The importance of contrast in your photography

Creativity and expression

Weaving contrast into your photography images, paintings or any other creative endeavour can create a more compelling outcome.

Anyone who has heard me speak or followed a course with me will know I am a great believer in contrast in the creation of images. I love creating lists of contrasts I use in my images, here are just a few ideas:

Light and dark

Black and white

Straight and wiggly

Sharp and soft

Smooth and bumpy

Colour and monotone

Yellow and blue (or any opposing colours on the wheel)

Old and new

Thin and thick

Spindly and strong

Gnarled and fresh

Complex and simple

And the list goes on. Sometimes the lines blur between the contrasts.

ICM of woodland, green trees in a wood

This image for example displays the contrast of light and dark, colour (blue and yellow) solid (trunks) vs soft background.

This last week, I followed an online art course with Art2Life, and I have loved seeing contrast explained with regards to art. Nicholas Wilton walked us step by step through three principles of contrast which can elevate your artwork. Although I was watching with aspirations in my painting, I was amazed at how I already used the same principles in my photography. Although I find them much harder to apply to my painting! I thought I would share my experiences, and what I learned last week.

Contrast is another way of saying ‘difference’. In life, not just art, we are all in search of difference – it is what makes us feel alive.  You go on holiday to experience a difference in surroundings or experience. You eat different foods to experience a difference in flavour. We wear different clothes each day and share our time with different people. Anything you don’t routinely do can make you feel alive. Art (including photography) works in the same way – it is the ‘different’ that captures our eye, makes us stop and makes us look a bit longer. Bring the ‘different’ (AKA contrast) into your work, and you are guaranteed that your images will be stronger.


This is the first of the contrast elements to look at; it is the arrangement of shapes or elements in your image. By increasing the differences in these elements, you also increase the strength of the design. Think size, shape and placement. The more unique the elements are, the more potential interest you give the viewer.


This s the second element to consider; value is the lightness and darkness of the contrast. Every image needs light and dark elements to draw the eye to the differences. Nicholas talked about the loud conversations in an image – these are the ones that you can see from afar and the points in the image with the greatest attention-grabbing elements. Then there are the quiet conversations – these are the supporting elements. Without the quiet conversations, the image would be overpowering and stark. Together they form an image or artwork that is rich and complex and tells a story.


This is the third element and has three strands; its saturation (opacity and purity), its lightness and darkness, and its harmony in relation to other colours.

It’s very hard to pull these three elements apart in an image.  This was my attempt after three days following the Art2life course with my painting!

Photo of abstract art work - circles and shape in blue and yellow
Photo of abstract art work – circles and shape in blue and yellow

So, having explored these in my paintings, I decided to look through some of my images and see if I could identify the contrasts in each. I’ve selected quite a random bunch to share with you!

In this image you have a strong design – there are 3 main elements, all of which have a different shape and size; the moon (sharp, round and small), the reflection of the moon (sharp, straight and long), and the tree (soft, round and medium-sized). In addition, the value of these elements is different to each other and their surroundings. Lastly, you have colour differences; the overall image has a beautiful colour harmony of blue and yellow, and you have variation in saturation.  Consideration has also been given to the placement of the various contrast points in the image to create balance. I want to encourage the viewer to move between all 3 elements.

Twilight a moon in the sky reflects on a puddle of water in a field and a tree

This image I went out and made while writing this blog post. I know from living with these wind turbines, that they form a massive contrast in the landscape, so were a perfect example to show you. The design elements of the trees (soft, organic in shape, and low) are in complete contrast to the turbine (hard, sharp, man-made, tall and angular). On a grey day, there was little to compare in colour, but the value difference was notable between the dark trees and the light turbine. Again, consideration was made in the composition to place the contrasting turbine right in the middle between the trees. I want the viewer to move between the two trees and the turbine.

Wind turbine above trees black and white

When I made this image, the tiny house below the mountain caught my eye. This is a strong point of contrast – small, man-made and angular in design and light in value compared to the surrounding landscape which is massive, soft and natural in design and dark in value. I want the viewer to be drawn to the house, and then to its surrounding landscape.

small white house on the edge of a loch with mist over mountain above

This image is one of a set of 20, which were created to accentuate several contrasts. You have strong design contrast – the tiny sharp leaves, the solid dark trunk on the left and the lighter softer trunks throughout the rest of the image. Designed to encourage depth and complexity, each of the design elements was carefully placed to balance the image. The colour palette of blue and brown-orange also offers a super colour contrast.

Brown leaves float on a puddle with a reflection of trees

In ICM, contrast is essential to creating images that guide the viewer’s eye. This one I created just a couple of weeks ago encompasses all the elements which I learned on the course last week –Strong contrasting design elements; the soft, detailed, mid-tone and busy tree and the solid, sharp dark triangle of land on the left. And there are various tonal values throughout the image. To see the full set of these images, have a look at this link. .

Winter black and white ICM of snowy hills and trees

Hopefully, these examples have given you an idea of what to think about when composing images. Paying attention to contrasts of all types; design, value and colour can elevate your images to something that will grab the attention and hold it. Have a look at my blog post on ICM in woodlands to see how contrast is used specifically in ICM.

A black and white photo of Charlotte Bellamy

Hi, I'm Charlotte

Creative Artist