Chasing the High Contrast Image

High contrast images are found not made. That is to say, the best of them are not high contrast due to heavy handed image editing, but rather because the content was high contrast when shot. While Ansel Adam’s Zone System may insist that we need components in our images at each of the ten zones between black and white, that should not be construed to mean that all ten zones need to be heavily represented.

The image above is a clear example of a high contrast image, and the drama that such a shot can produce. The only light source in the image was the marquis lighting at the front of the hotel, with the rest of the building’s facade in total darkness, but for a tiny gleam through the curtain above, that shows that the hotel is indeed there. And the backlit black London Cab is entirely dark, but for the narrow reflections of the marquis lighting defining its hood, windscreen, and roof.

The one last element adding to the story this image tells is the pose of the cab driver; the frame where his head is bowing towards his up-stretched hand provided the most dramatic image of the lot. The result is a mysterious Noir image, that sticks in the viewer’s mind. And making a lasting impression on the viewer is the effect a photographer most wants.

Creating Puzzles to Capture the Eye

One way of drawing the viewer into an image is to have a puzzle, or a fill-in-the-blank, that requires solving. This is particularly effective at stopping the eye when used in advertisements or other locations where there is competition and capturing the viewer’s interest is important.

The image below contains a bit of British architecture, a bit of British weather, and the familiar London Underground logo; but partially occluded by raindrops and mist, forcing the viewer to work, just a bit, at reading the text. How much work is too much? That will depend on how familiar the viewer is with London, and the Underground. For the British, the image could be adjusted to make the logo much more obscure. For others, including Americans, it is important the nearly the entire word is visible, or there is a risk that the viewer won’t succeed in assembling the puzzle.

C. David Tobie

Working the Vertical Panorama

VerticalPanoNYC-1There are photo experts who claim that the only ratio you should be working in is full frame; at the ratio of your camera. The even more extreme view is that you need to do this always in landscape mode, as we have two eyes, and see is some type of landscape mode rectangle. While I can appreciate the work that proponents of these views produce, my own view is that the strongest crop for a given image is the right crop; and that consistency and convenience for those matting and framing the images is not a top concern.

There is another reason for producing a wide range of image formats, especially for stock photos: graphic designers are always looking for the right image to fill a header, a banner, or a narrow column at the side of a screen or page. If you offer dynamic images in a wide range of shapes, you are far more likely to sell images for graphic and web design.

To illustrate this concept, I searched my library for the most extreme of forms: the vertical panorama, a form I use quite frequently. I then sorted through a number of these shots to find my “most vertical pano”… the image with the most extreme aspect ratio that continued to work well as an image, and to effectively tell its story. Its not surprising that a vertical city of New York provided my extreme vertical pano winner.

Here you can see that this image works based on a single sided streetscape, with low key features well grounded at the bottom, and high key features filling the higher sections of the image. It is an effective story-teller, and could certainly be printed as a fine art image, but its real strength would be in adding the needed vertical element to a web page or printed page.

C. David Tobie

In Search of Artful Motion Blur

At times, we all shoot with settings too slow for the lighting and motion of our images. And, at times, we find a few of the resulting images to be artistically pleasing. The question that arises from this is: how best to improve the likelihood of getting a pleasing shot, from a somewhat random process?

The first step, is to optimize your blur settings, by being sure they are not so slow that everything turns to mush, but also not so fast that the blur does not have time to become pronounced and artistic.

The second step is center the shot on the critical element, so that the focus is most likely to be sharp on the key components of  the image.

The final step is to pan the camera in the direction of the target option’s motion, at a speed to approximate the motion of the object.


The shot above shows a New York Taxi speeding through the streets at night. This method of shooting enhances the sense of speed, while reducing detail in most sections of the image. One factor to pay attention to with street shots at night is LED lights, which cause strobe-like effects that may, or may not, be to your liking. Another factor is unintended faces; in many of my taxi shots, the driver’s face is clear as he looks at the camera, and wonders just why he is being photographed. Here the face has been darkened and reduced in contrast to assure that the viewers eye focusses on the cab, not the cab-driver.

The shot below shows a Gull taking off from its perch. Here luck assisted, along with some discreet editing, in getting the head sharp, along with the fringe of the tail and the legs, providing just enough sharpness to the otherwise extremely blurry image, to make it readable, and pleasing.


C. David Tobie

Utilizing Unique Backgrounds

We shoot many of the same subjects time after time. So it can be important to keep an eye out for instances where the background creates a unique settings or contrast to the subject. Sometimes a black backdrop is available, from the right angle. In others a distant backdrop unfocussed with a shallow depth of field will do the trick.

In this instance, the ferns in the photo were growing through the hole at the center of an old lichen-covered millstone, providing a rather unworldly, and very detailed, backdrop to the otherwise typical fern fronds. This is such an unusual result that I have been asked if I had placed a vase of ferns on a countertop to create this shot.


C. David Tobie

Fog; the Photographer’s Friend

Water in any form makes image more interesting, even if it makes the process of shooting them less comfortable. But fog is the king of image effects, and locations offering fog should be worked for the best time and effects. The first image below uses the depth of vision limitation of fog very effectively to make a shot that is usually about a beautiful ocean view speak instead about mystery and the unknown. The mix of cool and warm colors created by the incandescent lights in the otherwise cool fog scene is also an effective contrast.

Acadia Fog-1

But fog also makes for effective black and white images, with creamy grays. The image below offers a somewhat similar mood to the color shot above, but its black and white rendition creates a more classic result. Neither one are the traditional Maine Coast Postcard, they bring a bit more creativity to the table, which is often the key to catching a customer’s eye.

Acadia Fog2-1

C. David Tobie

Creative Focus for Unique Images

We tend to shoot for a standard type of focus. This may be very shallow if we shoot fashion and glamour, or very deep if we shoot landscape and architecture, or very automatic, if we use automatic settings. Shaking things up a bit with a different choice of focal planes can make an image thought provoking. Here are examples at both extremes.

Creative Focus-1

The image above focuses on the Aperol Spritz in the foreground, leaving the woman behind it totally, if pleasingly, out of focus. And in the process it tells us that the image is about the drink, or the mood, not the recognition of the individual.

This next image uses the reverse technique. It offers deep field of focus, including most everything in the image… except for the poppy that is the foreground element and in many ways the key item of the shot. Neither of this images will be accepted by everyone, but they will make everyone think, which with art images, or advertising images, is often the main point.

C. David Tobie