Landscape Composition Tool #10:

Contrast

May 27, 2021


Contrasting elements in a photograph can help to distinguish the subject of an image and is an excellent tool in your landscape photography compositional toolbox. The human eye is naturally drawn to high contrast areas of an image, so using this as a compositional tool can help the viewer to know exactly the focus point of the photograph. There are two types of contrast that can be used as a compositional tool: color and light. Color contrast uses colors next to one another that contrast with each other so one color stands out from the other. Light contrast does the same thing with shadows and highlights to make it clear to a viewer the subject of the photograph.


To use this compositional technique while on location, look for areas of color contrast or light contrast that distinguish a subject from the rest of the photograph. By incorporating areas of high contrast, it can separate the subject in a positive way to showcase the uniqueness or beauty of the element. This might mean being patient with the light as it changes throughout the day, but it will be worth it to come away with a spectacular image. Prior research into a location will also be helpful to determine when the best light will hit the subject to provide the best either color contrast or light contrast.


The image below from Upper Antelope Canyon in Arizona uses contrast of light to distinguish the main subject of the image, which happens to be the light beam shining through the canyon. This only happens at a certain point during the day, so finding the right time to photograph based on when the contrast is the best is critical to producing an outstanding photograph. The light beam is so much brighter than the rest of the image that the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn toward it. The contrast between the dark canyon walls and the light beam provides a clear subject for the viewer.

May 27, 2021

Looking at the photo below of Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland, the water itself is so bright compared to the areas around it providing light contrast to direct the viewer’s eye toward the water, the main subject of the photograph. The other areas of the image provide interest for the viewer, but the main subject is the waterfall, which is clear because of the contrast. The light waterfall surrounded by darker tones leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind what the subject of the image is and what they should be focusing on. For this technique to work in this image, the overcast clouds help tremendously. If the clouds were not there, the sky would be just as bright as the waterfall and this photograph would not work as well.

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As another example from Iceland, this time from Stokkesness, the main subject of the image are the mountains, which is contrasted nicely between the dark mountains and light snow. To help the viewer, the foreground provides a nice leading element to help guide the viewer’s eye into the main subject. The contrast between the black sand beach, snow on the left, and water on the right provides contrast that attracts the viewer’s eye and leads the eye into the mountains.

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Contrast helps direct the viewer’s eye to where the photographer wants their gaze to go. In the photo above, contrast is used to lead the eye into the main subject, the mountains. In the photo below, contrast is used as the main subject with the variations in the ice. This is a combination of light and color contrast because the blue and black colors contrast each other, but the blue ice is lighter than the black colored ice, so the lights and darks contrast against each other. This combination of contrasts works to attract the viewer’s eye to see the colors and textures in the ice inside this ice cave in Iceland.

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The image below from Yellowstone National Park shows multiple examples of color contrast all occurring in the same area to draw the eye into the image and focus on the thermal pool as the subject of the image. The green grass contrasts with the orange color and they both contrast with the blue of the center of the thermal pool. Because these colors contrast each other, each stands out, which generates more interest for the viewer.

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Complimentary colors provide nice contrast when they are next to each other, whereas analogous colors do not provide as much color contrast. Looking at the digital color wheel below, complimentary colors are ones that are across from each other, and analogous colors are ones that are next to each other. In the digital color wheel below, orange and green area approximately across from each other. Likewise, orange and blue are across from each other, so orange is a complimentary color of both blue and green. In the photo above since the orange is between the blue and the green colors, it creates color contrast between the colors, generating interest for viewers.

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Another example of color contrast is shown in the image below of bluebonnets from Ennis, Texas. Notice how the red flowers in the foreground contrast with the bluebonnets and the green grasses around it. This helps to separate the red flowers to provide an interesting focus point for the viewer. The way the red flowers stand out from the rest of the image is eye catching and directs the eye of the viewer. Looking at the digital color wheel above shows red and blue being complimentary colors because they are across the color wheel from each other.

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The photo below from the Kanarraville Falls slot canyon in Utah shows another example of color contrast. This tree was growing in between the rocks of the canyon walls and the green color of the leaves contrasted nicely with the red rock. This color contrast attracts the viewer’s attention leading the eye to the subject of the photograph because the green stands out so much amongst the predominantly red hues throughout the rest of the photograph. The digital color wheel shows red and green as complimentary colors since they are approximately across the color wheel from each other. Because red and green are complimentary colors, there is contrast between those colors as well as between the tree and the rest of the image in the photo below.

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In the photo below from Yosemite National Park in California, the chapel stands out among the snow-covered trees because of the color contrast between the red and yellow of the church against the white and green of the trees. This leaves no doubt what the subject of the photo is and where the viewer should look in the photograph.

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This is another example where the right conditions really help make this photograph a success. The sky is overcast, which blends into the trees because they are similar tones and colors, which further helps the contrast of the chapel. If the sky were filled with sunrise or sunset colors or clear blue skies, the color contrast of the chapel would not work as well because it would be competing with the contrast between the snow-covered trees and the colors in the sky.


Contrast in photographs is a great way to lead the viewer’s eye to the subject of the photograph, and it’s a fantastic way to make the subject stand out amongst the other elements in the photograph. Light contrast looks to combine lights and darks with the subject so it is separated from the rest of the image or the elements around it. Color contrast seeks to use complimentary colors close to each other to provide contrast that makes the subject of the photo stand out to the viewer. Using contrast as a compositional tool is an amazing way to make your photos stand out. For more landscape photography compositional tools, check out this article!


How have you used contrasting elements in your landscape photographs? Let me know in the comments below!

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