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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

  • me

    Actually it is and has always been called juxtaposition.
    No need for some fancy made up name,

  • Thank you for your comment and concern, but conceptual contrast as a term is neither particularly fancy nor made up. Synonyms are great things!

  • Shaun Kay

    Personally I think conceptual contrast is far clearer and less fancy than juxtaposition 😉

  • Adrian Lowe

    Well said.

  • Adrian Lowe

    Exactly. A rose by any other name is still a rose. Keep em coming.

  • Adrian Lowe

    No need or place for arguments and derision here – Hannele, and everyone else, is right in that conceptual context and juxtaposition are exactly the same thing and both explanations/descriptions are used interchangeably. Neither is fancy or preferred. Better to learn from the concept of the article than try to knock the messenger – and show oneself as unknowledgable. Humility can’t back fire and openness is a path to learning.

  • Well, I apologize if the term used confused you. I hope that didn’t stop you from seeing something in the article.

  • Since there seems to be some confusion as to why I used the term ‘conceptual contrast’ instead of a synonym, let me make it clear that words like juxtaposition work just as well. The reason I connected this idea to contrast was because I find it interesting and useful to group different kinds of contrast together: light, tonal, and conceptual. I think something can be learned, a new perspective found, by shedding light upon the similarities between seemingly very different concepts. Of course, as a writer, I try to make things as clear and easy to understand as possible, and I hope I’ll manage that in the future.

    I think it might also be useful for readers who speak English as their native language to realize that not everyone does, which may lead to funny mistakes in some articles, to writers using terms or words that wouldn’t perhaps be your first choice, but also to surprising insights which can only come from those who have learned the language after one or several native ones.

  • JohnnyDuke

    Thank you Hannele for an interesting and informative article … Horizons are there to be broadened, and to the novice this is a ‘broadener’ … ( I think I have just made up a word 😉 .. )

  • Thanks a lot for your comment! Glad you got something out of it. 🙂

  • @allancox252:disqus You are certainly entitled to your opinion in this matter. I too have been doing photography or 30 years and teaching for 8. But unlike you, I HAVE heard the term and do use it in my own teachings. I teach about using contrast in your images in many ways: tone (bright/dark), colors (warm/cool), shape (round/square), texture (smooth/rough), and conceptual (young/old, and the examples used here in this article).

    So as the Managing Editor of dPS I saw no problem with the phrase or title of the article.

    As others said below, I wish people would get past the words used and read the message – which you have agreed yourself is good.

  • Vernon White

    If anyone mentions conceptual contrast again I’m going to Juxtapose a Pie in their face.

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