Light and Dark: An Introduction to Contrast and Value

FFXIV Snaps Artistic Fundamentals course.


Light and Dark: An Introduction to Contrast and Value

By Myrha

Welcome back! This guide marks the halfway point in the FFXIV Snaps Artistic Fundamentals course. If you’ve come this far from the very beginning, I’d like to extend my warmest thanks to you! If this is your first contact with this series, I’d highly encourage you to head down to the course table of contents (at the bottom of this guide) and start your journey there.

For those of you who made it through the last guide, please rest easy knowing that this guide will be relatively short and sweet in comparison. Without further ado, let’s jump into today’s topic: value!

Defining Value

Value is one of the primary components of any visual element. Put simply, value is how bright (closer to white) or dark (closer to black) something is. In other words, we can define values in percentages of white: 0% would be black, 50% would be a perfectly neutral grey, and 100% would be white.

For visual arts like photography, it’s important that we capture a wide range of values in almost every image we create. You should remember that in the very first guide, we designated contrast as an important attention grabber. A wide range of values allows us more room to play light and dark against each other, thereby creating more striking contrasts. In some very rare cases, you may wish to “crush” the values in your image–we’ll discuss this further on in this guide.

For now, let’s look at the basics. Value is an important point of control for the following three elements: depth, contrast lighting (or “spotlighting”), and modifying colour.

The Illusion of Depth

One of value’s most important roles is in creating the illusion of depth. In real life, our eyes perceive more distant objects as being lighter or more “washed out”, and closer objects as being both richer in colour and darker in value. This is because the further light travels to reach our eyes, the more dust and other particles will deflect and diffuse it.

“The mountains in the background are lightened and misted over, giving them the impression of being a lot farther than they actually are.”

Keeping this in mind, we can use this principle to create the illusion of depth in our photographs, or to accentuate the existing depth of our shooting locale. This is one reason you may wish to selectively “crush” a range of values in a certain area of your image. By squashing values together and lightening them, you can push back certain elements and give them greater depth. Layering mist over background elements also does this very effectively, though it’s notoriously easy to go overboard. In any case, consider these things as tools in your toolbox, just like every other technique introduced throughout this course.

“An example of fog used to push back and expand the implied depth in an image.”

Shining a Spotlight

Value is a central player in controlling contrast in your photos. To rephrase what we’ve covered in this guide’s introduction, we can control contrast in two steps:

  1. Ensure that we are capturing a wide range of values within our image
  2. Place the most extreme juxtaposition of value near or on the elements to which we’d like to draw the most attention

Note that a wide range of values does not necessarily mean that every value in between the two endpoints must be represented. Indeed, you can create very compelling images using only pure black and pure white, with perhaps only a few shades of grey in between.

To this end, we can begin to consciously juxtapose very light values against very dark values to create eye-catching contrast. This could mean silhouetting a dark shape against a bright image, or it could mean creating a spot of light within a dark image. This may seem like a simple idea, but many beginners (and even long-time photographers) often fall into the trap of inadequately lighting their primary subjects or story elements. This results in an image with mostly samey values–meaning nothing really stands out as much as it could or should.

“Juxtaposition of light and dark values. Note in particular how my pale face is played against the dark arch, and my dark hat is played against the white wall.”

Controlling Colour

Value is also one of the primary control nodes that we use to shape our colour palettes. This occurs through three processes that we call tinting, toning, and shading. Tinting means adding white to a colour; toning means adding any value of grey; and shading (consequently) means adding black. This is a very nebulous area of art terminology, especially considering that these three terms originate from the effects of mixing paint. Bear this in mind, as adding grey paint to a colour does not necessarily produce the same effect as overlaying grey in an image editing software.

Ultimately, what we’re looking to control is the final outcome of the colour; that is, we’re more concerned with the resulting colour itself, rather than the process used to attain it. We tint a colour to imbue it with a soft, pastel character. We tone a colour to desaturate it without losing too much by way of either heft or lightness. We shade a colour to give it more weight and richness while trying to preserve the character of the colour. Again, please remember that the relationship between value and colour has become more and more blurred with the advent of digital colour spaces.

 “Extreme examples of tinting, toning, and shading.”

Parting Words

And there you have it! Congratulations on sticking through the entire Composition section! We’ll next be moving into the world of Colour Theory, which is why I decided to discuss value last in this unit. After all, value has a pretty significant role in both composition and colour, as you’ll soon see. Until next time, I’ll see you all out in the field!

Art Fundamentals Article Index


Focal Points and Their Hierarchies: A Guide to Guiding the Eye (click me!)

Framing the Shot: Concepts and Solutions for Camera Placement (click me!)

Light and Dark: An Introduction to Contrast and Value (you’re here!)

Colour Theory

HSV and the Colour Wheel: How to Define and Arrange Colours (click me!)

Warm and Cold: Injecting Meaning into Colours (click me!)

Demonstration of Principles (work in progress)

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