With so many tools available to balance contrast (the range of lightest (highlight) to darkest (shadow) areas) in a scene, you'd think that contrast control is one of the cardinal rules of photography. Those tools, which include graduated neutral density filters, fill-flash, reflectors, post-processing and HDR (High Dynamic Range) techniques, all serve to expand or adjust contrast so we can see more detail in the shadow and highlight areas of an image.  

But there are times when you don't necessarily want all to see more detail; there are instances when you should leave the contrast-control toolbox shut.

That particular bit of advice comes from the noted natural history photographer Rod Planck, and it's advice he gives to participants in his photography workshops to encourage them to preserve the impact of a scene.

"We're often overlooking the fact that the very thing that inspired us to take the photograph in the first place is the thing we're looking to overcome with contrast control," Rod says.

What we should be doing, he suggests, is leaving contrast alone to do what it does best: get attention and add drama and reality to an image. "What deep shadows and bright highlights bring to a photograph are the most graphic tools in any art form," Rod says. "They create shape, texture and form. Why lose that? Why turn a dramatic high-contrast image into a much weaker image?"

In each of Rod's photographs shown here, contrast makes the picture effective; in some cases, contrast is practically the reason for the photograph. Nothing special was done to hold detail in the highlights or reveal it in the shadows; two of the photos, in fact, are silhouettes in which the shadow areas lack any detail at all. To capture the windmill silhouette (the third image), Rod was at the location 45 minutes before the sun was completely up so he could make precisely that kind of dramatic graphic shot. "A silhouette is, after all, a black form devoid of detail, a form in which detail doesn't play a part at all. The image is all about shape and contrast."

Light, or the lack of it, creates contrast, and Rod doesn't look at light from the point of view of its limitations. "I ignore what the light can't do or isn't doing. I don't pay attention to the fact that I can't get detail from a rock formation; I'm not going to worry about it. I realize what I'm capable of capturing, and I go for that. I look for the graphics of a photo, the stark shadow against the bright color, or the texture in the foreground that's brought out by the contrast in the scene. I often don't want a smooth range. I don't want contrast evened out or practically eliminated. I want the contrast to be strong; I want strong forms and a three-dimensional look."

For example, take a look the vertical ridgeline in the fourth photo. On one side is shadow, on the other, light. Now look at the rock formation in the distance and notice how dimensional it is because of that strong contrast. "That formation is maybe 12-feet high," Rod says. "If I stood next to the peak on the left side, it would be at my eye level. You could tell people that was a 1,000-foot-high formation and they'd believe it. Contrast creates the illusion, and the way I composed the scene made use of the contrast."    

There are, Rod says, two types of contrast. First, the contrast created by ambient light—and the best ambient light is sunlight that sidelights your subject. Then there's tonal contrast, and that's what you work with when you're photographing in flat, overcast light.

Take a look at the two waterfall photos—the seventh and ninth images. Both were shot under overcast skies, but there's still contrast in the scene—it's the tonal contrast of the white water and the very dark, almost black rocks.

In fact, as general rule, subjects that have high tonal contrast, like waterfalls, tend to photograph better in flat, even light. "The texture and feeling of depth in the photo isn't going to be created by the light, but rather by the tonal differences," Rod says.

Tonal contrast can create illusion, too. Take a look at the fifth photo. "That chunk of ice is the size of a dinner plate," Rod says, "but tonal contrast makes it look large."

The next time you're out and about with your camera, let strong highlights and shadows—and the contrast they create—work for you.

A Contrast Checklist

  • Never assume you have to eliminate or reduce contrast; keep an open mind.

  • Evaluate the scene. What attracted you? There's a good chance it was contrast that caught your eye. Then evaluate how the contrast is working; not all contrasty scenes are equally photogenic. "Look at the highlights and the shadows," Rod says. "If they're not overlaying or overlapping in a pleasing way, if they're not graphic, if they don't direct or guide your eye, it's going to be a boring picture."

  • Timing is still everything. The sunlit landscapes shown here were shot at sunrise or sunset.

  • Always look for and take advantage of side-lighting. "When you photograph highlight and shadow in side lighting, the lighting will enhance the depth and height of your subjects."

  • Trust your Matrix meter when it comes to exposure for contrast. "I use Matrix metering 99.99 percent of the time. For these photos I didn't meter any highlights. The thing about Matrix metering is that you can pretty much compose for contrast, worry-free."

  • Trust, but verify. "I'll check the first shot and the histogram, and if I need to, I'll adjust for what I want by using exposure compensation to move the histogram to where I want it." That compensation will affect the exposure and the depiction of contrast in the scene.

  • And relax. "Just go out and look at the light, and when it's attracting your attention and giving you drama and impact—capture that."