How to Use Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscape Photography

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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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

Juxtaposition – Color

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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

Many landscape images will have multiple juxtapositions. In this case, color is foremost with the warm tones on the salt mounds against the deeper blues of the water and sky. But the shape and texture also stand out. (Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia).

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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

In this aerial image of the Baird Mountains in northwest Alaska, the turquoise tarn in the foreground stands out as the brightest patch of color in the frame, juxtaposed from the muted grays and browns of the mountains.

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.

Juxtaposition – Texture

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

A long exposure softened the water which creates a juxtaposition with the rough stones of the cliff. (Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.)

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

In this image, both the color and the rounded texture of the autumn Bearberry in the foreground creates a juxtaposition with the blue sky and the sharp, upright trees in the background.

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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

The antlers of this caribou skull and the bright white against the dark tundra make the subject leap out from the image.

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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

In this image of Denali, in Denali National Park, Alaska, the two rounded forms, one green and spiky, one blue-white and more smooth echo one another, while providing wildly different textures, colors, and implications for the image.

Juxtaposition – Subject

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

Bright flowers on a gray day on a barren dune. Few things can create more juxtaposition in this image.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

Without context, this image would not have an obvious juxtaposition, it’s just an image of a lightning strike. But, when I tell you this photo was made on the arctic coastal plain of northern Alaska where thunderstorms are as rare as unicorns, then the juxtaposition of location and lightning are more clear.

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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

A rare rain storm in the Altiplano of Bolivia catches the last rays of sunlight. Both color and subject juxtapose here.

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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

Rainbow in the dry desert, another clear example of the way juxtaposed subject matter can add interest to an image.

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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes

Summer flowers the day after a snow storm.

Summary

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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. He is currently accepting sign ups for an aurora photo workshop in March of 2018, and a bird photography expedition in June 2017. Find out about  the aurora workshop and other tours, his photography, and read his science and nature blog.

  • Von Will
  • David W. Shaw

    Lovely! A silhouette is often an effective juxtaposition. I like the way you placed the people small in the frame, and the arm outstretched shows a nice bit of interaction. Also, their very organic forms juxtapose with the blocky outline of the buildings. Well done!

  • Von Will

    Thanks for the feedback David

  • neneland

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9ab08e0ed8e35c4c6a395bcf721bd65e2d50d29fc27b76aca676a2b6744839ae.jpg

    Here is my photo from a return trip to Portugal. Early morning sunlight and mist over the Mondego river

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  • David W. Shaw

    I love that light and the atypical composition! Unique and beautiful.

  • neneland

    Thanks David, its not always obvious what is in front of you to photograph. This particular morning I had hit on a misty start with the low sunlight.. as with all photography, you have to be there, and be ready 🙂

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