Winter Photography – Using Contrast to re-create Atmosphere

When it is a dull and gray Winter day outdoor photography might not seem very inviting. But we should not allow a depressing environment to hold us back. Otherwise, we could miss a great opportunity. Because when we make use of dead blossoms and bushes with fading leaves to shot them against monochrome backgrounds, we can create photos with lots of contrast and atmosphere

Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter- Purely Black and White

Image 1: Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter – Purely Black and White

Getting contrast through photography

When facing these conditions, I have tried to focus on structures, simplicity and minimal detail. Mostly, I try to highlight parts, texture and layers of colors on this day I took an opposite route. Then I would try to expose for the highlights because you cannot recover blown lights but you can still pull lots of detail from overexposed shadows. But in this situation I wanted contrast, and so I leaned more towards the darker area. As it was very dull, the contrast was relatively small, and I did not blow the highlights (too much).

Enhancing Winter Contrast in Lightroom

While this headline is a bit misleading as there was already lots of contrast in the images I did increase it even furthermore in Lightroom.

Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter - Black Structures and White Background

Image 2: Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter – Black Structures and White Background

First I turned them into black and white photos. Instead of darkening the lights and pulling the shadows to get more details I hardly touched shadows and lights as well as the white and black. The most significant effect I achieved by increasing the lights and white a bit. This enhanced the already strong contrast event further. A little pull of the lights through the graduation tool and some subtle sharpening and that was it. I did not touch the color sliders and left them the way Lightroom set them when I converted the images to black and white.

I could have even gone for more contrast turning the background into real white, but I decided to leave the light gray as this came close to this day’s atmosphere.

Combine hard Contrast with Details

Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter - Reflections on Ice

Image 3: Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter – Reflections on Ice

Not all photos are suited for a high contrast development. Some benefit if there are still some details and structure. Then the main difference in my Lightroom workflow would be the usage of the clarity slider which I pulled to the right to enhance micro contrast and therefore to increase details. I also used to the color slides in the black and white mode to improve details or contrast where needed. With some images, I used the graduation filter to darken some parts to draw attention to parts of the image with the most detail. Again some subtle sharpening in Lightroom and that was it.

Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter - Grass, Snow and Ice

Image 4: Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter – Grass, Snow, and Ice

Quick post-process for Web Publishing

The above-described workflow is a quick and simple route to create high contrast graphic-like images with a little bit of gray and lots of white and black (or light and dark grey). I did not touch the contrast slider at all even though this would have been an even more natural way to achieve similar results. But I believe that I have greater control of my processing if I stay away from commands that change contrast and exposure globally like the contrast and exposure slider.

  Shooting hoar frost with Tamron’s excellent 90mm Macro

This kind of processing only takes a few minutes for each photo and is well suited for images that I publish on my blog or Instagram.

For printing or publishing as a portfolio image, I would go a longer route. First, I would transfer the Fuji Raw files with Iridient X-Transformer to ensure that I get most out of it using the Lightroom plugin. I prefer to do the actual Raw processing in Lightroom over Photoshop. Only for advanced processing, I use Photoshop. When I feel that an image needs just some subtle sharpening, I will do it in Lightroom. Otherwise, I will do it in Photoshop.

Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter - Frozen Leaves

Image 5: Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter – Frozen Leaves

Photography equipment used and shooting experiences

Originally this shooting was meant to give two new vintage lens acquisitions a test run on my Fuji X-T2:

  • Pentacon auto F2.8 135 MC (images 1 & 2)
  • Minolta MC Macro Rokkor-PF F3.5 50 (images 3, 4, 5 & 6)

While I am happy with the results, especially with the photos taken with the Minolta Macro, I think that I have to do some more shooting with the Pentacon to evaluate it properly.

Going vintage – shooting old legacy lenses

Again, it is a joy to shoot vintage lenses on the Fuji thanks to the bright viewfinder and the focus peaking feature. The Minolta offers exceptionally smooth and precise focusing which truly enhances the overall operation to a great extent. The Pentacon is a bit more difficult as the focus ring does not move as nicely. Of course, it is heavier and more extended and therefore a bit unbalanced on the small Fuji. Getting sharp images at 2.8 can be a bit difficult as the depth of field is very narrow. Consequently, I need to ensure precise focus which is achievable using focus peaking and enlarging the image through the viewfinder. When I shot these photos, it was quite windy, and the plants in pictures 1 and 2 kept moving in and out focus. Closing the aperture would have helped, but I wanted to have a very narrow depth of field to create layers of in- and out-of-focus areas. So, it was a bit miss and hit.

  Bad Weather, a vintage Minolta 1.7 55 lens, and a Fuji X-T2

Anyway, sharpness is overrated or quoting Henri Cartier-Bresson „a bourgeois concept“.

Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter - Cold water drops

Image 6: Hard Contrast Photography in the Winter – Coldwater drops


Sharpness is overrated, details unnecessary, and texture not necessarily helpful to create pictures with an atmosphere. Photography with lots of contrast even further compressed to a near-abstract look can be the way to go to create a specific atmosphere. On a dark and dull day with the unpleasant weather, the atmosphere and overall mood were rather depressing. Photography does not necessarily mean capturing reality as the camera sees but as we experience it. For me, these images present the way I experienced the weather and my surroundings at that day. The unprocessed raw files came already quite close and with some little editing, I feel that they are an accurate reflection of the atmosphere of this Winter day.


Lots of contrast, small detail, and some post-processing re-created the atmosphere of a dull Winter’s day photography outing.