Story and photos by Michael Rossacci
Experience has taught me to exploit compositional techniques that help my nature images take on a more compelling story-telling quality. One such technique that I employ frequently is juxtaposition. This fancy word is formed by joining the Latin root “juxta”, which translates to “next to”, to the word “position”. Compositionally speaking, this means placing the subject next to some object in order to set the stage for a compare-and-contrast scenario. In some cases it is the similarity of the subject to the secondary object, whereas in other cases it may be the difference between the two that is stressed. More often than not, what results is a more inviting look and feel to the final image. In this article, I will delve into more detail about juxtaposition and highlight some examples from my own images.
There are many different photographic attributes that can be juxtaposed with various levels of complexity. Some of the more basic ones include the size, shape, and color of an object to be placed near the primary subject. Beyond these, one can also consider the object’s orientation and motion with respect to the primary object. On a more subtle level, one could exploit the age comparison of old versus young or the natural vs man-made comparison. Regardless of the attribute being compared, a judicial choice of depth of field is used to control the desired strength and impact of the juxtaposition.
All of these attributes and many more not listed can be grouped into a few categories. One category I would describe as intentional where we have a good idea of an object we’d like to juxtapose well in advance. Accidental juxtaposition best describes those “heated moments” when we hammer down the shutter button and find the juxtapositions later while reviewing images on our computers. Finally, there are always those situations where it is a mixture of intentional and accidental juxtaposition that the image captures.
In wildflower photography, especially when flowers are abundant, juxtaposition can be readily and easily applied. My first example (above) illustrates how capturing a nearby out of focus daisy behind the “primary” flower helps to immediately tell a more vivid story. In this example, I chose a very shallow depth of field to give the juxtaposition less weight. This example also falls into the category of intended juxtaposition because I deliberately sought out this contrasting scenario in advance.
In my next example, I was photographing a train of Willets receding from me when one of them suddenly broke the pattern and turned back toward me. In this case it was this single Willet’s orientation and direction of motion that were contrasted against the other two birds. This was mostly an accidental juxtaposition because it happened so fast due to the erratic movement of these shorebirds.
Sometimes situations arise when juxtaposition can take on multiple levels at one instant in time. One afternoon while trying to take some intimate portraits of a cygnet that was moving toward me, one of its siblings started creeping into the frame creating a first juxtaposition. Moments later, I noticed that a second, more distant and much larger out of focus object had crept into the top of the frame which happened to be one of the parent Mute Swans. Although it was accidental, this was a good example of juxtaposition at multiple levels: young versus young as well as old versus young.
The final example involves two Brown Pelicans perched on a steel beam that remained from a dilapidated building on a beach in Puerto Rico. I had watched these elegant birds for days flying, diving, and landing on this beam. In this particular image, I intentionally juxtaposed their colorful prominent bodies against the chipped and weathered man-made beam with the intent of bringing out the distinctive natural versus man-made theme.
In summary, for nature photographers seeking to create more engaging images, the exploitation of juxtaposition can be an effective compositional tool. Several types of physical attributes directly applicable to creating compare-and-contrast scenarios were discussed. Furthermore, it was shown that the choice of depth of field is an integral component in controlling the strength of the juxtaposition. Finally, several examples were presented that illustrate various situations where this compositional technique was used create a more inviting image.
Michael Rossacci specializes in nature, wildlife, and landscape photography and is based in the Boston, Massachusetts metro area. His publication credits include Nature Friend Magazine, Outdoor Photographer Magazine, Massachusetts Audubon, and Naturalist’s Notebook. More of his work can be seen at www.michaelrossacciphotography.com as well as on Facebook. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.