Understanding Image Contrast in Color Grading

Still from MM&CD Music Video

When it comes to color grading, image contrast can be one of the most essential and useful pieces of your workflow. Well utilized contrast is one of the most important aspects to not only a good looking image, but to art in general.

At its core, contrast can be defined as the difference between two things. In the instance of visual contrast in film and video, this commonly refers to the difference between the bright and dark parts of an image.

In the below still from The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), the difference between light and shadow creates a contrast rich, deep image that adds depth and dimension to the shot. This is contrast at play.

Example of image contrast in Macbeth (2021)

While the light and dark values of pixels in a shot play a considerable role here, it’s not just about shades of black and white that we should consider when discussing contrast.

Extend the same principle of separation, and you’ll realize contrast also covers the difference in colors found across your footage. It’s the difference between a deep, saturated red of a car against a bright, less-saturated blue of the sky. While there may not be as much luminance saturation in this image, the color separation still drives the depth.

Why Is Contrast Important?

Well crafted image contrast is one of the pillars of eye-catching video footage. By introducing varying degrees of contrast – either through separation of colors or sharpening the divide between light and shadow – an image gains depth.

This depth not only enhances the look and feel of the image, but also guides the viewer’s attention across the frame. Regardless of the method and style you use, the ability to craft image contrast in various ways is a core tool in a colorist’s toolbox.

It’s this separation and depth that makes us forget we are watching a moving image on a screen. It immerses us in the world of the film.

Image Contrast in macbeth 2021

Outside of the world of image manipulation, I believe contrast to be an underlying and essential piece to all forms of art. In the more general sense, contrast is what gives context and shapes story and meaning.

One character may act as a foil, and by contrast highlight elements of another.

Contrasting textures or flavors within a food dish can combine to create an excellent meal.

A upbeat instrumental can contrast with a harsh vocal to create an engaging piece of music.

Separation of various elements isn’t just a tool in color grading; it’s a key player in many different aspects of life and art. Make an effort to study it both inside and out of it’s context in color grading.

Luminance Contrast vs Color Contrast In Video Footage

With a near infinite amount of dials and sliders you can turn in Davinci Resolve that adjust luminance or color on some level, it begins by narrowing down the focus. When we talk about contrast in color grading, the two areas you can look to adjust are within luminance contrast and color contrast.

Luminance contrast is simply the difference in brightness, or luminance, between elements in your footage. In a scene where a dark subject is silhouetted against a bright background —the stark differentiation in brightness levels is luminance contrast at work.

On the other hand, what is contrast between colors? Color contrast refers to the difference and separation of colors either through hue distance on the color wheel, or saturation amongst neighboring colors. It’s not just about distinct colors, but nuances in hue and saturation across the color spectrum. Note how in the below image, the maroon of the van creates contrast with the blue hue of the sky, when ultimately the van and sky have low luminance contrast

Monochromatic image of a van and sky

You can take things a step further by by layering luminance with color contrast. By stacking elements of luminance contrast and color separation you can build more rich layers of depth in your footage. For example in the below still, the darker purple coat contrasts with the lighter green plants. Stacking both light and dark, and the contrasting green and purple.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Still

How To Use Image Contrast As A Colorist

Contrast is the cornerstone of any compelling look – and any compelling look helps add to the narrative or mood of a scene.

Whether you’re shaping the contrast through the nuances of color separation or fine-tuning the gap between light and dark areas, it can also be used as a tool for storytelling. Understanding the narrative mechanism at play here can help take you past just a good image, and towards a look that adds to the project as a whole.

As a colorist, you have a variety of tools for tweaking contrast. These range from the very direct “contrast knob” to more complex functions to fine-tune brightness values in different areas of the image’s dynamic range.

It’s important to understand how each of these tools work in order to understand their role in the overall look. It helps understand how these tools can enhance the narrative, mood, or message of a project.

High vs Low Contrast Looks In Color Grading

In the world of filmmaking, contrast lives on a wide spectrum. On one end, you have high contrast images with a broad range of tonal values. This wide range from deep blacks to bright whites often amplifies the drama or intensity of a look.

On the opposite end, low contrast images take a more subdued approach, offering a narrower tonal range that lends the visuals a flat, more muted appearance.

Both high and low contrast have their specific use-cases in filmmaking. A strong punchy contrast may not suit one project. Similarly a muted, low contrast look with small differences in tone and color may not suit another. Each project will live somewhere on this contrast spectrum and have a sweet spot. This sweet spot accounts for the footage and mood to find the right overall level of contrast for the image.

The key takeaway here is balance. Going to the extreme with either high or low contrast can have negative effects on either your footage or narrative. High contrast doesn’t mean always going overly-punchy, and “low contrast doesn’t mean no contrast.” Find that balance.

Common Tools For Adjusting Image Contrast In Color Grading

If you were to list every tool possible to adjust image contrast in any capacity, it could get overwhelming quickly. There’s a whole host of dials, knobs, and sliders at your disposal, each adjusting an aspect of contrast in a slightly different manner. To start though, the primary 3 I like to think about are: the contrast + pivot knob, primaries wheels, and curves.

Contrast + Pivot: The contrast + pivot adjustments are your go-to for making broad, sweeping adjustments to the overall contrast of your footage. Contrast is pretty self explanatory: increasing or decreasing this value changes the overall contrast of the image. Pivot determines the pivot point at which this adjustment is made. It’s straightforward and broad, but sometimes a more nuanced approach is needed.

Contrast and Pivot adjustment

Primaries Wheels: These allow for fine-grained control over different aspects of the image, specifically the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. Lift will “lift” (or drop) the bottom end of your image, gamma will adjust the gamma (or midtones) of your image, and gain will “lift or drop” the top end of your image. They’re a step more fine of an adjustment than overall contrast, but still make more sweeping adjustments to the image.

Lift Gamma Gain Primaries Wheels

Curves: Curves in this instance can refer to both the tone curve as well as the HSV or HSL curves. In both instances, you get adjustments in a much more precise fashion.

The tone curve can be used to adjust the overall contrast curve of your image. By placing adjustment points on the curve, you are able to adjust contrast in specific regions of your image.

Example of a tone or contrast curve

The HSL or HSV curves on the other hand are great tools for creating color separation. Hue vs Hue allows you to create separation in… you guessed it: hues. Hue vs Sat in saturation, Hue vs Lum in the luminance for specific colors, and so on.

Example of a Hue vs Hue curve

Contrast As The Unifying Thread In Art

In wrapping up, I want to reiterate that contrast is more than a technical fixture within the realm of color grading or image manipulation. It’s a common thread that can be found in all forms of art, and as such image contrast as a tool in color grading should be thought of in this context as well. It’s more than just a component of the look – it helps craft story, mood, and emotion.

It’s also worth remembering that while I discussed a few tools for adjusting contrast, there’s a deep list of tools and methods for adjusting contrast. So experiment with new ideas and techniques. It will only serve as a way to better understand what contrast is and how it works in your image.

If you’re looking for more insight on how contrast can be used in your specific project, let’s chat. Fill out the form below and I’d be happy to see how I can help you color your next project.

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About The Author: RK Color

RK Color is a Film & Video color grading company, dedicated to producing unique and creative looks across a variety of footage.

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