One of the fabulous things about street photography is the myriad of different styles it offers. All different flavours and colours of shooting can fall under the street photography genre umbrella: black and white street photography, street portraits, colour street photography, slow shutter speed street photography, and of course flash street photography and off-camera flash street photography to name but a few! The technique I want to discuss today is a really effective one to use if you are a street photographer who enjoys creating street shots with punchy, powerful graphic quality, often with natural light, but sometimes even with artificial light. It is known as high contrast street photography.
What is High Contrast Street Photography?
The aim of high contrast street photography is to create street photos which show a clear delineation between light and dark, or ‘highlights’ and ‘shadows’. The Cambridge English dictionary definition of the word ‘contrast’ describes it as being: “an obvious difference between two or more things” so you can easily see how it can be applied to the differences between light and dark areas of a photograph. You can see several examples of my own attempts at creating high contrast street photos throughout this blog post. One of the great aspects of high contrast street photography is that it lends itself brilliantly to both monochrome (black and white) and colour street photography. As high contrast street photography is concerned with creating intense tones and clear contrasts between light and dark, it lends itself very well to black and white street photography (a medium where exposure is king), and also to colour street photography (where the high contrast effect pits vibrant colours against heavy black shadows).
Ideal Weather & Lighting for High Contrast Street Photography
For starters, you attempts at high contrast street photography are going to fall entirely short if you attempt to shoot in the wrong weather or lighting. To create effective high contrast street photos in natural light you are going to need a fair amount of strong, bright sunlight. Obviously summer days are good for this, but as you’re looking for strong rays of light you may well find you’re better off shooting in the morning or evening when the sun is lower in the sky and creates longer shadows and shafts of light – midday sun is hard (but not impossible) to make work with high contrast street photography. Clear sunny days in autumn or winter are great for high contrast street photos as the sun is in a lower relative position in the sky throughout more of the day so it is likely to create the effect you are after. Cloudy overcast weather is no good for shooting high contrast street photography, unless you are relying on artificial light. If you are relying on artificial light (shop windows, street lamps etc) then you will probably be better off focusing your shooting around night time, when there is the greatest contrast (surprise, surprise) between light and dark!
The High Contrast Street Photography Effect
With high contrast street photography your aim is going to be to illuminate your subject (or at least part of them) using natural light (i.e. sunlight) or artificial light (windows, headlights, street lamps, etc) in such a way that they stand out in stark contrast against other much shadowier and thus darker areas of the frame. Or even vice versa, with a silhouette! The goal will be to make the subject appear almost white (or very colourful if you are shooting colour) and other areas of the frame almost black, giving a punchy ‘three dimensional’ effect. You will do this by spotting and scouting scenes where light falls in a certain way so that it illuminates your street photography subjects but leaves other areas in shadow.
The Importance of Exposure & Metering
To really be able to crack high contrast street photography you need to have a good understanding of the importance of your camera’s exposure to light, and metering. If you are already familiar with this, you can skip this paragraph, but for the purposes of clarity and for those who are perhaps a little more new to photography and street photography, I will explain it in more detail. Your camera’s exposure is controlled by 3 factors: shutter speed, ISO (also known as ASA or film speed if you are an analogue street photographer), and aperture. Most cameras (and even smartphones via apps) will allow you to modify these exposure settings manually to alter your exposure. As a general rule, a small aperture, fast shutter speed and low ISO will let less light into the camera (resulting in a lower (darker) exposure), while a large aperture, slow shutter speed and high ISO will let more light into the camera (resulting in a brighter exposure). To give a practical example from the days of film photography, we can use the sunny f/16 rule, which states that to achieve a normal ‘practical’ exposure – also known as 0 – i.e. not too dark or too bright – on a clear sunny day you can set your camera aperture to f/16, your ISO to 200 and your shutter to 1/200 to get a nice photo. These settings are essentially ratios, so they can be scaled up or down to suit. For instance, if you wanted a faster shutter speed (to avoid camera shake and freeze motion) you could raise your shutter speed to 1/400 but you would have to either increase your aperture size to f/11) or double your ISO to 200 to compensate. Altering one factor affects the others and your exposure, so you can make your image darker or lighter as you choose – very simply, this is measured in exposure ‘stops’ of +1, +2, +3 (brighter) and -1, -2, -3 (darker).
Once you’ve got an idea of exposure you also need to be able to understand the process of metering, which is how your camera tells you (or even decides if it’s in full auto) how to expose for the scene you are taking a photo of. More often than not, your camera meter will take a reading over the whole scene in your viewfinder to give you an average result and a clear image where everything is relatively well exposed and easy to see (this will of course vary a little depending on the light source, more on that later). This ‘standard’ camera metering mode is often called ‘matrix’, ‘evaluative’, ‘multiple’, or ‘multi’ metering. If you have a higher-end compact camera, mirrorless camera or DSLR, it will probably have some other meter modes, including ‘centre weighted’ and ‘spot’ metering. Spot metering is most useful to us here, and can even be used on smartphones! Spot metering essentially tells the camera to ignore metering readings for everything else you are pointing to and only give a meter reading for a very small area. So, how does all this affect high contrast street photography?
Exposure & Metering in High Contrast Street Photography
For high contrast street photography, your aim will be not to achieve a nice exposure for your whole scene, but only for a specific part of your scene which has the most light. This means you will want to set your exposure for the brightest part of your scene which you’re probably going to be using as your focal point when your subject is in the frame. There are several ways you can expose for this area. One is to use your camera’s exposure meter set to spot metering, take a reading of the bright area of the frame, and set your exposure to match that, which will be the most precise way. If you camera has live view, or you have a camera with an EVF and live exposure preview you can tweak your exposure up and down to the point where the bright area you see in your viewfinder or screen is exposed properly, and the rest of the scene is darker and you are set. If you don’t have live view, an EVF or spot metering, but do have a digital camera you could achieve the exposure you need by trial and error by taking a shot, checking it and then tweaking your exposure to suit. If you have none of the following features and are shooting with a film camera then you can still learn how to expose for the bright areas by following the sunny f/16 rule and modifying it to slightly underexpose your shot to allow for wider dynamic range of film and also take into account that particular film stock’s exposure latitude – ie clipping of highlights and dark areas. A lot of the time the key to high contrast street photography is practice and trial and error anyway! In terms of modifying your exposure, you can do that in manual mode if you are a full manual street photographer, or alternatively in any of the semi-auto modes on your camera by altering your exposure compensation to suit your needs. If you are using spot metering and a semi auto mode you can also ‘lock’ your exposure using the exposure lock button once you’ve got your camera to set the desired exposure for you.
High Contrast Street Photography Locations & What to Look Out For
Narrow streets and alleys make great locations for high contrast street photography. Consider where the sun is relative to you (you probably want it behind or to one side of you) and look for the way it creates bright spots of light like a stage light and how other parts of the street are left in shadow. Often a relatively low sun shining down a street into a street or path that runs perpendicular to the one channeling the light is exactly what you need. Look out for interesting features that create unusual shadows or shapes. Sometimes you won’t even need a specific building or object obstructing the light to create an interesting effect, and you can just use a low winter sun and a dark background like a window or dark wall to create a high contrast effect. The ‘trick’ is to constantly study exactly what is going on with the light around you and notice how it ‘pools’ in certain places to create bright illumination. After that, you need to watch how it interacts with your subjects. A shaft of light that falls perfectly across a wall is actually going to fall very differently over your subject unless they are walking directly beside that wall (the light effect is relative to distance)! So, make sure you study and practice. Remember too, that you’re going to get a tiny window of opportunity to make your photo so learn the shutter lag response of your chosen camera well. It happens to everyone, but there’s nothing more frustrating than having the important part of your subject in shadow because you’ve messed up your timing!
Editing & Post processing
Once you’ve got some results you’re happy with, you can add extra punch to your high contrast street photos with post-processing. Obviously this step doesn’t apply as much to analogue film street photographers, although they can achieve high contrast effects in processing using certain high contrast film stocks like the gorgeous Kodak Portra 400 & Tri-X, Ilford HP5, Fuji Velvia, etc. Digital shooters can boost the contrast of their street shots with virtually any decent photo editing program (including the base photo app in a smartphone!) by ramping up the contrast slider, lowering the shadows and blacks levels, and raising the lights and whites. With a little practice, you can learn how to create a photo with quite a heavy contrast look from a relatively flat base by lowering or raising exposure and fiddling with some other sliders. With more heavy duty photo editing programs like Adobe Lightroom you can dodge, burn and add filters to lighten and darken areas of the frame to suit, and even use presets to emulate the effects of high contrast analogue films. As with any editing and post-processing the sky really is the limit, and it’s up to you to find a style you are comfortable with that still remains relatively true to the original photo you shot and doesn’t become too much of a piece of manipulated digital artwork – street photography is about the documentary after all!
Have you tried high contrast street photography?
Ideally this little guide will have inspired you to pick up your camera and, (weather permitting) head out in pursuit of some powerful high contrast street photos. How have you got on with your experiences of high contrast street photography? If you’re a regular street shooter of this style we’d love to hear from you if you’ve got any extra tips or tricks you find useful to really nail the effect. Please drop us a comment below so we can all get involved!