You Are Probably Using Juxtaposition for Your Landscape Photography

You Are Probably Using Juxtaposition for Your Landscape Photography

Juxtaposition is something you can stumble upon when reading about composition. Although it’s not literally a composition theory, it is a great way to add something extra to your photo. Did you know you’re probably already using it?

While writing my book about composition for landscape photography it was just a matter of time before I came across juxtaposition. It’s an interesting name that can make a great impression if you are able to mention you’re using it for your photography. Especially when the opposite party doesn’t know a lot about it.

Using Composition Rules

When it comes down to composition, the golden ratio and it’s derivaties are probably known to you. The Fibonacci spiral, golden triangle and golden diagonal are not strangers. With a crop tool in Lightroom Classic and Photoshop it is possible to use these rules as an overlay. They’re not exact, since the golden ratio is not used as an aspect ratio, but it is usable as such most of the times.

Another rule you know well is the rule of thirds, a rule that is perhaps the most used composition rule. But at the same time it is also the most hated rule. You may even believe that this rule has to be broken or avoided in order to acquire a better composition all together.

This has everything to do with composition techniques. It's the golden ratio and Fibonacci spiral. This can tell something about the distribution of elements in a frame.

No matter what you believe, using some sort of rule or eye pleasing division of subjects within a frame is necessary to obtain a bit of order in chaos. After all, that’s what composition is all about: bringing order in chaos. I myself prefer to use one of the nine basic composition ground rules to distribute the subject and additional elements within the frame. This can be done with a bit of help from either the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio. I love to use the organic form of the Fibonacci spiral and the diagonal lines that are commonly known as the golden triangle.

Using a Contrasting Effect

But these rules are only about finding a nice visual flow in an image. I believe this is only part of what an image must have to become interesting. It may be eye pleasing to wander through a photo in a circle guided by a visual flow. But if a photo also tells a story, it becomes even more interesting. One way of acquiring that is the use of a strong contrasting effect.

Two opposites at Lofoten in Norway. The green light of the aurora and the yellow light of light pollution.

There are many ways of using a contrasting effect in an image. The first thing that comes to mind is light and dark. After all, writing with light is what photography is all about. You first need to have darkness before you can show any light. Without darkness there is no light.

Warm light in a cold winter landscape. This is juxtaposition.

But there are more things that can provide a contrasting effect. Warm and cold is another one. Think of the warm light of sunset in a cold winter environment, for instance. Or the yellow light of sunrise that chases away the blue hour. What do you think about life and death in nature, or wet and dry? Perhaps a threatening sky full of dark storm clouds over a tranquil landscape that is caught in friendly sunlight.

A tranquil landscape under stormy clouds. This can be considered juxtaposition. But it also shows juxtaposition is not a substitute for a good composition.

These contrasting effects provide tension into a photo. This will make the photo more interesting to look at. It can tell a story, rather than just a nice image of a landscape. Juxtaposition is a Latin word which translates as near, or next, or close by. For composition techniques it means you add two objects in the frame that are counterparts. Anything can be used for that. If you look at your archive of photos, you probably realize it is present in a lot of your most beautiful and interesting photos. It can be landscapes, but also other subjects.

Two kind of trees next to one another. A conifer and a deciduous tree

Now you’ve heard about the term juxtaposition, having a name for it doesn’t make your photos more interesting. But you must admit, the name may impress the ignorant. It’s just a name for something that you’ve been using without thinking about it. On the other hand, becoming aware that the contrasting effect is a thing, makes it possible to search for it and use it deliberately. This way it becomes a conscious proces. 

The straight trees are the opposite of the crooked tree.

Using Juxtaposition as an Addition

So how should you use juxtaposition for your photography? Perhaps the best way is finding a subject that is interesting to capture in a photo. Then try to find something additional that will act as an opposite. If you find nice warm sunlight, adding a bit of cold to it may only amplify the feeling of warmth. If you can find that opposite, try to place both contrasting objects in the frame like you would do for every other composition. You see, juxtaposition is not a composition rule as such. It acts like an add-on, something that makes the photo more interesting to look at.

Two kinds of water. Liquid and frozen.

The most obvious juxtaposition is light and dark, as I mentioned earlier. You may recognize this as a strong contrast in a photo. For landscape photography a strong contrast is often prevented by all means necessary. After all, we all want to show everything within the boundaries of the dynamic range. But it might be interesting to add a little bit of extra contrast instead of reducing it. It allows you to play with the concept of light and dark as a juxtaposition.

Light and dark as opposites. It can be considered juxtaposition.

If you take it just one step further regarding contrasts, you end up in the realm of Clair obscure. It's another term that has an impressive ring to it. Don't be fooled, it’s nothing more than the enhancement of the contrast beyond of what’s real. Painters are using it for centuries, and there is no reason why a photographer should avoid it.

If the contrasts are put to extremes, it becomes Clair obscure. That also has a nice ring to it.

Have you ever used a contrasting effects deliberately in your photography? If so, did you know this techniques is called juxtaposition? I invite you to share your thoughts on the matter in the comments below. I love to learn more about the way you use this addition to your compositions in photography

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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