What is contrast and why is it important in composition?

Contrast is the effect of colour and the differences that occur when we compare various colours. If the differences are very pronounced, we speak of a polar contrast. Thus, the oppositions warm-cool, black-white, small-large taken to the extreme are polar contrasts. Everything we see is compared unconsciously.

Why do we need contrast in photos?

1. It’s a means of expression.
2. It’s a way of comparing.
3. It helps to rank the elements of an image.
4. It helps to distinguish between background and figure (photographed subject) and the figures in between.

Johannes Itten’s colour circle

Johannes Itten was a Swiss painter and teacher at the famous German Bauhaus school and studied the subject of composition and colour perception, like other artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

The colour circle is a graphic representation of the contrast between three primary colours (yellow, red and blue), and the secondary and tertiary colours obtained by combining two primary colours in different proportions.

In his book ‘The Art of Colour’ Itten highlights the following seven colour contrasts.

  • Contrast of hue
  • Light-dark contrast
  • Cold-warm contrast
  • Complementary contrast
  • Simultaneous contrast
  • Contrast of saturation
  • Contrast of extension

Contrast of hue

This is the contrast of pure, saturated colours that increases the further they are from each other in the colour circle. The effect they produce is striking and powerful. The contrast of yellow, red and blue is the most expressive combination of this contrast. The further we move away from the three primary colours, the less the effect of this contrast.

Light-Dark contrast

This contrast is based on the difference in brightness values. We can play with light-dark values of the same colour or several colours. The effect of contrast increases as the difference in brightness increases.

Cold-Warm contrast

Among the seven colour contrasts, the cold-warm contrast is the most used and the most striking. When we use this type of contrast, we must take into account that a warm colour surrounded by cold colours will be even warmer, and the same colour surrounded by the warmest colours will be perceived as a cold colour. The same colour, depending on the colour next to it, may look warmer or colder.

This kind of contrast was used a lot by impressionist painters like Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir who became specialists in playing with the modulations of warm and cool colours.

Complementary contrast

If we look at the colour circle, the opposite colours also form a kind of contrast. This is the contrast of the complementary colours. The higher the level of saturation of these colours, the more contrast is produced. This contrast creates a rather strong effect in the human eye because when the eye perceives these colours side by side, it sees them as even more intense and vibrant. The most commonly used pairs of complementary colours are: red-green, blue-orange and yellow-magenta.

Simultaneous contrast

This is one of the most complicated and difficult contrasts to identify and understand because it is not present as such in the images, but is created by our own eye in the case of the presence of a strong colour and the absence of its complementary colour. If the latter is not seen in the photo, our eye will be looking for it and producing it at the same time to create the balance. For example, if we have an abundance of red in the image next to a grey, and the green colour does not appear anywhere, this grey will appear greenish to us.


We see the gray as cyan or greenish.



The face looks even warmer and more yellow on the purple background.



The opposite of orange is blue and so we see the face.

Contrast of saturation

This is mainly based on the difference between saturated and light colours on the one hand, and dull and unshiny colours on the other hand. Let’s say that this contrast is based on the degree of saturation or purity of the colours that appear in an image.

Contrast of extension

This type of contrast plays with the relationships of the amount of two or more colours. For example, we can use a lot of one colour and a little of its complementary colour, creating quite a powerful visual effect. Or we can do the same by experimenting with pure colours, warm-cold tones, light-dark tones etc., but always taking into account the big-small or big-little ratio.



Colours are bright and dynamic and interact with each other. They have their own dimensions: the same colour, depending on the one next to it, may seem lighter or darker, warmer or colder, more striking or paler. The point is to practice and observe.

Many thanks to Oleg Kaplan for his wonderful images.

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