I make no secret of the fact that I like contrast in my images. It’s always been a part of my photography since I first picked up a camera. Today when preparing for a shoot I often think about clothes and backgrounds knowing that I want that contrasting look.

This was taken in September 2022, Helen being brilliant in my studio at home. The black background framing her pale skin and the black gloves and shapes in her pose completing the contrasty look I was going for.

But equally when working with models I find myself using the word contrast to help articulate the style I am trying to achieve. It’s even got to the point that some models I have worked with numerous times are now able to predict my next move or even sentence knowing my fondness for this style.

So I decided I would put my thoughts down (unplanned as this set of words is) to help describe for myself as much as for you why I think contrast is important in an image. 

It all started in the darkroom. My formative years in photography saw me use film in my camera as there was no digital option at the time. My dad had always taken photos but favoured colour slides which resulted in a tiny white Kodak plastic slide that made the end image hard to see without a projector. So I gravitated toward the printed image as a result.

Colour film and printing was more expensive when I started out so black and white was the obvious choice for me. Picking film left you with just a handful of options based on the ISO and brand. You selected the  ISO based upon how much light you would have available and this usually meant indoor or outdoor lighting. An ISO of 400 was perfect for outdoors on an overcast day, or 100 if it was sunny or equally useful when using studio flash. After that the other real choice was brand. There were many choices but I ended up favouring Kodak TMax, the more defined version of their film compared to the grainer Tri-X. 
In the darkroom I preferred a matt or silk paper versus a glossy paper. Perhaps ironic for someone who likes contrast as the gloss sheen on a paper emphasises the blacks. I would process my film and then print a contact sheet of the images. You’d lay out the negatives in cut down strips across a single sheet of paper to create an image of your shots and from there pick the negative number you wanted to print. Waiting for the first print to come through was always exciting as it was in that moment that you truly got to see the image, was it in focus, was the model’s expression ok, did the lights all fire as expected etc?

After that you would then set about refining the image by increasing or decreasing the amount of light on the paper via the enlarger and also influencing the amount of light that fell on the paper. This was very important as it was the only way to add more light (burn) to, for example, lighten the face of the subject whilst also reducing the amount of light (dodge) on their clothes or background. This was all done by using your hands or funny bits of cardboard you had cut out to shape the light you needed.

The end result was a perfectly exposed black and white print and a good print in my eyes was one that had just the right amount of contrast in the blacks and whites. That very hands-on process was certainly a cornerstone of my interest in contrast.

Taken in 1993 with a medium format camera, a Mamiya RB67 and shot on120 mm film. The film and print were processed in my darkroom across the hall from my studio. I pulled this one out of my old folio as it spoke of my fondness of contrast in both colours and shapes. 

Skip forward to today and the darkroom has been replaced with Photoshop and whilst the tools may be very different the underlying process is very similar. For example Photoshop has the same dodge and burn tools used to add or remove light in an image.

But importantly contrast is not just achieved in the editing process, it is also to be found in many other aspects of creating the image. 

Taken in May 2022, this is Kat wearing a simple top that I ordered with an interesting neck line (halter neck) to emphasise her pale skin against the white background. The hard light creates a strong shadow which creates the separation and her pose with the contrasting shapes further adds to this contrasty look.

I have a distant background in fashion and editorial and have retained an interest in clothing. So much so that I work with the models in advance of a shoot to discuss outfits that they plan on bringing. This helps me visualise the looks but perhaps also influence the clothes we have for the day. I have even gone to the extent of buying outfits in advance when I have a particular look in mind.

A default of mine is to say ‘pack jeans and a white shirt’ as these two are a tried and tested combination that never fails. But also a dark top with an interesting neckline always works well with someone with pale skin and the same is true the other way around.

These are simplistic examples, but the logic is that the human eye actually likes the continuity and balance that contrast brings. Ying and Yang being an obvious example of that balance. Even as children we have preferred images that are more contrasty as that is what our eyes see best as they develop.

With all of the above in mind I have enjoyed photographing people in outfits that really exploit the dictionary definition of the word contrast. Give me a model with a gown that has black and white stripes or polka dots and I’m in my happy place.

In planning the outfits like this it helps me also plan the lighting and backgrounds. Going back to my early studio days I can see how I laid the groundwork for this particular style. So many images in my old portfolio have black backgrounds and white clothes, and just as many the other way around. Today is no different, I may own many coloured backgrounds which widens the options, but striking that complementary and contrasting look is still the focus.  

Finally, having planned the clothes and set design the last thing to complete the image is the mood of the moment. I have found that so much of this is achieved through a combination of strengths, model and photographer and if possible a makeup artist or stylist also inputting. I especially like working with the model, discovering who they are and then looking to bring out the best in them. Those subtle expressions that only a close friend would recognise are the goal of the day. But adjacent to that are some lower hanging fruit in the form of poses, a shape created by the body that completes the overall look.

You see, contrast for me is not just limited to colours, it is also to be found in shapes, Shapes that compliment or oppose one another and bring balance and order to the image. Just as the human eye is drawn to the order found in contrasting colours, we also enjoy the same balance found in shapes. We’ve long been taken by repeating and complementary shapes in fabric and architecture and that same symmetry is something we find naturally appealing in the human form. 
So in summary, contrast is to be found in many guises. It can be used alone as a blunt but very effective implement or it can be added to with complimentary lights, clothes and even poses. You may assume contrast means black and white as that is where it is so effective, but all colours have opposing and therefore complementary colours too. It brings order to chaos and is something that has satisfied the human eye throughout the ages and via so many creative mediums. 

Taken in March 2022, this is Ria with her long dark hair tied up and white press on nails. The stripes are created with a projector that pushes light through a gobo (metal cut out) in the form of a venetian blind. The end result is she appears to be wearing a stripy outfit thus completing another contrasty look.

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