My colleague Mitchell Clark and I challenged each other a few weeks ago to use our old iPhones for the weekend — mine was an original iPhone SE, and theirs was an iPhone 5S. I gave up after a few hours since my wireless connection failed, and I watched the phone battery go by 10% in a matter of minutes. (Mitchell completed the task.)
But it wasn’t entirely pointless. When I looked back at the images I shot during those few brief hours, I found something I hadn’t noticed much of in photos taken with newer phones – something I hadn’t even aware I’d been missing. What is it? Contrast. It’s fallen out of favor in smartphone picture processing recently, but there are several simple ways to restore it to your photos. I believe it is past time for us to do so.
Do you recall contrast? Dark shadows and deep blacks? Highlight colors that are actually white? You’ve undoubtedly seen these before, so here’s a refresher. Contrast is from a time when the term “computational photography” was bandied about on tech pages like this one, when digital image processing was far less advanced.
A scene with exceptionally brilliant highlights and deep shadows, such as someone backlit in front of a window, will have a lot of contrast. If you weren’t using flash or doing a lot of fancy post-processing, you had to choose whether to expose for highlights or shadows since you couldn’t have both. Then came computational photography, which questioned, “Why not both?” “By blending many photos with varying exposure levels, we were able to create a final image with details in both dark shadows and dazzling skies.” It was fantastic! It was till it wasn’t.
This type of computational photography, namely high dynamic range (HDR) photography, is extremely valuable. Because the human eye can see more brights and shadows than an image sensor, HDR brings digital images closer to what we truly see. It also saves us the shame of using our camera’s flash and giving everyone in the picture the traditional deer-in-headlights look. However, with great power comes tremendous responsibility, and I believe we have collectively abused ours.
Most of the time, the impact isn’t too bad, but when it goes wrong, it’s terrible. We’ve all seen examples of poor HDR. It softens the stark contrast between bright and darks, bringing these tones closer to a milquetoast, washed-out middle ground. It’s the thing that won’t let shadows be shadows and turns your sunset photograph into a Thomas Kinkade painting. There is no true black or true white in your photograph. It stinks.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! In my case, I changed my iPhone’s “Photographic Style” to “Rich Contrast” — a feature introduced with the iPhone 13 — and shot with it for a weekend. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the usual profile. It has deep blacks and highlights that are still dazzling white, as well as the benefits of a contemporary picture sensor and improved optics, which I appreciated about the iPhone SE images.
But you don’t need a new iPhone to restore some contrast to your images. Try trying the “dramatic” effect in the native camera app if you have an iPhone 12 or older – it applies a high-contrast look similar to Rich Contrast.
To apply various filters in the Samsung camera app, hit the wand symbol at the top of the screen. Additional filters may be downloaded directly from the main camera app, and the power of any filter can be reduced to reduce the effect. I got the “Classic” filter from Candy Camera and adjusted the strength down about halfway on a Galaxy S22 Plus, and I like the look of it. You can also use third-party camera apps. Halide is a popular iOS app, but after a seven-day free trial, you’ll have to pay 99 cents each month to access it. Furthermore, any basic photo editing tool will allow you to improve contrast after the fact.
This week’s photo homework is to crank up the contrast and see what you’ve been missing in our HDR-saturated world. You might enjoy what you see.
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