something new I've been trying. Sometimes I want to create the illusion of distinct sun rays in a photo. I used this technique in this photo of Sarah below and I absolutely LOVE it.

I chose a photo that already had pretty harsh lighting where the light source was obvious. I added a brush mask in Lightroom and simply pulled the exposure up. I then painted several strokes coming from the direction of the sun where I wanted the "rays" to appear.

It's pretty subtle, but I think it makes a difference! See if you can spot my paint strokes below.

I will say, I added a grain filter on this photo and I think it adds so much character to the intense shadows. I may or may not have been trying to cover up my slightly grainy shadows...

I made the mistake of overexposing this photo slightly. I still mess up too!

Camera Settings

I ALWAYS shoot darker than I want my photos to be. But when shooting in high contrast locations, it can be difficult to find that perfect setting. In fact, I have to change my settings a lot when working with such intense light (it's typically changing fast too).

EXPOSURE: The most important thing when setting up your camera for your session is making sure you're shooting for highlights. This means your exposure is set to prioritize your highlights so you don't walk away with overexposed photos.

It's way more difficult to save overexposed highlights than underexposed highlights or shadows.

ISO: Keep an eye on your ISO and make sure it's not set too high. When shooting with intense shadows, it's easy to try and brighten your photos by pulling the ISO up. BE CAREFUL! If your ISO is too high, your shadows will be super noisy and editing will be a nightmare.

Editing: If you shoot too dark and your shadows are looking grainy when you pull the brightness up in editing, you have two choices.

One, you can commit to the vibe and throw some grain on your photos. This will cover up your mistakes for the most part. Be aware of what your clients are expecting. If they are expecting crisp, clean photos and you give them a super vibey, grainy gallery, they might be disappointed.

Two, you can commit to the contrast. If you're a light and airy photographer, I'm not sure how to save you... but if you like contrast, commit to the dark darks! Realize that your location was just bound to result in high-contrast photos and work with it. Eventually, you will learn how to spot when a location is "high-contrast" and you can choose to avoid it or get creative.