8) What’s It Mean? Contrast…

As usual, the first question for every “What Does It Mean” topic is: Why Do We Care?

Every Answer begins the same: there are many things that can go wrong with the presentation of the moving picture. In this case, we are working with how much dark and how much bright there is on the screen.

This one is a very tricky. The image is onscreen. In most cases, the images may look OK if you just glance at the image, or if you don’t know what to look for.

Will the audience care? Maybe not. They don’t know what “Correct” is.  They will think that the picture lacks “Pop”, or some other quality. But if you don’t know that the black suit is supposed to have fine light blue lines in it, then the black suit might look OK.

Buzzwords: “Black Levels”, “Crushed Black Level”, “No Greys”, “Gamma Problem”. We will show the definition of these terms with examples of how they apply to our situation as someone who is checking the quality of the picture. Don’t look them up now since they have many meanings and most are more complicated than we need.

Complication: Almost all cinema projectors have a problem creating perfect blacks. But there is a range of deep blacks and deep grays that they should give. And white too! There should be a good scale, and not too bright. BUT – We don’t always know what the artist wanted.

Look at these three versions of the same winter scene at Yosemite Falls.

In the first one, you can see the amazing falls against the crisp rocks, and the golden hour sun is beautifully lighting up the mountaintop.

In the 2nd one you can almost taste the frost from the frozen lake. The air is so crisp and clear that you can see several layers through the trunks of the trees.

The 3rd is in between…not as on fire, not as clear through the tree trunks…dark in fact. The falls don’t stand out as sharply against the rocks.

By now you may have guessed, the 3rd one is the one that the artist created. The difference in the three is entirely the level of Contrast

Low Contrast

Potential Points of Failure: Bad setup on the Projector. Wrong Lens. Port Window, if very dirty. Old screen.

So. What is Contrast?

Simply, in the cinema, there is a level of white and a level of black. Contrast is the difference between them. If black is 1 and white is 2,000, then we say the contrast is 2000 to 1. It is written like this – 2000:1

The next section will go into show more examples and give you the basics on how to see good and bad contrast. And, most importantly, how to tell the technician what you see.


Take a break, and while you are living life, look in shadows. Notice how there are things to see in the shadows. Notice how there are things to see even in light that is almost too bright to look at.

Photo by Rodrigo Soares on Unsplash

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