It's time to give contrast to the photos of our smartphones

It’s time to give contrast to the photos of our smartphones

A while back, my colleague Mitchell Clark and I challenged ourselves to use our old iPhones for the weekend — mine was an original iPhone SE, and they had an iPhone 5S. I gave up a few hours after my wireless connection went down and saw the phone battery drop 10% within minutes. (Mitchell took up the challenge.)

But it was not a totally futile exercise. When I looked at the photos I took during those fleeting few hours, I noticed something that I hadn’t seen much in photos from newer phones – something I hadn’t even realized that I had missed. This thing? Contrast. It’s gone out of fashion in smartphone image processing lately, but there are some easy ways to bring it back to your photos. I think it is high time we did.

Path through the trees at sunset

I’ve seen enough of this Thomas Kinkade painter of light nonsense from my smartphone. Taken with the Motorola Edge (2022).

Remember the contrast? Dark shadows with rich blacks? Highlight tones that are truly crisp white? It’s probably been a while since you’ve seen one, so here’s a refresher. The contrast comes from a time long before the term “computing photography” was used on tech websites like this, when digital image processing was far less sophisticated than it is now.

You’ll see a lot of contrast in a scene with very bright highlights and deep shadows, like someone backlit in front of a window. Traditionally, if you weren’t using flash or doing a lot of fancy post-processing, you had to decide whether you wanted to expose the highlights or the shadows because you couldn’t have both. Then computational photography came along and asked “why not both?” By combining multiple images with different exposure levels, we could have a final image with detail in both dark shadows and bright skies. That was great! no longer the case.

This type of computational photography – high dynamic range, or HDR, photography, to be precise – is extremely useful. The human eye can see a wider range of brightness and shadow than an image sensor, so HDR brings digital images closer to what we actually see. It also saves us the embarrassment of using our camera flash and gives everyone in your photo that classic deer look in the headlights. But with great power comes great responsibility, and I think we have collectively abused our power.

A hiking trail through the forest with a mountain peak in the background

The foreground has been brightened using HDR, and everything looks just right to me. Taken with iPhone 11.

Hikers on a rocky peak

Contrast! What a concept! This was taken with the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Apple’s “Rich Contrast” photography style.

Most of the time the effect isn’t too blatant, but when it goes off the rails it’s ugly. We’ve all seen bad HDR. It smooths out the stark difference between lights and darks, pushing those tones toward a sort of milquetoast, washed-out middle ground. It’s the thing that won’t let shadows be shadows and will make your picture of a sunset look like a Thomas Kinkade painting. No part of your image is truly black or truly white. It sucks.

But it doesn’t have to be like that! In my case, I changed my iPhone’s “Photography Style” – a feature introduced by Apple with the iPhone 13 – to “Rich Contrast”. I shot with it for a weekend and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the standard profile. That’s everything I liked about these iPhone SE shots, with deep blacks and still crisp white highlights, plus the benefits of a modern image sensor and better optical.

Standard photography style (left) and rich contrast (right) on the iPhone 13. Just say yes to deep shadows.

But you don’t need a new iPhone to give your photos some contrast. If you have an iPhone 12 or older, try the “dramatic” filter in the native camera app – it applies a high contrast look similar to Rich Contrast.

In the Samsung camera app, you can tap the wand icon at the top of the screen to apply more filters. You can download additional filters directly in the main camera app, and you can decrease the strength of any filter to lessen the effect. On a Galaxy S22 Plus, I downloaded the Candy Camera “Classic” filter and lowered the strength about halfway, and I like how it looks. You can also try third-party camera apps. Halide is a popular iOS option, although you have to pay 99 cents per month to use it after a seven-day free trial. And any basic photo editing app will also let you boost the contrast after the fact.

Wide angle view with dark foreground and bright building

Embrace the Shadows: Shot on iPhone 13 Pro Max with Rich Contrast.

Your photo assignment for the week is to turn up the contrast a bit and find out what you’ve been missing in our HDR-saturated world. You might like what you see.

#time #give #contrast #photos #smartphones

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