Contrast by Hornbeck – Learning to read light

Learning to see and interpret light is one of the biggest challenges most photographers face. Is it possible that a simple photo app on your phone could help speed up that process. Let’s take a look at the ‘Contrast by Hornbeck’ app and see what is possible.

This is not an app review.

When I initially was introduced to this app by a few good photographer friends my thought was to give this photography app the full review treatment. After some internal debate I decided that I wasn’t going to review the app as much as I wanted to talk about it’s potential when it comes to learning to see light. For now, let’s talk about light and how this app may or may not help us learn a thing or two.

The ingredients for good photographic light.

We’ve heard it a million times, if you want the best light shoot during the golden hour or get up for sunrise. I get it, those are obviously great times to be out exploring with your camera because the light has a much higher potential to be amazing. You get great color, the potential for some softer light, and even some fantastic long shadows cast over the landscape since the sun is so low in the sky.

If you find that you’ll only shoot during those times because it’s the “best light” then you are really missing out. I’m a believer that you really can make great photos no matter what time of day it is and no matter what type of light you are working with. You have to learn to see and use the light that is there to your advantage, which requires you to study light in all it’s various forms.

There, I said it. There is no bad light in photography.

What is Contrast by Hornbeck?

The quick version is that this app was developed by photographer Johnathon Hornbeck to mimic his photographic style. It’s a very high contrast black and white photo style that honestly isn’t for everybody. But it gives you a simple way to see and capture the world in that high contrast style.

The beauty of the app is that even if you don’t normally care for that high contrast look in your photography, it lets you see the light. This is where the learning happens.

Studying light.

Obviously on a bright sunny day it’s pretty easy to see the bright areas and shadow areas in a scene. Those points that are absolute dark and bright. But how about figuring out where to find those areas in a scene where even on a bright sunny day there is a bit of fall off from the light. Places where the light is hitting that garage then reflecting back into the deep shadows being cast by mid-day sun. That is where the learning, and coincidentally, the interesting light happens.

When I took this app out for a spin the first few times I was very frustrated with it and didn’t see any value in it at all. I’m not claiming to be an expert at seeing all types of light, but I’m pretty ok at reading light in a scene. That being said, I had a hard time seeing what was so special about this app because the way it reads light is so vastly different from my usual work. But I was determined to try to see what my friends were raving about.

Enter overcast weather and dim light.

I spent some time over the last weekend with the intention of really giving this Contrast by Hornbeck app a go. I had to be missing something. But the weather was super overcast and there was little to no actual light anywhere. It was all mostly flat gray and boring. I don’t mind those days though, they can be some of my favorite conditions to shoot in due to the ability to create some soft moody images. Because it’s so overcast the light is very soft and tends to have a nice graduation from light to dark in your scenes.

Overcast days are actually some of my favorite light to shoot in. Because of that I’ve become pretty adept at reading the light in those conditions. That was when the lightbulb went off in my head. It’s when I really saw the value in this little app.

The cloudy conditions brought vivid clarity.

Like I said earlier, in bright mid-day sun it can be fairly easy to get a base understanding of light and shadow in your scene or on your subject. Overcast days leave many photographers frustrated. There’s no brilliant sunrise color. I hear people say the light is too flat, boring, and blah.

It’s all a lie, well except the lack of brilliant sunrise/sunset color.

No matter what your subject is, overcast days are like having a giant softbox as a light source. The light is very soft and the transition from bright to dark is very subtle and smooth. But it can be much harder to see the direction of the light and how it’s actually impacting your scene/subject.

Contrast by Hornbeck helps you to see where the light is hitting. You’ll begin to notice the directionality of the light as the sun blasts through the thick cloud cover to softly blanket the ground. While the images you get from this app will still be high contrast black and white, the data it gives you in terms of what the light is doing is incredibly valuable.

I’m including a whole bunch of images I made with the app on my iPhone 8Plus in these cloudy conditions so you can see what I mean. Let’s take a look.


Did you catch the one other thing this app helps you learn?

The name of the app should be a dead give-away. Contrast. As we’ve been talking about it’s the contrast between light and shadow, which is what most people will pick up on right away. That’s not all that contrast involves though is it?

What about COLOR!

This app will let you see the contrasting color elements in your scene as well. If you look back to the images of the ferns against the rest of the forest, the garbage bin against the trees, and the fence and car among the woods, they all stand out in the scene. That is because there was a pretty stark color contrast happening, not as much of a contrast in light. Let’s be real, it’s not like there was a specific pocket of light that was shaped exactly like the garbage bin that lit that up and left the rest in shadow around it.

While it isn’t perfect, no app is, I think that as a tool to help you learn to see and understand contrast in light, shadow, and color this app is worth having on your phone. Especially at the low, low price tag it carries.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the best part didn’t I?

Contrast by Hornbeck is not only a super simple app that will help you learn to see light and contrast. It’s a FREE app, no add on’s, no micro transaction to unlock filters. It does what it does and that’s it. So what are you waiting for, download the app and start experimenting!

*UPDATED JULY 8th, 2019*

If you want to see a creative horror twist on the Contrast app, please head over to check out the write up by Gary at GQ Glasgow Photography! He shared his thoughts on his website after discovering the Contrast by Hornbeck app here with this article! 1950’s era office building, high contrast, horror vibes in the photos. What’s not to love! His article is here: Horror by Hornbeck.

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