The Tuesday Composition: The Attraction of Opposites

The contrast between the size and age of the guanaco calls our attention to not only to the difference, but to the relationship between the two.
Guanaco Anticipating the Future. The contrast between the size and age of the guanaco calls our attention not only to the difference, but also to the relationship between the two.

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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).

Pink Morning Mists
Pink Morning Mists, Torres del Paine.

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.

Pond and Drake's Estero, Point Reyes. Echoes don't have to be overt to be effective.
Pond and Drake's Estero, Point Reyes. Contrasts between near and far, small and large, low and high contrast reinforce each other.

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.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. I agree with you, contrasting is a very powerful composition technique in photographic storytelling.

  2. Mirko: I think that’s a great example of what I’m talking about “before” and “after” is a great contrast to make and one I’ll probably talk more about going forward. In particular the left-and-right placement tends (at least in countries where folks usually read left-to-right) to establish a sequence. I see in later examples you added a coffee cup in some samples to extend the idea, which I think works, but I think this the most effective of that set of images, the even brown works well for me. If I had to do one thing to the image, I might try backing of the vignetting a bit, although whether I did that would depend a lot on how the image was going to be used. Thanks for sharing your work!

  3. Thank you, Joe, for putting words to it. In my shooting I’ve used this concept because it simply makes a photo work but I don’t know that I was consciously thinking about it as I shot. Reading that final list made me think of the opposites I’ve been overlooking.

    I really need to contribute to more public forums to get my feet in receiving constructive criticism and critique so I’ll start by offering this recent post for consideration of opposites:

  4. Jay:

    Thanks for offering up images, I know it’s always a bit tricky. I still remember some of the first critique sessions i had with the late Galen Rowell, it was unnerving at first, but eventually I got a little more used to it.

    The first two make use of that strangely cut log, which definitely sticks out (and contrasts) with a mostly natural environment behind, although I think that idea would be stronger if there weren’t other man-made objects on the frame (like the OOF fence in the middle image). While the cut log is a warm color itself, I don’t know that it’s going to convey a lot of warmth no matter how you process the image, that subject just kinda feels cold, but it would be interesting to see how a slightly warmer white balance—enough to pop a little more orange/yellow into the log but a small enough move to keep the fog/sky bluish, would play out. I’m not saying it’d necessarily better, just a direction I’d go in playing with the second (and first images).

    In terms of just balance and stuff, I think the second of the three images is my favorite, there’s something nice about the pattern of ridges of trees in the background that works really well with the shapes of the log for me.

    Chilly images.. I think I’m gonna go make some cocoa!

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