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Juxtaposition – it’s one of my favorite words, and also one of the most important aspects of successful photography. It’s used in portraiture, outdoor adventure, and frequently in travel photography. In images of the landscape, however, juxtaposition is often overlooked.
I say overlooked because many photographers integrate juxtaposed elements in their landscapes without even being aware of them. You see, juxtaposition, or the way different elements conflict and contrast, is a key feature in most good landscape photographs.
Though there are a dozen or more different ways juxtaposition can occur in an image, in this article I’m going to concentrate on three; color, texture, and subject matter.
You are probably familiar with the color wheel. Likely you were introduced to the concept in grade school when you learned the difference between primary and secondary colors. More recently, if you have selected a new font color on your word processing program you’ve likely seen some form of the color wheel.
Simply, a color wheel shows the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) occupying three slices of the circle with all the mixing iterations of color blending together between them. The result is a continuous blur of colors, encompassing just about everything on the visible spectrum.
Colors that are opposite from one another (complementary) on the wheel like; blue and yellow, red and green, or orange and purple, for example, will juxtapose. That is, they will stand out from one another; some in a pleasing way, some in a conflicting way. Both can work in photography, depending on your goal, but you need to be aware of the way colors communicate in an image to assure your final result is what you intend.
Reds and blues, for example, are very commonly blended in landscape photography; blue water with sunset sky, red flowers on a bluebird day, autumn colors against a dark backdrop, etc. Color plays an important role in landscape photography, and we recognize pleasing color combinations as soon as we see them. But recognizing WHY they are pleasing, is different from seeing that they are. Look for those relationships in your compositions, and concentrate on their placement. Some colors, red for example, are extremely effective at drawing the eye. But to be most effective, red needs to be counteracted by cooler tones, balancing the image. Mind how the colors are distributed in your image. It matters.
Juxtaposed textures are abundant in any landscape; spiky bushes against a smooth landscape, water flowing over rough rock, or just a jagged boulder in the middle of an otherwise soft, grassy meadow, etc. Textures, as like color, are easy to observe in the field. Like bright colors, aggressive textures too need to be used in moderation. Like reds and oranges, sharp, rough, textures will dominate an image if used too liberally.
Overwhelming textures, just like overwhelming colors, might be exactly what you want. Just be aware of that decision when you make the image. Make the harsh textures the point of your image, because the wrong balance, or aggressive textures placed too dominantly by accident, can ruin the balance of an image. Consider how they relate, the story you want to tell with their use, and place them in the frame accordingly.
This is a tough one to put to use because there are no clear rules about texture. You may not always realize when you’ve gotten this balance right, but you’ll definitely know when it’s wrong.
The first two examples, color and texture, are more nebulous and tougher to apply in the field than the subject of the image. In landscapes, juxtapositions within the subject matter are easier to apply, and will almost always add interest to your images.
As I sat down to write this article, the first thing that came to mind was the weather. Storm light, that rare sunlight that appears despite the dark clouds, is a perfect example of subject juxtaposition. Few things contrast as much as a stormy day, and sunlight.
Tying weather to elements of the landscape is another way to create juxtapositions. A few years ago, I was hiking in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, Texas when I was treated to a rare thunderstorm. As the very brief storm cleared the mountains, a rainbow appeared. The desert landscape, topped by a rainbow against a blue sky, leads to an undeniable juxtaposition.
Similarly, last summer I was leading a wilderness photo tour in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. On the summer solstice, it snowed four inches overnight, and the following morning the blooming flowers were covered in snow. Summer flowers and fresh snow juxtapose nicely.
Juxtaposition, the way elements compare and contrast each other, is as important in landscape photography as it is in any other discipline of the art, even if it is more difficult to use. Pay attention to the way color, texture, and your subject interrelate within your image and you’ll find greater success with your landscapes.
Have you explored juxtapositions in your landscape photographs? Tell me about it in the comments, and share some of your successes.