Conflict and Contrast

Conflict is at the heart of all story. For an image to imply a story, it must include conflict.

20070509185359_pwood-30d-070424-0510The easiest and most obvious way to include conflict is to portray actual, physical conflict. A fight is something no one can ignore, whether we enjoy watching it or not.

20070509185511_pwood-30d-070424-0596Another easy method is emotional conflict.

In this image (to the left), you can see that, even if you aren’t familiar with the story of Cabaret, the distant stare of the woman and the last, lingering glance of the man show some sort of strong emotional conflict going on.

Stage plays, by definition, portray plenty of conflict and drama, and the photographic possibilities are endless.


Not all stories (and images showing a story) are about open conflict, though. More often, we try to imply a sense of story by showing contrasts. The visual contrasts of light versus dark, soft versus hard, color versus monochrome. And the conceptual contrasts such as big versus small, mechanical versus natural, expected versus unexpected. All these can imply a sense of story.


In the image to the right is an example of contrasts of textures. Notice the tones throughout the image are very close, but the very smooth rubber play surface of the water contrasts with the sharp, random branches of the tree.





The image to the left is showing several different types of contrast, both visual and conceptual. Light versus dark. Bright colors versus drab browns.

Life versus death.


This close-up of a Roseate Spoonbill shows several type of contrast as well. Beautiful versus ugly. Color versus monochrome. And expected (the soft, beautiful pinks of a bird) versus unexpected (the wrinkled, vulture-like ugliness of his head).





And the last example, the formal, reverent facade of the Alamo versus the frivolous pink hat and teddy bear of a tourist.





Not all images imply (or should imply) a story. But if they do, it makes them vastly more interesting. Understanding the concepts of story, and how it is achieved in an image through conflict and contrast, can help you make stronger images.

Familiar Things

“In order to see, you must first forget the name of the thing you are looking at.”

— Monet

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen leaves in my pool and thought only about the effort it would take to skim them out. I’ve seen them so many times that each one became a familiar label: “leaf in pool”.

APAD-20D-041111-5183 One day, though, while making an effort to see things in a different way, I looked harder at the leaf, and began to See it. 

I saw the colors; the beautiful blue-cyan shades, the aging brown. I saw the shapes; the symmetry of the leaf, the velvet-like signs of surface tension in the water.

And I saw something other than “leaf in pool”. The label was gone, or at least temporarily misplaced.

When we are children, we think primarily in pictures, not in words. But as we learn the analytical skills of an adult, we depend less and less on the part of the brain that encourages visual thinking. This pattern becomes so established the we try to label everything we see. We rule out visual exploration, and concentrate on the data. How many of us, when photographing a bird, are concerned about the species more than the image?

FP-10D-040131-7624 I fell into this rut (“Oh, that’s an ordinary bird”). By doing this, all I saw was a bird.

I didn’t see how the sun from behind gave him a gorgeous rim-lighting, how he cocked his head to look at me with a very obvious curiosity.

If we want to learn to see, we need to learn to learn the recognize the value of the familiar.

How can we do this? This first thing we need to do is slow down.

“This benefit of seeing… can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image… the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate. ”

— Dorothea Lange

mirrorcandle Try this: Close yourself into the bathroom. Give yourself at least twenty minutes to take ten images. If you aren’t feeling desperation by the tenth image, take ten more.

Force yourself to look at familiar objects in a new way. Look at things you see each and every day, and try to look at them as if you’re seeing them for the first time.

Take what you’ve learned and try it someplace else. Try another room, or your backyard. In my bathroom, I found a candle and two mirrors. A little experimentation, and I came up with this.

Abandon your labels. Learn to See.