A while ago my colleague Mitchell Clark and I challenged each other to use our old iPhones for the weekend – mine was an original iPhone SE and they had an iPhone 5S. I was free for a few hours after my wireless connection dropped and saw the phone’s battery drop 10 percent in a matter of minutes. (Mitchell saw the challenge.)
But it wasn’t an entirely futile exercise. When I looked back at the photos I took in those few fleeting hours, I noticed something I hadn’t seen much in photos from newer phones — something I hadn’t even realized I’d missed. This thing? Contrast. It’s fallen out of favor with smartphone image processing lately, but there are a few easy ways to bring it back to your photos. I think it’s about time we did.
Remember the contrast? Dark shadows with deep black? Highlight tones that are really bright white? It’s probably been a while since you’ve seen anything, so here’s a refresher. The contrast comes from a time way back before the phrase “computer-aided photography” was thrown around tech websites like this one, when digital image processing was far less advanced than it is now.
You’ll see a lot of contrast in a scene with really bright highlights and deep shadows, like someone backlit in front of a window. Traditionally, unless you’re using flash or doing a lot of fancy post-processing, you’ll have to decide whether you want to expose for the highlights or the shadows, because you can’t have both. Then computational photography came along and asked “why no both?” By combining several shots at different exposure levels, we could have a final image with detail in both dark shadows and bright skies. It was great! Until it wasn’t.
This kind of computational photography—high dynamic range, or HDR, photography to be specific—is extremely useful. The human eye can see a wider range of highlights and shadows than an image sensor, so HDR brings digital images closer to what we actually see. It also saves us the trouble of using our camera’s flash and giving everyone in your photo that classic deer-in-the-headlights look. But with great power comes great responsibility, and I think we’ve collectively abused our power.
Most of the time the effect isn’t too impressive, but when it goes off the rails it’s ugly. We’ve all seen bad HDR. It evens out the stark difference between light and dark, pushing those tones toward a sort of milky, washed-out middle ground. It’s the thing that keeps shadows from being shadows and makes your sunset painting 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 that way! In my case, I switched my iPhone’s Photo Style — a feature Apple introduced with the iPhone 13 — to Rich Contrast. I shot with it over the weekend and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the stock profile. That’s everything I loved about these iPhone SE photos, with deep blacks and light shades that are still bright whites, and the benefits of a modern image sensor and better optics.
But you don’t need a new iPhone to put some contrast back into your photos. If you have an iPhone 12 or older, try the “Drama” filter in the native camera app — it applies a high-contrast look similar to Rich Contrast.
In Samsung’s camera app, you can tap the stick icon at the top of the screen to apply other filters. You can download additional filters right into the main camera app, and you can reduce the strength of each filter to soften the effect. On the Galaxy S22 Plus, I downloaded the “Classic” filter from Candy Camera and reduced the strength by about half, and I like how it looks. You can also try third-party camera apps. Halide is a popular option for iOS, though you’ll have to pay 99 cents a month to use it after a free seven-day trial. And any major photo editing app will also let you increase contrast after the fact.
Your photography challenge 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 just might like what you see.