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Dash of Inspiration: Image Quality Color – Contrast

July 22, 2013

A Dash of Inspiration, A Cup of Creativity by Doreen

Image Quality: Color/Contrast

Before we get started, I’ve skipped IMAGE QUALITY: Reflections simply because it has a well defined description in the Submission Guidelines for which there is nothing to add to. So, with that said, let’s keep this series going by moving through the IMAGE QUALITY grouping of the Submission Guidelines, and next up  is:

IMAGE QUALITY: Color/Contrast      

The Submission Guidelines state this:

Artwork or photographs which have been unprofessionally scanned or created often have a muddy look or a color cast of magenta, blue, or yellow. This can happen when a photograph is taken if the camera is not set up properly and during scanning if the scanner is not properly calibrated and adjusted. If the whites of your final image are not white and your blacks are not black, your image is not marketable. These color cast variations and dark, muddy tonal values will not reproduce well in print. This applies to all imagery; photography, digital art, scanned artwork and everything in between. Contrast refers to the arrangement of opposite elements; light vs. dark colors, rough vs. smooth textures, large vs. small shapes, etc. in artwork, design and photography to create visual interest, excitement and drama. In photography, this is most often used to describe the balance of levels from light to dark. Declines may include, but are not limited to: muddy imagery, flat contrast, color casts which are unnatural and unpleasant (whether intentional or not), excessive texturing, etc.  

For color cast issues on a scanned image, please refer to the Poor Scans Examples 

Muddy/Flat Contrast:  A flat-contrast scene has colors or tones in which highlights and shadows have very little difference in densities. In other words, all colors or tones within the scene are very similar in appearance. As in all areas of photography and other mediums, there are always exceptions to when a ‘flat’ contrast image is perfectly acceptable, such as; a white cat against a white background may be considered ‘flat’, however as long as the whites are truly white and not closer to gray and there is a definite ‘punch’ in the contrast between the cats eyes with the rest of the image, this would be considered an acceptable exception to the rule.

In color photography, cold colors (bluish) and warm colors (reddish) almost always contrast. Cold colors recede, while warm colors advance. Light colors contrast against dark ones, and a bold color offsets a weak color.  When a scene contains mostly dark tones or colors, it is low key. When the image contains mostly light tones, it is high key. Low-key and high-key imagery convey mood and atmosphere. Low key often suggests seriousness and mystery and is often used in sympathy and Halloween cards.  High key creates a feeling of delicacy, lightness, and happiness.

High-key color imagery contain large areas of light desaturated/pastel colors with very few middle colors or shadows.  A low-key image is created when the scene is dominated by shadows and weak lighting. Low-key pictures tend to have large areas of shadow, few highlights, and degraded colors.

Just because these techniques have a name in the photographic arena, does not mean that by simply telling the reviewer your flat contrast image is High-key or Low-key will get it approved.  Always remember, you can not break the rules without a complete understanding and without having mastered how and when to use a High-key or Low-key image intended for a marketable greeting card.

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  • Avoid even front lighting of a subject, which produces little contrast with no shadows and no definition between the subject and the foreground/background.
  •  Two areas of image editing in post-processing which should be mastered by any and all who create imagery for public sale, particularly photographers, it should be curves and masking.
  • Learn to examine your image, identify the lighter and darker part of your image and where they meet, then intelligently use techniques such as; curves, levels, dodging and burning to bring these differences out.
  • Spend time studying the Zone System to understand the value of a full tonal range, whether in black-and-white photographs or color.

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Color Casts:  No matter what the color cast, unless it’s done with an experienced hand and beautifully blended with both the ‘theme’ of the image and technical know-how, color casts are just not appropriate for a marketable image. For example, I’ve never met a purple bear, however I’ve seen many amateur photographs of bears which due to a strong magenta color cast, the black bear is purple instead of black. The key to remember in photography is that you are working in a ‘realistic’ medium, therefore the output, if it still is obviously a photograph, in general will be rejected by the eye of the viewer if skin is yellow/orange, if blacks are blue or purple, and if whites are pink.

Images tinted with an unwanted color caused by incorrect white balance on your camera or scanner are considered unmarketable. Although some color choices can be seen as artistic, it’s fairly easy to recognize the difference between a pleasantly artistic choice and that which simply is unwanted or unattractive.


  • Shooting inside under florescent lighting (green cast) or tungsten lighting (yellow/orange cast). We used to put a filter on the camera lens to compensate, however with digital cameras most have a setting for various light temperatures.
  •  Poorly calibrated computer monitors and scanners are frequent causes of unwanted color casts.
  • It’s often easy to tell how a color cast occurred by noting whether the entire image has a color shift or only certain areas of the image.
  • Learn about color temperature (kelvin scale) – Good reading
  • Generally speaking when adding a color cast to an image for mood, it should be lightly tinted and render a soft ‘pastel or sepia’ value to the image, rather than applied thick and heavily.  Shades of pinks, lavenders and blues are usually more acceptable to the eye than yellow and green casts, regardless of the subject.
  • Your subject makes a huge impact on whether the color cast you add gives an artistic feel or simply looks odd and unnatural.
  • Snow is white, not pink, not purple and sometimes under low lighting, blue.  If the image is of a deep setting sun with a sky filled with the pinks, orange and reds of sunset then of course those colors in the snow would be acceptable. Same for an image of the snow in twilight, it would take on a blue hue. In general, however, for marketable images, snow does not have heavy color cast unless the lighting in the image supports it.
  • Please, when adding a sepia tone, remember that sepia is a slight reddish brown hue not a yellow brown or greenish brown. Back in the days of chemical darkrooms, sepia was a toner in which portrait prints were processed as a final step to give those cool black and white portraits a warmer feel.

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Here are some examples of cards at GCU where a color cast has been intentionally added with marketable results:


Next week we’ll continue through the Submission Guidelines: Image Quality section and discuss Resolution. Till next week, I hope I’ve inspired you to go look through your store and see if you can weed out any images that the reviewers will find during their weeding which might have unacceptable color casts or muddy/flat contrast.

For great resources & tips visit the SalonOfArt

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2013 7:57 am

    Thank you Doreen, very informative and inspiring.

  2. July 22, 2013 1:34 pm

    It helps alot. Really helps me see the difference and how much better a photograph can be! Thanks, Doreen!

  3. July 22, 2013 1:57 pm

    A great article with some very good tips. Thank you 🙂

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