Create Compelling Composition through Juxtaposition in Photography

Date Posted:9 May 2017 

Through the use of juxtaposition photographers can create compelling images that grab the eye. But how exactly does it work, and how can you make your images contrast effectively every time? In this article we look at some of the most common ways photographers use juxtaposition in their composition, as well as some more unique methods you may not have heard of. 

What is juxtaposition

Even if you’ve just started on your photography journey the chances are you’ve used juxtaposition without even realising it. It’s a term you will find in many art forms, from writing and painting, to sculpture and music – but what exactly is it?

In photography, we know of contrast, the way light variation in our composition creates definition in the image. Juxtaposition is similar, only it involves the contrast of two objects or subjects. Generally speaking, for juxtaposition to occur you will need:

  • At least two objects, subjects or concepts in the scene.
  • A strong presence of the juxtaposed objects in the frame so that our eyes are naturally drawn to both.
  • A visual contrast between them.

This last point is where photographers can really become creative, as a visual contrast can be just about anything, from colour, scale, size and texture; to the use of lines, perspective, mood and even something as conceptual as irony. Let’s look at how you can use juxtaposition and visual contrast in your composition.

Colour juxtaposition

Understanding colour is important for every photographer. Even if you shoot primarily in black and white, the way colour affects your film and contrasts with shadow needs to be considered before you press the shutter.

Some colours are complementary with others. Blue with yellow, red with green etc. On the colour wheel, these colours will be opposite one another. Complementary doesn’t necessarily mean pleasing in this case. When colours are complimentary in your composition they juxtapose in ways that could be harmonious but also in conflict. Both work, it really comes down to what you are trying to achieve.

Consider the way the turquoise pool of water in this image contrasts with the muted tones of the mountains in the background. This is colour juxtaposition in action.

Image via Digital Photography School

Juxtaposition in size

A popular technique for professional and amateur photographers, juxtaposition in size distorts the comparative size of two or more subjects in the composition. Think tourists in Pisa who make it seem like they are holding up the leaning tower, when really they are standing in the foreground. More professional shots will obscure the distance between two objects or subjects and articulate their shots with unique or inspired angles.

Juxtaposition of texture

Juxtapositions in texture use conflicts of sharp and round, soft and hard, spiky and smooth to create compelling images.

Soft and hard

Soft and hard can occur naturally in image composition, like a seedling growing through cement sidewalk. The juxtaposition can be heightened with moving subjects like waterfalls onto rocks. Set the shutter speed on your camera to ⅓ of a second to blur the water and heighten the contrast effect of soft water on hard rock and stone.

Sharp and round

Nature again provides compelling examples of how sharp and round textures can juxtapose. Consider the petals of new flowers rising from the loam framed by the bare, sharp branches of winter trees, like in the image below.

Smooth and spiky

The wind smooth textures of the desert interrupted by the spiky bones of animal remains is a juxtaposition of texture. Roses petals and thorns is another classic juxtaposition of these textures.

The power of the line

If you think of juxtaposition more broadly as an effect of contrast, new ways of juxtaposing your image start to open up.The power of the line is an important tool in composition, they add depth and contrast. When those lines run perpendicular to each other, the composition of your images create a juxtaposition of perception. This is especially true in images where the lines intersect. As shown in this image of incense sticks burning in China

Juxtaposition and mood

When the juxtaposition within the frame is not specifically related to physical contrasts, we might see a contract in mood. Popular portraits of people before and after being told they are beautiful is one example, but the juxtaposition can be within a single composition as well.

Landscape photography is where you will most commonly find juxtapositions of mood. Sun breaking through grey clouds, villages in the shadow of a looming mountain, the contrast inherent in a bushfire affected area, months later when new shoots are coming through. Juxtaposition of mood is often complimeneted by other, less subjective juxtapositions like colour and size.

Contrasting subject and object

Reading through this list, you might recognise juxtaposition in your own photography. Many photographers use juxtaposition whether consciously or not. Now you have a better idea how to contrast subjects and objects in an image, why not try out some juxtaposition on your next shoot.

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