6 Ways to Give Your Photos More Contrast

Zoner Photo Studio offers lots of ways to fine-tune exposure, brightness, and contrast in your photos. And here we’ll be looking at contrast, because nobody’s got time to look at washed-out photos.

Contrast is really fundamental! So fundamental so that you’ll find contrast controls in two different modules (main sections) of Zoner Photo Studio: Develop and the Editor. These modules each serve different goals. Develop lets you make quick and basic adjustments while leaving your originals completely untouched. The Editor, meanwhile, offers advanced features like selections and layers. To switch among them, use the Editor and Develop buttons at the top right. Some contrast tools are only in one out of the two.


Let’s explore our 6 ways!

1) Quick, Basic, and Easy: Non-destructive Auto-enhancement

Available in both Develop and the Editor’s Quick Edits (Q).

The Auto button in Develop or the Automatic button in the Editor’s Quick Edits is a great starting point. Each of these buttons is a one-click way to instantly, smartly set values for everything surrounding exposure—including contrast. You can then fine-tune these values as needed.


Auto-enhancement affects far more than just contrast. For example it even adjusts colors. But you’ll usually find this to be not a problem, but a bonus! And when you’re using auto-enhancement in Develop, your changes are always non-destructive no matter what you do, so you can never harm your originals if you use the button there.

We’d love to say that this edit was our idea… but actually ZPS did it automatically.

2) Exposure Sliders

Available in Develop and in the Editor (where you’ll find them fast under Quick Edits—Q).

Clicking the Auto or Automatic button moves these sliders for you, but you can also move them by hand to fine-tune exposure, contrast, shadows, and lights however you need. Sometimes the right route will be to adjust contrast directly and overall. Sometimes work with the Lights and Shadows sliders will do more to help low-contrast areas without harming other areas.

Don’t go too far when adding contrast.
Don’t go too far when adding contrast.

3) Levels

Available as a filter in the Editor (Shift+L).

One of the most “direct” ways to adjust contrast, and yet still very fast and convenient. In Levels, you set new brightness levels for the three key input brightness levels (white, medium, and black) in the picture you’re editing, and all the other brightnesses are adjusted to fit that. For a quick increase in overall contrast, move the black and white input levels closer to each other. For a quick decrease, do the same in the output levels. To make blacks truly black and whites truly white, use the Black Point and White Point eyedroppers. (To use an eyedropper, click a point in the picture that you want to have pure black or white.)

Note the choice of RGB (overall brightness) or individual color channels! And there’s a button for automated levels too.

The blacks in this picture were muddy gray until I used Black Point.
The blacks in this picture were muddy gray until I used Black Point.

4) Curves

Available in Develop and as a filter in the Editor (Shift+C).

The smarter sister of Levels. Trickier to control, but far more powerful. Instead of just setting the output levels for a few key input levels, you set the output curves leading between any input levels of your choice. To add an input level, just click on the graph. To quickly see how powerful Curves is, and how much less tricky it actually is than you might think, try adding levels a little way in from the top right and bottom left, forming an S-curve. You’ll soon be impressed.

In the Editor, there are some little extras you can try here once you’ve got the basics down, like a display of your R, G, and B channels right on the graph (Show color elements). On the other hand if you want the computer to give you a starting point, click Automatic Contrast or Automatic Levels.

In Develop, Curves is called Tone Curve, and it doesn’t have those extra bells and whistles… but just the curve on its own is already very powerful.

I got this improvement just by quickly slapping on an S-curve.
I got this improvement just by quickly slapping on an S-curve.

5) The Filter Brush

Available in Develop. To activate it, click the brush icon on the right toolbar or press B.

While this isn’t quite as quick and easy as the tools above, it gives you full control over which parts of the picture you’re adjusting. After all, sometimes only certain parts of a picture need contrast edits. This is a fine way to e.g. make the subject of a picture really “pop” and darken the background. That’s contrast of its own kind.

To change contrast with the Filter Brush, first brush on one mask (in our example, the mask for the statue, the sky and bushes in the foreground) and brighten that area, and then brush on a second mask (in our example, the mask for the background) and darken that area. Here’s what that mask of bright area looks like:

Now the statue will really stand out.
Now the statue will really stand out.

By the way, if you wish you had the Filter Brush in the Editor too… there’s actually something a lot like that! It comes in the form of the Dodge Brush (I) and the Burn Brush (Shift+I).

6) Clarity

Available in Develop and in the Editor, in Quick Edits (Q).

Let’s go back to the exposure controls one more time for a look at a contrast control that’s under a name where you wouldn’t expect it: Clarity. Unlike normal contrast, Clarity only affects contrast in areas where there are already contours—the edges of things. For many pictures, this is as good as normal contrast, or even better. Take a look for yourself:

Our tasteless contrast example from above, now with just a taste of added clarity.
Our tasteless contrast example from above, now with just a taste of added clarity.

Just one adjustment—contrast—and there are 6 ways to do it! Zoner is definitely not our-way-or-the-highway software. Which is good, since not everyone likes to do things the same way. Also, sometimes what you’d do in ten clicks in one tool, you can do in two clicks in another.

All that’s left now is for you to choose the right tools for you and your needs.

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AuthorErik Piper

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