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

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

Vertical One Point Perspective

One point perspective is a powerful tool, creating tunnel-like symmetry and focus on whatever is at, or in front of, the vanishing point. But we nearly always use one point as a horizontal tool, looking down a corridor, tunnel, or street.

There is a second orientation which can be utilized for one point perspectives, one that still respects the rectangular geometry of most architecture. That is vertical one point. The image below is an even less common type of one point: an exterior vertical one point perspective. Typically exterior one point shots are reserved for creating powerful visuals in redwood groves or amongst other tall trees.


Here the mix of tall architecture, a convent bell tower, and Cypress trees, provides the encroaching elements from all four sides, which make a one-point work. Lighting provides a second layer to the image. But the single element that adds a living story to the shot is the crow, heading towards its nest in the belfry. The bird, and its relation to the belfry, was sufficiently important to my vision of this image that I took the best shot from the series, then rotated the crow 180 degrees, so that he was flying towards, not away from the nest. Other images had that direction of flight, but not that clarity of silhouette, so this edit offered the best solution to tell the story.

C. David Tobie

Turning Your Back on the Sunset

We are accustomed to shooting with our backs to the sun. But at sunrise and sunset, we tend to do just the opposite, and shoot images of the colors in the sky.  With the right landscape, that can produce some very satisfying images. Here’s an example of such a shot, from Tuscany in the Wintertime. TuscanWinter3-1

And yet, there is a sameness to such images, usually depending on clouds, or silhouetted trees, hills or buildings, to provide the visual interest to accompany the colors. The alternative is to turn your back on the sunset, and see if more creative options may await you in the direction you haven’t been looking. The image below was taken moments after the one above, and while it is less of the iconic sunset shot, it certainly has more of a story to offer. TuscanWinter2-1

The way the sunset colors wrap all the way around the horizon offers subtle color even in the opposing direction. The arched glass window above the door and the brass door bell show just a snatch of the reflected sunset to add further color. At the same time an entire domestic scene of the door, the bench, and the many plants tells a compelling story in the foreground, while a much more detailed landscape fills the background, given the better lighting in this direction.

C. David Tobie

Creative Keywording

We all become jaded as we type keywords into our thousands of images. How creative to you need to be, to make sure you can find a given image later? But that is not the only value of keywords. They are also important when images are searched for under unique categories, be it in our own image libraries, or on a stock photo site.


The example above could be comfortably keyword with terms like: landscape, sunrise, and Tuscany. But it would improve the likelihood of the image getting used if it was also listed under terms like cover photo; referring to it being in portrait orientation, and having lots of blank space for a magazine title and other text. However, keywording with concepts brings the biggest value. For this image, those concepts would be related to the way the round tree and the pointy tree seem to be holding hands and enjoying the sunrise. Such terms could include: inclusiveness, harmony, racial harmony, diversity, gender, and peace. Graphic designers looking for unique expressions of those difficult concepts would be thrilled to have photographers doing the heavy lifting for them by keywording their images to show their relation to such concepts.

C. David Tobie