It is easy to visualize how dramatically the contrast of photographic subjects can vary from one situation to another. Imagine the difference between photographing a dark tree surrounded by
* These densities can be measured with an instrument called a densitometer.
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brightly lit snow on one day and then shooting a portrait of a blond woman wearing a light dress on a beach when it's cloudy.
The relative contrast of a given scene depends on how light or dark the objects in the picture are and, on how much light is falling on them. Learning how to adapt your shooting and film-developing methods to suit a variety of different lighting situations is essential because modern photographic films and papers produce unsatisfactory results when the contrast of the scene is either too great or too flat.
It used to be that photographic papers were much more forgiving of negatives with excessive contrast. It's fascinating to look at old glass plate negatives and notice how amazingly dense and contrasty they could be. This is because legacy photographic papers were formulated with emulsions that were much less sensitive to light when compared to contemporary papers. It wasn't unusual for exposures to be many minutes under bright sunlight. This of course meant that the images couldn't be enlarged so the large plate negatives were instead contact printed in glass frames. The trade-off was that, in exchange for being slow, photographers were able to beautifully print negatives that had an amazingly wide range of contrasts.
Modern photographic papers are very different. To allow paper emulsions to record short exposures under the artificial lights of enlargers, contemporary papers can now only print negatives with a relatively narrow range of contrasts.
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