The purpose of contouring and highlighting is to sculpt, shape and slenderize your features. You can create the illusion of higher cheekbones, a slimmer nose, a softer jawline, a smaller forehead, larger lips, and endless other modifications to the face and body.
Chances are you will not use every shade in each and every contour palette as some shades will work well with your skin tone more than others. Luckily you can often purchase refills of the individual pans. No matter what your skin tone is the best contouring shades will always have cool, ashy tones. The reason for this is that it mimicks the look of natural shadows on your face, such as those occurring beneath cheekbones or underneath the jawline, which creates depth and dimension. Orange shades usually do not create this natural shadow, and the result on your face is not usually natural either. Glittery bronzers will not give this natural effect either and only matte shades should be used for contouring purposes.
The Anastasia Beverly Hills Contour Kit is an excellent starting point for any contouring novice. This was my very first contour palette. There are others on the market you can start out with that are more affordable, such as the NYX or ELF palettes, but the ABH palette is well worth the price for it's quality and consistency.
The ABH powder contours come in three sets of shades: light to medium, medium to tan, and tan to dark. The palette that best matches my medium skin tone is the first. This palette comes with a total of six shades; three for highlighting (Havana, Banana, Sand) and three for contouring (Java, Vanilla Fawn). The reason this is an excellent beginner palette is that you can easily control how much product is used, allowing for sparing application for a lightly sculpted look or liberal application for a more defined look.
The formula is very lightweight and will not appear "cakey" on your face if you are applying it over foundation or concealer. However, the shades are not highly pigmented. While this is good for someone who is just beginning to contour, this also means that the shades are not always buildable. If you do try to go for a more defined look with this palette you will probably have to use a good amount of product.
The Kat Von D Shade+Light Contour Palette is for advanced or experienced makeup users, but when you are ready to take this step you will never regret it. It comes with a total of six shades; three for highlighting (Lucid, Lyric, Levitation) and three for contouring (Sombre, Shadowplay, Subconscious). Lyric, a yellow beige, and Sombre, a very cool toned taupe, have become my go-to shades.
The biggest difference between the KVD and ABH palettes is the texture and color of the product. The buttery smooth formula is like velvet on your skin. It is easy to blend, perfectly pigmented, and very buildable. This palette has given me the most natural look of any contour kit I have tried. Although I loved the ABH palette for a long time, I would give my preference to the KVD palette. A small amount of product will go a very long way, so expect this palette to last a very long time.
The only downside I have come across with the KVD palette is that you cannot yet purchase replacement pans. Due to the popular nature of this product I can foresee them considering this option in the future.
The Anastasia Beverly Hills Cream Contour Kit is worth mentioning for the fact that is can help introduce you to contouring with creams as opposed to powders. Contouring with creams is for experienced to advanced makeup users, and should never be what you use for your first try at contouring. However, I do not like the formula and the colors on this palette. The cream is very drying and the contouring colors are orange toned.
The one drawback to using creams instead of powders is that you will always need to set the creams with some type of setting powder. Failing to do so will cause your makeup to run down your face. One positive to using cream is that when done right it will blend flawlessly together for a dewy, airbrushed look.
My best suggestion if you wish to start contouring with creams is to use lighter and darker color shades of foundation and concealer. I love the NARS Radiant Creamy Concealer for highlight (Custard and Vanilla are my favorite shades), and the LA Girl HD Pro Conceal for contour. Both of these products have extra creamy formulas that, if properly set, will not be over-drying on your skin.
In order to apply a perfect highlight and contour you will need the proper brushes. The Kat Von D Shade+Light Contour Brush is a dual-ended brush with one end angled for contouring and the other end a tapered dome for highlighting. This brush works beautifully with any countour palette, but if you do not want to foot the $36.00 price tag there are plenty of other reasonable options.
My everyday go-to brushes for highlighting and contouring are the Sculpting Brush ($10.00) and Setting Brush ($8.00), both by Real Techniques. Any brush you use should be able to pick up and diffuse product without falling off the brush, glide when you put it to your face, and softly blend product into the skin.