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How to Use Juxtaposition to Improve Your Landscape Photos

Improve your landscapes with juxtaposition

Juxtaposition. It’s one of my favorite words, and it’s also one of the most important aspects of successful photography. Juxtaposition is consciously used in portraiture, outdoor adventure photography, and travel shooting. In landscape photography, however, juxtaposition is often overlooked.

I say “overlooked” because many landscape shooters do in fact use juxtaposition in their landscape images. They simply use it without being aware of it! You see, juxtaposition – which refers to the act of bringing together conflicting or contrasting elements – is a key feature in most good landscape photographs. I’m not claiming that landscape photographers who don’t consciously work juxtapositions into their photos are bad; rather, I think that many great landscape shooters do this without even thinking about it.

Now, if you enjoy landscape photography, you might already use juxtaposition intuitively. But once you become aware of how juxtaposition can improve your images and of various elements that you can frequently juxtapose, your landscape shots will get even better.

And that’s where I come in. Today, I’m going to share three essential ways that you can create juxtaposition: through color, through texture, and through subject matter. This isn’t an exhaustive list of possibilities – in fact, I can list around a dozen ways to apply this technique to your photos – but it’s a great starting point!

Juxtaposition: Color

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes
Many landscape images will have multiple juxtapositions. In this case, color is foremost; there’s a strong juxtaposition from 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)

You are probably familiar with the color wheel; you were likely introduced to the concept in grade school when you learned the difference between primary and secondary colors. More recently, if you’ve used an editing program such as Lightroom, Capture One, or ACDSee Photo Studio, you will have seen the color wheel in various color grading panels.

A color wheel shows the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) occupying three slices of the circle. It also shows all the color mixes blending together between them. The result is a continuous blur of colors, encompassing just about everything on the visible spectrum.

Colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel – such as blue and yellow, red and green, and orange and purple – will contrast, or juxtapose, when they appear in the same photo. That is, they will stand out from one another, sometimes in a pleasing way, sometimes in a conflicting way. You can also create juxtaposition with colors close to one another on the color wheel: red and orange, green and blue, blue and purple.

Any type of color juxtaposition can work in landscape photography, but different types of juxtaposition will get you different results, and you need to be aware of the way colors interact in an image to ensure 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 with the muted grays and browns of the mountains.

Reds and blues, for example, are very commonly blended in landscape photography: blue water with a sunset sky, red flowers with a blue sky, 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 noticing that they are indeed nice.

So look for those relationships in your compositions and concentrate on their placement. A color like red is extremely effective at drawing the eye. But to be most effective, red generally 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
I used a long shutter speed to soften the water, which created a juxtaposition with the rough stones of the cliff.(Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona)

Juxtaposed textures are abundant in any landscape: spiky bushes against a smooth landscape, water flowing over rough rock, a jagged boulder in the middle of an otherwise grassy meadow, etc. Contrasting textures, like contrasting colors, are easy to observe in the field. But it’s important to think about how you combine different textures for the best results.

Like bright and intense colors, aggressive textures need to be used in moderation. Sharp, rough textures will dominate a landscape image if used too liberally, the same way that reds and oranges will dominate a landscape photo if they occur in abundance.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes
In this image, both the color and the texture of the autumn bearberry in the foreground create a juxtaposition with the blue sky and the sharp, upright trees in the background.

That said, overwhelming textures, just like overwhelming colors, might be exactly what you want. Just be aware of that decision when you make the image. If you do decide to fill a landscape shot with aggressive textures, make the harsh textures the point of your image. Otherwise, the wrong balance, or aggressive textures placed too dominantly by accident, can ruin the balance of an image.

As you approach each new landscape scene, consider how different textures relate, as well as the story you want to tell. Then place them in the frame accordingly.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes
The white, smooth antlers against the dark, grassy tundra make the subject leap out at the viewer.

And I’ll be honest: Juxtaposing textures effectively can be tough to figure out. Color juxtaposition can be guided by color theory, but as far as I know, there are no clear rules about texture! That said, while you may not always realize when you’ve gotten the texture balance right, 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. But they provide 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 than that!

My first two types of juxtaposition – color and texture – are somewhat nebulous and can be tougher to consciously apply in the field. But in this section, I want to talk about subject juxtaposition. In landscape photography, juxtaposition created by the subject matter is 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.

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes
Without context, this image would not have an obvious juxtaposition: it’s just a lightning strike, right? 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 between the location and the lightning are more clear.
Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes
A rare rainstorm in the Altiplano of Bolivia catches the last rays of sunlight. Both color and subject are juxtaposed here.

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:

Using Juxtaposition for More Compelling Landscapes
Here’s a rainbow in the dry desert – another clear example of the way juxtaposed subject matter can add interest to an image.

Similarly, I was once leading a wilderness photo tour in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. On the summer solstice, it snowed four inches. 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 snowstorm.

Capture powerful landscape shots with juxtaposition!

Juxtaposition 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 subjects interact within your landscape images, and you’re bound to find great success!

Of course, you don’t need to give up the intuitive side of juxtaposition. If certain elements create an interesting contrast, combine them in the frame, whether or not you know exactly why they seem to work together so well. Once you’re back home and reviewing your images, see if you can figure out why the juxtaposition was so effective. Eventually, you’ll be able to create some juxtaposition techniques and guidelines of your own!

Now over to you:

Have you explored juxtapositions in your landscape photographs? Tell me about it in the comments, and share some of your successes!

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David Shaw
David Shaw

is a professional writer, photographer, and workshop leader 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. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for affordable photo workshops in Alaska, Africa, and South America. Find out more HERE .

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