I'm sure you have heard the expression "opposites attract." It's a bit of a cliché, to be sure, but clichés often exist because there is some element of truth to them. And while it may not be completely accurate that everyone is attracted to his or her opposite, what is true is that people are attracted to visual representations of opposites. If you're stuck in a photographic rut, try this challenge: look for pairs of opposite subjects and try to capture them in a compelling way. Keep reading for some ideas.
The appeal of opposites
We like to look at photographs of opposites because they are objects that we don't expect to see together. Opposites give us visual contrast, and when two objects contrast in a big way, they give your viewer something to think about. Let's take a look at one example:
In this image we have two dogs, which it's hard to argue seem to be complete opposites. One of these dogs is big, and the second is small. Because of this contrast in size we immediately make assumptions about the other differences between these dogs. Some viewers might think the small dog seems vulnerable next to the large dog. Another viewer might interpret the interaction between the two dogs as being almost brotherly—the little dog is looking up at the larger dog with an expression that could be interpreted as something like admiration.
When we see two opposites together, we can't help but imagine what might happen next. For example, what is stopping the giant dog from having the smaller dog for breakfast? Because that small dog seems vulnerable, we start to worry a little bit about him. And anytime a photograph can inspire that kind of emotion in a viewer, it's going to be a lot more compelling than, say, a photograph of either one of these dogs sitting alone.
How to find opposites
Just about everywhere we look in nature there are opposites, or at the very least things that can be represented as opposites. For example, you could say that a desert and a rain forest are opposite, although, it would be a difficult to capture both of those things together in a single photograph. However, with a little creative thinking, you could suggest the idea of dry vs. wet or even rainforest vs. desert by juxtaposing two representative objects together. For example, a few green leaves placed on dry, cracked earth could make a statement about the challenges of life in dry conditions. And if you want to be a little more adventurous, you could search for bodies of water in dry places—rivers do cut through deserts, and a photo of running water traveling through an unlikely place will give your photo some pretty compelling contrast.
Opposites can be human beings as well — try photographing a dirty child next to a well groomed child with perfect hair. Or photograph twin toddlers, one crying and the other smiling (just wait a few minutes, one of them will almost certainly find something worth screaming about). Then ask your viewer to speculate on how well he thinks those two children get along. Ultimately it doesn't matter if the answer is correct—those two twins might get along famously in the real world—the important thing is to capture the two children in such a way that inspires your viewer's imagination, regardless of how accurate his conclusions may be.
If you need a simpler approach, think in terms of colors. At some point in your artistic career, you’ve probably encountered a color wheel:
The color wheel is a simple tool that can help you understand the relationship between colors, but it can also be used to help you create photographic opposites. Colors that appear opposite one another on the color wheel are called "complementary colors," but you can also think of them as literal opposites. The opposite of blue is orange, the opposite of a green is a red, and the opposite of purple is yellow. When you place two opposite colors into a photograph, you get a very striking contrast between those colors. That helps draw your viewer's attention into the scene, and creates a very appealing composition.
Blue and Orange by Flickr user SammCox
Now what about objects that don’t really have opposites? If you have kids, you know that they tend to be fascinated by the idea of opposites, and convinced that every object must have one. “What’s the opposite of yarn?” you’ve probably been asked. Or, “What’s the opposite of shoe?” Now clearly there is no literal answer to either of those questions, at least not in the same sense as we know for certain that the opposite of cold is hot, or the opposite of dirty is clean. But we can think about ways to juxtapose two objects that seem to contradict one another. For example, we could include a finished, knitted blanket in a photograph with a ball of yarn as a way of contrasting the two—one the raw material, and the other the finished product. We could juxtapose a high heel shoe next to a sneaker. Neither of these pairs of objects are necessarily opposites, but they do create a dichotomy or a strong contrast.
Your project plan
Now if this is the sort of project idea that appeals to you, you could just set out one morning with a goal of wandering around until you blunder into some good sets of opposites or contrasting objects. However, I rarely recommend this approach because it tends to not be as fruitful as an approach where you have a solid plan. Now you don’t have to type out a detailed outline or anything, but at the very least you should think about some of the opposite pairs you might want to photograph so that you’ll have a game plan when you leave the house. Make a list of potential subjects—black and white, for example, old and young, wet and dry.
And remember to think outside the box of strict opposites—you can also think about ideas or concepts you might want to communicate to your viewer, and find contrasting subjects that convey those concepts. For example, let's say that you want to communicate your thoughts on climate change—you could contrast dying trees with a gas-powered vehicle such as a large pickup truck.
Think about places around your community where you might see strong contrast. In some towns, there is a clear separation between the poorer communities and the wealthier ones—is there a place where the contrast is obvious, such as a low-income apartment block across the street from a suburban neighborhood? What about the place where the city meets the country—is there a line between civilization and nature? This is going to require some brainstorming, so it's worth some thought and planning.
Finally, try thinking in technical terms—what are some of the things you typically keep in mind when trying to capture a photograph, such as light and shutter speed? What if you lit your subject with a single, bright light on one side of his face, and let the other side fall into shadow? That might make a strong statement about the two contrasting parts of his personality, his "Jekyll and Hyde." Or you could use motion blur to create contrast. Put your camera on a tripod, then have two human subjects stand side by side. Select a slow shutter speed and ask one subject to stand as still as possible, and ask the other subject to walk out of the frame during the exposure. You'll get motion blur on one subject and (hopefully) a sharp image of the other subject, which will amount to a photograph of opposites—moving and standing, or restless and restful.
This can be a really fun project but again, it requires some contemplation and certainly some experimentation. Start with a simple photo of opposites, like in the first example above of the two contrasting colored chess pieces. Then see if you can move on to more complex ideas about contrasting elements or opposites. If at first you can't seem to really capture the contrast between two things in a compelling way, don't worry—you have the great luxury of being able to delete and reshoot if things don't work out the way you'd envisioned the first time around. Think of how you can adjust your camera angle, the way you've juxtaposed the two objects and how they are interacting with one another. Try different ideas and then decide later on which ones worked and which ones weren't as successful. The only way you'll really know for sure is if you brainstorm and then try every idea that occurs to you. Remember that ultimately your goal is to create images that make your viewer think—if you can do that, then you've succeeded.
- How to find opposites
- Look for opposites in the natural world
- Find examples of opposite people
- Use opposite (complementary) colors
- Find contrasting objects, even if they aren't strict opposites
- Make a plan
- Brainstorm first
- Think in technical terms
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