Improve Your Contrast in Macro and Close-Up - dummies

Improve Your Contrast in Macro and Close-Up

By Thomas Clark

The great photographers of the black-and-white film period knew the importance of manipulating their exposures after the image was captured on film. They would spend hours in the dark room. Now you have the ability to make postproduction adjustments quickly and more efficiently.

Creating a high-key image

A high-key image is one with mostly bright tones, which can give viewers a feeling that’s surreal, light, dreamy, and clean. The frame contains an overwhelming amount of highlight areas, which can cause the few shadow areas to stand out and seem very important.


100mm, 1.3 sec, f/22, 320

To create a high-key photograph, choose a scene that contains mostly light tones (or light a scene to have very little separation between shadow and highlight areas) and expose it properly. Try using Curves to brighten your mid-tones and highlights without affecting your dark areas in the image. This creates a high-key image with a high level of contrast.

Another option is to raise the tonal brightness of the entire image to create a high-key image with a low level of contrast. Each provides a different feeling and message.

The mysterious low-key look

The opposite of a high-key image is one that’s low-key, or contains mostly dark tones. Low-key images usually offer muted, mysterious, or dismal themes to your message. They have subtle tones and are quieter than high-key images.


100mm, 1/125, f/22, 100

Creating a low-key photograph in postproduction requires you to start with a proper exposure. (Even though your image is meant to be dark, you still want viewers to be capable of making out what’s in the image.) Use a directional key light (side lighting works well to maximize separation between highlights and shadows) to create highlights in a scene and just enough fill light to reveal detail in the shadows.

With your properly exposed image, use a Curves layer (or the tool of your choice) to darken your highlights and mid-tones without affecting your shadow areas. Leaving the highlights brighter creates a more dramatic look, while darkening them more creates a subtler, softer look.

By keeping the darkest areas right where they are in regards to tonal value, and only darkening the highlights and mid-tones you can create a low-key image that still has visible detail in all areas. The idea behind this type of photograph is to provide viewers with an image that really forces them to look closely to see all of the details.

Striving for perfection with full-scale contrast

A full-scale image is one that contains a maximum range of tones, from black to white, and with everything in between. Unlike the high-key and low-key techniques, this type of image requires you to spread out the contrast evenly to provide a smooth gradation between your shadows and highlights.

The full-scale technique is generally what photographers go for, because it’s more natural looking than high- or low-key images, and it helps photographs to really stand out visually.


100mm, 4 sec, f/16, 400

In order to create a full-scale photograph, apply a Curves adjustment to your photograph. You can darken the shadows and lighten the highlights so the image contains a high level of contrast. Just be sure not to get too extreme with your adjustments unless you wish to lose details in those areas. You can also brighten or darken your mid-tones, depending on which you feel enhances the appearance of your image.