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How to Improve Your Composition Using Juxtaposition and Contrast

Juxtaposition and contrast in composition

Today I’d like to explore two complementary elements juxtaposition and contrast, to help you improve your composition.

Juxtaposition occurs when you place two contrasting subjects side by side. The difference (i.e. the contrast) between the two subjects creates an interesting photo.

A classic example

A great example of this is the Annie Leibovitz portrait (bottom of page linked) of jockey Willie Shoemaker (4’ 11” tall) and basketball player Wilt Chamberlain (7’ 1”). Placing the two men side by side (juxtaposition) emphasizes the difference in their height (contrast). As we’re not used to seeing an extremely short person standing next to a very tall one, the difference in height appeals to our sense of curiosity.

Juxtaposition and contrast in action

Here are some more examples, this time using my own photos, showing how you can use juxtaposition and contrast to improve the composition of your images.

Juxtaposition and contrast in composition

I took this photo in the remote village of Iruya in north-west Argentina. It was late afternoon and I wandered beyond the boundary of the village towards a pass through the mountains. I saw two people walking down a path cut between the rock, one of them leading a donkey.

The juxtaposition here is between the human figures and the mountainside. The contrast is one of scale – the difference in size between the people and the landscape they are passing through.

Juxtaposition and contrast in composition

This photo was also taken in South America, this time in south-west Bolivia. The juxtaposition is between the guanacos in the middle distance and the mountain in the background. The contrast in size gives a sense of distance and scale to the landscape.

This photo is interesting because there is also strong tonal contrast, formed by the light and dark horizontal bands crossing the photo. The effect is emphasized because I used a short telephoto lens (the 55mm end of an 18-55mm kit lens on an APS-C camera), which compressed the landscape and flattened the perspective.

Juxtaposition and contrast in composition

This photo is a simple close-up of a seashell on a beach. The juxtaposition of the white shell against the black sand emphasizes the difference between them. It’s not a coincidence that I chose to convert this photo to black and white. Sometimes, good black and white photography is created simply by juxtaposing a black subject with a white one.

Juxtaposition and contrast in composition

I took this photo at sunset in the Argentinian city of La Plata. The cathedral is one of the largest in the Americas and was only completed in the 1990’s. The juxtaposition here is between the statue in the foreground and the spires of the cathedral. You can’t tell from this photo but the statue is located in a square in front of the cathedral. The two are some distance apart, separated by a road. By finding a position from which I could include both the statue and cathedral together, I created a composition that is more interesting than one containing either the cathedral or the statue alone. There is also a contrast between the gothic architecture of the cathedral and the weathered stonework of the statue that encourages the eye to move between the two.

Juxtaposition and contrast in composition

I photographed this waterfall on the side of Mount Taranaki, a conical volcano on New Zealand’s North Island. I used a tripod to support the camera and a shutter speed of 1/3 second to blur the water.

The juxtaposition here is between the rock and the water. The rocks are still, hard, and have a beautifully textured surface. The water is moving, soft and blurred. This type of contrast is the basis of many long exposure photographs.

Juxtaposition and contrast in composition

Finally, this photo taken in a temple in Shanghai, China, shows a different type of juxtaposition – the power of line. It’s a photo comprised of intersecting lines. The lines created by the incense sticks are perpendicular to the one created by the edge of the burner.

There is another type of contrast too. The line formed by the edge of the burner is much bigger than the sticks of incense. It’s another type of contrast of scale, as seen in some of the earlier photos.

Your turn

Can you think of any other examples of juxtaposition and contrast? Please let us know in the comments, and feel free to add your photos so we can all see what you have done.


Mastering Photography

Composition and line

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

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Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!