Dynamic Tension: Opponent Based Theory For Photography

Lips: Sexual Tension

Tension: Two forces acting against one another.

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Dynamic tension in Golden triangle: both sides trying to fight for dominance.

Sexual tension: The buildup before a sexual encounter. The “release” after the sexual encounter, and the rest and deep that ensures.

Tension in physics

Kinetic Tension: A rubber band being pulled in opposite directions. The dynamic tension, and the release of kinetic energy once the rubber band is released.

Hunger Tension: Hunger, which stimulates movement and activity. Then the feeding phase (eating food) which generally results in “food coma”— a nice nap after a big meal. Note: How lions will sleep almost an entire day after a big kill and feast.

Dynamic Tension in Color Photography

Color wheel theory: Dynamic tension between opposing colors.

In photography, tension in the “opponent color theory”: the dynamic tension between two opposing colors. The tension with the colors next to one another, adds more intensity of both colors.

Opponent based color theory. Opposing colors become more intense when placed next to one another.

For example, a red shape when placed against a green background seems more intense than a red shape against a simple white background. And a green figure against a red background:

Or the dynamic tension between yellow and blue, and blue and yellow:

Blue triangle on yellow background.
Yellow triangle on blue background.

Or the dynamic tension between black and white, or white and black:

White triangle on black background.
Black triangle on white background.

Dynamic Tension in Red, Yellow, Blue



The primary colors of red, yellow, and blue trying to fight one another for dominance. This tension between the three colors creates dynamic energy, and visual force:

Dynamic Tension in Hand Gestures or Body Language

Perhaps what makes picture with hand gestures or active body language interesting or dynamic is the tension in the hands:

Woman flexing bicep and pointing to it.
Cindy with elbows flared outwards.
Street photo of woman in advertisement banging against billboard.
Cindy touching glass in wedding dress.
Cindy flexing muscles.
Dynamic movement of Cindy’s head being thrown backwards.
Distorted picture of Cindy through a glass cup, with her hand on her forehead.
Cindy’s hands against her face.
Cindy touching mirror.
Man with hand on face. Sapa, 2017
Japanese man, leaning forward with arm.

Dynamic Curve

Bauhaus Fibonacci spiral by ANNETTE KIM

The curve as having the most dynamic movement, kinetic energy and flow:

Dynamic tension in Cindy’s hand. Also dynamic curve in background.

Cindy silhouette and curved arms. Saigon, 2017
Dynamic tension of Cindy’s arms curved around the frame.
My curved leg. Saigon hotel, 2017

“Something about to happen”

Imagine the picture as a movie: what do you think is going to happen a second or two after the picture?

Dynamic low angle angle picture. You are “about to” get stepped on as a viewer.
The devil silhouette of the bull “about to” collide directly with you. The effect of shooting head-on with a wide angle 28mm lens.
Cindy behind a red curtain, “about to” come into contact with you.

Dynamic Tension through Eye Contact

Woman in New York Metro who is looking directly at me with eye contact. The dynamic tension of, “What is she going to do, or say next?”

Woman making eye contact in nyc.
Street portrait of man with one white eye, looking directly at viewer/photographer with eye contact.
Eye contact of poster in background. Tokyo, 2016

Dynamic Tension of Negative Space

Visual tension through negative space —allowing space for the subject to release the built-up tension to “enter” or “exit” the frame.

Dynamic tension of Cindy looking up at the lights above. The negative space allows the viewers eyes to travel upwards.
Airplane silhouette. Sapa, Vietnam 2016. Negative space allowing the airplane to exit the frame.
Woman walking. Negative space on right side of the frame for her to continue walking.


Principle of DYNAMIC PHOTOGRAPHY: Dynamic Tension. I think this concept of “tension” can apply to all forms of art, photography, pictures, biology, economics, and almost everything in life.

Basically the “opponent” theory is this:

In life, we need an opponent.

For example, with working out and physical exercise, our “opponent” is gravity. We must fight against gravity to become stronger. In fighting gravity, we have to expend our energy, and build our muscles.

In sex, I don’t think that an orgasm or ejaculation could happen without sexual tension. NO tension = bad sex.

Also, in movies, dramas, novels, and thrillers — you always need a “bad guy”, some sort of difficulty the hero needs to overcome, or some sort of tension or danger. Or else the movie has no fun, no “climax”, or resolution.

In real life, we must have difficulties, challenges to overcome — or else life would have no excitement, fun, or meaning.

In photography, we must make pictures that have some sort of dynamic tension. Some sort of “visual opponent”— whether that is opposing colors, opposing geometrical or compositional tension, or perhaps tension of emotions or gestures or eye contact.

A practical insight: to become stronger in life, a better artist, or anything — add more tension. And then conversely, add more rest, relaxation, and recovery time.

As humans we cannot add infinite tension, without rest, recovery, and relaxation.

With muscle-building, after intense stress and tension to our muscles, we must rest and sleep a lot to let our muscles rebuild, and also eat a lot of protein and fat to recover, and rebuild our muscles.

With work, work really hard and intensely, but also schedule time for you to rest, relax, and “do nothing”— in order to continue being productive.

If you drink a lot of coffee or caffeine, give yourself ample time to take naps or rest, to compensate the “come down” after the “caffeine high”.

More thoughts on dynamic photography and life to come.

Further reading in dynamic photography:

Opponent Process Color Theory

Dynamic Composition Manual

Dynamic Composition 101: Figure to Ground

10 Dynamic Photography Composition Tips

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Dynamic Photography Composition 101


Dynamic Photography Composition Tips

Chiaroscuro. DYNAMIC LIGHT AND SHADOW. Hanoi, 2016 by ERIC KIM

Composition Theory

Dynamic low angle composition. Tokyo, 2011 by ERIC KIM

Take your composition to the next level:

Street Photography Composition 101

DYNAMIC REFLECTIONS. Man and three reflections by ERIC KIM

For distilled lessons on composition, read the free ebook: “The Street Photography Composition Manual.”

Further articles to improve your compositions in photography:

Composition Theory

Woman and door. Chiaroscuro. DYNAMIC LIGHT AND SHADOW. Hanoi, 2016 by ERIC KIM


Learn compositional theory:

Compositional lessons from the masters of art

Composition lectures