How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography

How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography

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Contrast is one of the most important aspects of any photograph. It adds focus, distinction, and punch, and gives the viewer both a first impression of the image as well as a journey into its details.

How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography - cat on a tire

At its most basic, contrast is defined as a difference. The most common types, which you’re probably quite familiar with, are tonal contrast and color contrast. In this article, I want to introduce yet another kind of contrast to your photography toolbox: conceptual contrast.

What is Conceptual Contrast?

How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography - plant in an electrical box

The photograph above has conceptual contrast. Can you figure out what it is? Conceptual contrast is different from tonal and color contrast; it’s more abstract and perhaps less obvious. It has to do with ideas and as the name suggests, concepts, not with physical aspects such as light levels or color.

Just like other kinds of contrast, conceptual contrast can add punch by bringing together things that you might not normally expect to see in the same image. It makes a photograph more interesting and raises questions about the contrasting parts of the image.

When it’s done well, conceptual contrast can help tell a story, function as an eye-opener, surprise the viewer, and jar them into considering their response.

How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography - police and people dressed up

Why should you use conceptual contrast?

Visual storytelling is a part of any great photograph. It’s how your photo goes beyond being just aesthetically pleasing, how you get people to stop and really look at your photograph, and how you create an emotional response in the viewer.

Conceptual contrast is not only a great way to add depth to your photographs but also an opportunity for you (the photographer) to learn to look at and become aware of your surroundings in a new way.

How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography - red and yellow subjects

You can use this technique to share a sense of wonder, to make a point, and to bring the viewer out of their comfort zone and make them think. What could be more important than that?

waterfall and garbage - How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography

So how do you do it?

It takes some forethought and observation to create a photo with conceptual contrast. Coming up with an idea that works will be the hardest part; the rest is as easy or hard as taking any photograph. The steps I’ll be talking about focus on photography outside of the studio, but it can also be a very powerful tool for posed photographs.

How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography - paddle boarder with relics in the ocean

The first and most basic stage is observation. You can find good material for conceptual contrast almost everywhere if you pay enough attention.

Try it right now! Move around in the space where you’re reading this, and see if you can find something that stands out and could make an interesting photograph.

banana leaves and fruit - How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography

After finding something to capture, the second stage is developing the idea. Just because the contrast is obvious to you doesn’t mean that it will be to others.

It doesn’t have to be obvious, but think about how you want to take the photo to make it both interesting to look at and eye-opening to explore.

For the best effect, your photo should contain more than just the conceptual contrast. To bring the viewer in and give them a chance to notice and react to the less obvious aspects of the photo, you should use everything else you know about photography to make it stand out and draw them in.

rows of sticks for vines and mountains - How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography

The final stage is capturing your photograph. This is the technical part where your abstract idea takes physical form. After you share it with others, it will gain a life of its own as viewers enjoy your photo and interpret it from their own perspective.

man on a beach in the fog - How to Use Conceptual Contrast in Photography

Conclusion

Is conceptual contrast something you have used or will try to use in your photography? What good examples of conceptual contrast have you seen? I’d love to see your images with conceptual contrast and hear your feedback and ideas in the comments below, please share.

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Hannele Luhtasela-el Showk photographs weddings professionally and nature passionately. Based in Finland and Morocco, they love going on adventures, learning, teaching, reading, science, and finding new perspectives. Hannele's photos can be found on their wedding website, blog and Facebook page.