Juxtaposition in Photography: Definition, Tips and Examples
Juxtaposition. It sounds clever – and complicated. But what is it? And how can you create juxtapositions that make for memorable photographs?
If you, like many photographers, want to learn more about this simple, effective, and often misunderstood technique – plus see some awesome examples of juxtaposition – read on.
What is juxtaposition?
First, a simple juxtaposition definition.
When we juxtapose two things, we place them next to each other. When those things are notably dissimilar, the juxtaposition highlights the differences between them and creates a sense of contrast. When we get it right, that contrast can be very powerful – aesthetically, conceptually or both.
From visual art to music, artists of all kinds have used juxtaposition for centuries. But how is juxtaposition used in photography? Let’s establish a definition of juxtaposition in photography, and look at some juxtaposition photography examples.
What is juxtaposition in photography?
So, what does juxtaposition mean in photography?
For photographers, juxtaposition can be a compositional technique, or a conceptual one. Usually, it’s a little bit of both, with the composition serving as an integral part of the concept, designed to create an interesting effect.
For example, a carefully composed street-photography image that juxtaposes a person sleeping rough with a shop selling high-end clothing and home furnishings conveys the harsh realities of economic inequality in a single, powerful image.
Image courtesy of Dan Burton via Unsplash
Why the 'Rule of Thirds' Isn't the Most Important Composition Rule
You’ve heard about the rule of thirds, golden spiral, symmetry, leading lines and many more theoretical guides for good composition. But are they really the best or most effective rules.
Of course, social commentary isn’t essential to an image. Juxtaposition can also be purely fun, as in this image of a chopped-up orange wearing sunglasses!
In addition to the amusing juxtaposition of fruit with eyewear, there is also the interesting juxtaposition of the dark sunglasses with the bright colours of the orange, surface and background.
© Karl Taylor
Juxtaposition photography: definition
For the purposes of a ‘juxtaposition in photography’ definition, we can say that juxtaposition photography involves combining two or more elements in the same picture, highlighting the interesting contrast between them, to create an eye-catching and thought-provoking image.
Now let’s take a look at some other interesting juxtaposition photography examples.
Big and small
Juxtaposition of scale can be very effective. Think of some street photography showing a huge New York City skyscraper towering over a tiny pedestrian.
In this nautical shot, the RIB is large enough to carry more than a dozen passengers, but the vast ship in the background overshadows it completely.
Image courtesy of Gordon Plant via Unsplash
The image is made all the more compelling by the fact that some of the passengers are gesturing up at the ship, while others appear to be looking directly at the camera.
Old and young
Youth, so they say, is wasted on the young. Whether or not you believe that’s true, there’s no denying the potency of an image that juxtaposes youth and old age.
In this 'two subjects, one photograph' example, the deep lines etched into the old man’s face are all the more pronounced for being juxtaposed with the wrinkle-free face of the young boy beside him.
Likewise, the old man’s simple, traditional clothing, complete with safety pin at the collar, contrasts powerfully with the bright red of the boy’s T-shirt with its street art-style graphic.
Image courtesy of Nourdine Diouane via Unsplash
Finally, in terms of body language, the frowning old man’s gaze meets ours, while the smirking boy looks off into the distance. All of these elements of juxtaposition combine to make an extremely effective image.
Light and dark
Juxtaposing dark with light is a simple and effective way to create an interesting photograph.
This image of white sea foam washing up over black stones is quite straightforward, yet instantly appealing.
Image courtesy of Jacob Vizek via Unsplash
Our eye is caught at first by the juxtaposition of light and dark. As we explore the image further, we notice the second element of juxtaposition: texture.
The smooth, round stones, glinting in the light, are juxtaposed and contrast with the foam’s fine bubbles, which reflect the light in a softer, more diffuse way.
Meanwhile, in the paint-splash photo below, the brightness of the yellow paint is juxtaposed with the dark background, as well as the strong shadows on the model’s face.
There is also a great sense of contrast in the juxtaposition of the calm, impassive, stationary model with the messy chaos of the splattering paint.
From a technical point of view, this was one of the most difficult images Karl has ever attempted to capture. But the stunning results speak for themselves. Find out how it was done.
As anyone with a basic understanding of colour theory knows, different colours interact with one another in different ways. The best way to get to grips with those interactions is to refer to a colour wheel.
As the wheel shows, you can achieve particularly strong contrasts by juxtaposing blue and orange, red and green, or violet and yellow.
In the accompanying photograph, which I took for a campaign to mark the launch of the Hasselblad H6D, I used orange paint to match the orange button on the camera.
To achieve maximum contrast and maximum impact, I juxtaposed the paint with a dark blue background.
Two or more elements
Right thing, wrong place
You don’t need to be a tidiness freak to have your attention caught by something that’s out of place.
Juxtaposing the subject of your photograph with a surprising and unusual setting – one where you wouldn’t normally expect to see it – is a great way to earn your viewer’s interest and attention.
I designed my image of a baby surrounded by fishing industry detritus and plastic pollution with exactly this in mind.
The purity and innocence of the child is juxtaposed with the harmful and sinister implications of the pollution, creating a provocative narrative that forces the viewer to confront the issues raised by the image.
Here (below) is another striking example. Because of the juxtaposition of subject matter and setting, this photograph of a couple in bed is significantly more intriguing and compelling than it might otherwise have been.
By juxtaposing a familiar domestic scene with the wildness of the forest, the photographer creates an image that really makes us think.
© Georgie Prow
Juxtaposition fashion photography
This kind of juxtaposition can be really useful in on-location fashion photography. For example, when I conceived of ‘Fashionscape’, a series of fashion shoots we undertook on location in Iceland, I knew that juxtaposing a model posing in glamorous outfits with a rugged, volcanic wilderness setting would make for some really stunning shots.
I’ve used this technique elsewhere, too. In the shot below, I juxtapose two highly contrasting elements by placing a fashion model – one who looks like she belongs in a ballroom – on a cold and windswept beach.
In doing so, I create a photograph that catches your attention and lingers in your mind look after you stop looking at it.
Seascape Fashion Photography
Learn how to use slow shutter speeds together with fast flash duration, as well as how to adjust exposure for changing light conditions using filters, as you watch Karl and the team work on location.
Explore your own juxtaposition photography ideas
Now that we’ve explored juxtaposition photography, and seen some juxtaposition examples, you can start experimenting! What creative ideas can you capture in your own photographs? What strong emotions can you inspire with your own juxtapositions?
Once you know how to recognise it, you'll find that juxtaposition exists everywhere. What intriguingly different elements can you juxtapose in a photograph? What exciting juxtapositions will you encounter while you’re out and about taking street photography?
Keep your eyes open and your camera in hand: the next stunning juxtaposition might be just around the corner!