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Opposites attract ... our attention.
Opposition is one of the primary themes in photographic composition, one which was first emphasized to me by Frans Lanting, the powerfully talented photographic storyteller. At the simplest level, putting together two areas of different tone (brightness) forms a contrast which pulls our eyes toward the boundary between them. Contrasting opposing colors has a similar effect, attracting our attention and actually enhancing the saturation and power of the individual colors.
But using contrast and opposition in composition goes far beyond that, contrasting concepts can be a very powerful tool for composing a photography to communicate a particular message. Contrasting concepts, much as with contrasting colors, has two effects.
First, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the nature of the contrast. The black and white of a yin-yang symbol draws our attention to tones, the difference between light and dark. Similarly, a photograph of an infant and an adult leads the viewer to think about age, and as a result, perhaps issues of family relationships and parenting. It’s almost impossible to view Guanaco Anticipating the Future without thinking about the relationship between the two animals (we assume that one is the parent of the other), a concept that wouldn’t come to mind nearly as quickly if I’d only included one animal (or two of the same age and size).
Second, contrasting two things seems to often exaggerate each of them. If we put a smooth texture next to a rough texture, both the smoothness and the roughness are stronger, more apparent. If we put a moving object (perhaps communicated with motion blur) in an unmoving scene the sense of motion may be enhanced.
In Pink Floating Mists, the glowy, surreal look of the mountains of Torres del Paine is enhanced and highlighted by the sharpness and clarity of the foreground–try covering the bottom of the image with a sheet of paper and see how the image loses “oomph” as a result. In Pond and Drake’s Estero, which I discussed in a previous post about low-contrast images, the sense of how far the estuary is, and how large it is, is emphasized by comparing and contrasting it with the much nearer, much smaller pond. That sense is reinforced by the contrast in contrasts, the pond being high contrast and the estuary being low contrast helps strengthen the opposition between the two.
There are dozens (at least) of such oppositions that are handy fodder for photographers. Young and old. Smooth and rough. Fast and slow. Happy and sad. Big and small. Feminine and masculine. Cold and warm. Awake and asleep. Light and dark. Clothed and nude. Ordered and chaotic. Wet and dry. Rich and poor. Tall and wide. Simple and complex. Symmetric and asymmetric. Natural and man-made. Straight and curved. Engaged (with the viewer’s attention, e.g., looking at the camera) and disengaged. Brand-new and decayed. Rich and poor. I’m sure you can think of dozens more–in fact, I invite you to point me to examples of your own work that demonstrate the power of contrasts.
When composing images in a new area, I often look first to see what the most important objects and ideas are before working to include as much of those as possible. But I’ll often also be looking for contrasts which help me guide the viewers’ attention to a concept–because it’s such an effective way of communicating ideas within a photograph.