Facebook Pixel Make the Most of High Contrast Lighting for Dramatic Street Photos

Make the Most of High Contrast Lighting for Dramatic Street Photos

Street photographers often love the type of light many others seek to avoid. High contrast lighting is favored by many because of the drama it adds to the action, or lack of it, in the streets.

Making the most of high contrast lighting is a matter of being able to see it more as your camera does. It also helps to have a good knowledge of how you can manipulate your photos during post-processing.

Make the Most of High Contrast Lighting for Dramatic Street Photos Young Market Vendor

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Seeing like your camera

Your eyes can see a wider range of tone than your camera can. This is changing as camera technology advances. Soon cameras will be able to record more details in the highlights and shadows over a broader range. For now, your eyes are more capable.

What you see on your camera’s monitor when you review a photo is different than what you’ll see on your computer. On your camera, you will not see so much depth or detail. Learning to discern what your photos will look like after some post-processing will help you take better photos.


© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Taking photos knowing how you will process them later helps you make better decisions while you’re taking photos. The choices you make about exposure and composition can depend on what treatment you will give a RAW image on your computer.

When you look at a high contrast scene, your eyes will see more detail than your camera is able to record. Because the difference between the light value of the highlights and shadows is so vast, your camera cannot record it all. But your eyes will still be able to see it.

Understanding this when you are in high contrast light will help you make better photos.

high-contrast-lighting-for-dramatic-street-photos- Cycle Shadows

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Expose with intent

Photographing in hard light means you must make careful exposure choices. Do you want to see details in the highlights? Do you want to see details in the shadow areas? You must choose if you want to make the most of the dramatic lighting.

Exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows fall into black is one of the most popular methods. This adds drama and mystery to your street photos.

I prefer to set my exposure manually. This way I know it will not alter until I change the settings myself. I will choose a light area to make a meter reading from. Then I will underexpose it a little to make the effect a little more dramatic.

This will make the shadow areas appear even darker. It also means I am less likely to have bright areas with no detail.

Drummer Boy

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Setting my exposure in this way, I know I’ll be able to push the contrast effect even further during post-production.

If you set your camera to expose for the shadows, the highlight areas will be even brighter. You will lose detail in the lightest parts of your composition. Sometimes you will want this and to keep the details in the shadows. You must make a conscious choice when you are setting your exposure. If you get this wrong, you will find you cannot manipulate your photos so much during post-processing. This is more so if you are taking .jpegs rather than RAWs.

high-contrast-lighting-for-dramatic-street-photos Happy Man with contrast

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Make use of the shadows

You can hide things in the shadows. You can conceal people or unwanted distracting elements in the darkness of a shadow.

Careful use of shadows can isolate your main subject and draw the viewer’s eye to it.

Use graphic lines of shadows created by architecture, trees or other strong forms. The shadows themselves become graphic elements in your photographs. You can combine them with the solid forms in your composition to create tension or harmony.

Wood Carving in the Shadows

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Look for how static and moving shadows appear in your compositions. What do the shadows of people look like on the pavements or walls as they walk by? Are there shadows created by trucks, buses or cars passing by? Can you see light reflected off windows back into the shadows?

While you’re out with your camera, think about how the shadows might look when you add more contrast during post-processing.


© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Find a location and choose your time

Observe how the daylight looks at the places you like to photograph. It will be different at various times of the day and during different seasons.

Look at how the shadows fall on the ground and surrounding buildings. Are people walking in the sunshine or in the shade? At which points to they emerge from the shadows? Is the light in front of them or behind?

Pick a good place to work from and stay awhile. If you can visit the same location on many different occasions, you’ll build up a more diverse set of photographs. Doing this, you’ll be able to compare the photos you take. This can help you learn your favorite time to photograph at that place. Then plan to do it again and take even better photos.

Find a place where the light is how you like it and the background is interesting. Make sure the background will support the style of photograph you are wanting to take. Is the background in full sun or in the shadows? Is the light falling on it pleasing to you?

Egg Man black and white

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Move around and look at the space from different angles. Where you photograph from will look different depending on where the sun is. You might prefer the sun behind you or to one side. Some scenes may look better when your subjects are backlit. These should be carefully made and not left to chance.

If you are including people or traffic in your photos, be observant of how it is moving. Anticipate where it looks best. How does the light look on a person as they walk through your composition? Does the traffic moving in one direction look more interesting than traffic moving the other way?

Once you have decided on a place to work from, stay there. Being patient is one of the most important things to do as a photographer. Wait and watch. Look for patterns of movement and also when these patterns are interrupted or broken. These can be some of the most interesting times to take street photographs.

Fancy Kaftan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan


Look at the sunlight and think about how you can post-process to enhance the look you want.

With street photography, you are reliant on the available light. You must look at it and figure out the best place to stand. Then you must make the right choice of exposure settings to take advantage of the high contrast.

Once you have found a good location and made a few exposures hang around. Give yourself time and space to really work a scene. Try going back to the same location at different times of the day and in different seasons. You may be surprised at how different your photographs will look.

We’d love it if you would go out and try some of these techniques and share your photos with us in the comments below.



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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his website and his Buy Me a Coffee page.

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