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Learning to See, Part VI

No Contrast – No Problem

The most beautiful composition can be dashed by improper use of color and contrast.  –CJ Rider

As we learned in our last entry, harsh light can work well with bold and dramatic colours, yet blow-out the subtle and delicate tones. The colour red supported by black, or gold surrounded by blue provide the photographer with easy choices in creating a pleasing composition. 

But what shall we do if there is no colour or light contrast, but only a monotone or duotone with which to work?

 Any photographer who has worked along Canada’s Atlantic coast learns very quickly that coastal fog can make a colourful scenic harbour appear flatter than a day old pancake. Likewise for the photographer who travels through Canada’s north where naturally ignited wildfires are permitted to burn themselves out, ultimately filling the sky with smoke as far as the eye can see.

 What we are beginning to recognize is that in bright sunlight that yellow dory on a Newfoundland beach or a MacKenzie Delta birch tree in autumn foliage will fairly jump out of the landscape. Conversely, if we were to remove the direct sunlight that same composition would turn those bright yellows into a muddy eyesore.

 As an experiment to reinforce this thought locate a window that you can easily peer out at any given time of day, perhaps the home kitchen or at the office. Next find a subject that appeals to you, but make sure it is only one element such as a tree or a building. Every time you walk past that window have a glance at the referenced subject and note how the colour and form of the subject will change depending upon the lighting conditions.

It should stand to reason that as we study the scene from our vantage the bark on the targeted tree or texture of a brick wall will take on a whole new meaning if viewed in overcast light as opposed to a bright sunny day.

 Now we have a eureka moment: If high contrast light emphasises boldness and will force us to search for scenes requiring these sharp edges, then by comparison we should be seeking scenes that are soft and delicate on non-sunny days.

 For the landscape photographer it is generally accepted that on those poor-light days it is best to keep the bland grey sky out of the scene. Instead, point the camera down and adjust the composition to showcase the colour, patterns and texture that is best seen under this soft light. Generally, when the sky is blue think of making big sky pictures; when the sky grey look to your feet.


Photo 1

Photo no. 1 is an example that breaks the general rule “if there is no definition in the sky leave it be.” In other words, on overcast days the clouds will usually be a bland and woefully white or grey. From our earlier readings, we have learned that the viewer will subconsciously be drawn to the lightest part of a picture. If there is no detail to the sky, then we usually wouldn’t include it in the photo.  In this case, however, the sky is the lightest part of the photo and an integral component to the story. There was a huge forest fire in Quebec and the smoke had blown east to Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador. What the sky does, in this case, is complete the gradation of tonal range from dark to light, and allows your eye to move up and down the picture without distraction.  The side bar to any rule-of-thumb is that once you know the rules, then find a way to successfully break from that mold.


Photo 2

Garden photographers long for days of no wind with a very light moisture in the air. Such conditions allow a flower to purely come to life by allowing the vibrancy, subtleness, texture and detail to shine through. By having no shadow details, or very soft and indistinguishable shadow lines at most, we can then concentrate on the nuances and softness that such conditions allow.  In photo number 2, the lack of shadows allows the viewers eye to wonder right into the mix of a really nice stand of Showy Lady Slippers.    

And remember, if you are having fun you are doing it right.

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Dale Wilson
Dale Wilson

is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner
Garry Black.’

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