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Photo Composition: Balance

Balance is one of the most important elements of composition yet is also one of the hardest to describe, though we usually know it when we see it. The subject of compositional balance is not unique to photography; painters and other artists have been writing about the subject for centuries, yet there is still no standard way to codify it, though there are some good guidelines and strategies to help you achieve balance in your photos. Like anything else in the arts, many of the details will come down to personal preference.

At the most general level, though, the concept of “balance” is that if you divide an image in half, the “visual weight” of the elements in one half should match the weight of the elements in the other half. This is true on the vertical and the horizontal axes of the image.

The simplest example of this is symmetry, in which one half of the photo mirrors the other half exactly (or as close to exactly as possible). This type of balance is easy for the photographer to compose and for the viewer to understand, and it can be used to create a very powerful effect. However, there are two major problems with using symmetry as a compositional strategy: first, creating a strong composition with symmetry usually requires perfect symmetry, so relatively small differences in one half of the image can be very damaging to the composition. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that symmetrical compositions are very simple and predictable, and therefore can get boring pretty quickly.

Grand Tetons - Composition symmetry

Not perfect symmetry, but it’s the strategry for this image that I shot in the Grand Tetons.

More commonly, artists compose their images such that elements of the image are balanced according to “visual weight” or “impact” rather than literal form. Consider the simplified image in the example below:

Balance in Photography, Example 1

In this image, there are two main elements: the large, black mountains in the upper left, and the white flower in the lower right. Within the limits of my crude artistry, this image is well balanced. Why? The mountain is much larger than the flower, they’re not similar shapes, there’s no symmetry.

The answer is more dependent on the psychology of the observer than the specific shapes and forms. When an image is mostly dark, our eye is attracted to areas and objects that are bright. For that reason, the (relatively small) flowers in this image have much more “visual weight” than the larger, darker mountains. If we draw a vertical line down the center of the image, notice that each half of the shot is equally important to the overall image… and in fact, the same is true if we bisect the image with a horizontal line.

For some people, the balance may be easier to see when the image is out of balance. Suppose that the “photographer” had taken a few steps to the right and shot the image with the flowers on the left. As you can see, the right side of the image seems empty and a bit superfluous. In fact, it almost seems that the left side of the image would work nicely as a square image, with the rest of the frame cut off.

Bright areas are not the only elements that carry extra weight. In fact, there are too many specifics to list, and they can be dependent on an emotional response from the viewer just as easily as formal factors. A partial list might give you a good starting point, though:

  • dark areas in an otherwise bright image
  • bright colors in an otherwise monochrome or drab image
  • a contrasting color in an image containing mostly similar or complimentary colors
  • faces, especially eyes
  • human forms, especially naked ones
  • areas of sharp focus in images with significant areas that are blurry
  • objects that are closer to the camera carry a little more weight
  • objects that are physically heavier may also carry more visual weight (depending on the observer’s experience)
  • writing, symbols, and logos… particularly in unexpected places
  • small areas of fine detail in large areas of open space (negative space)

It isn’t necessary to use balancing elements that carry extra weight; you can easily balance one large dark object with another large dark object, for example, but you run the risk of having multiple elements competing to be the subject of the image.

Cannon Beach, Orgon : Photography Composition

I shot the image above at Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast. The balance strategy is very similar to that in my diagrams above it; the large, dark rock and it’s reflection in the lower-left are balanced by the smaller sea-stacks in the upper right because they are set against a lighter area of the image backed by a contrasting color.

Palouse Farm

While I was shooting in the Palouse of eastern Washington, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. To help create an open, airy feeling in some of my photos, I included large swaths of empty sky. To balance it (without overpowering it), I included small areas of the ground with sharp, contrasty detail, like the trees and farmhouse above.

Examples!

Virtually any good photograph will be an example of successful balance; my goal with this article has been to pick a few that are simple enough images to convey the concept. Again, rather than filling this gallery with my own images, I’d like to see some of yours!  They don’t need to be artistically or technically perfect… simply email me your photo (any size) that is a clear example of “Balance”, and I’ll add it to the gallery below… or use the “Upload” widget at the bottom of the right column of the site, and send me a message to let me know that you’ve added something. Please also include how you’d like your name to appear in the byline, either as your username here, or your real name. Also include a line or two of text to describe what you think is going on, if you think it will help.

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AndyB
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AndyB

Mathew… Interesting article and comments. I’ve been playing with photography for about 17 years, and balance has always been a bit over my head and I think my photos seem to reflect that. I get confused at what has to be thousands or millions of combinations/possibilities surrounding balance. It’s overwhelming. Like you mentioned, I know it when I see it but haven’t understood how to execute it very well in my own work. Your article has given me hope that maybe it’s not as out of reach as I thought… A bit of an ‘Aha’ after seeing your examples. It gives me a new starting point. Thanks!!

By the way, I have just recently come across your videos and website and I think you have a gift as an educator. Thanks for taking the time to present this information to the world… it is definitely a benefit to some of us! I’m not sure what you do for a living but I hope that it includes this talent.

Andy

James
Member
James

This is an excellent article just like the ones I previously read. Great tips and tutorials/lessons. Thanks a lot! My photography will definitely improve.

Here are my examples:
By the way, how do you add images? I seem to have some problems with them.

When I try to add them it looks like this:

Until I figure it out, I’ll just put the link then.  http://fav.me/d63x803

Adelio
Guest
Adelio

Thanks Matt, very informative and michaels link awesom, Thanks

Alfred Lopez
Editor

After reviewing your photos for a second and third time and comparing them to the ones you posted from me, it seems we have a “subjective” view of balance. Looking at my photos, my sense of balance seems to be either breaking a scene by introducing a subject (deer, lone seagull) or by suggesting movement in the scene (bride and bride’s maid). The latter photo was actually taken by my wife during this event, but it is one of my favorites of that day. There are other elements that I like about it, but for me balance is breaking up the monotony of something that we “see as beautiful” (Leu Gardens in Orlando, Florida, in this example), but looks rather uninteresting in a photo (just imagine the subjects off the scene). This device is especially useful when a scene is “amorphous”, as I explain in Style and Sensibility: Ambiguity. So, it either breaks up monotony or adds ambiguity to the scene (as in your “dark rocks” photo).

So instead of balancing light and dark areas (which, to me, is a more “technical” aspect of balance), I tend to balance subjects regardless of placement (bride), though the seagull and deer photos do adhere to your list of “heavy weights”.

Matthew Gore
Guest
Matthew Gore

Alfred,

I think that you bring up two good points:

  1. that balance is somewhat subjective, and sometimes traditional design considerations are over-ruled by subjective factors.
  2. sometimes “correct” balance might not be desirable, in the same way that using the rule of 3rds strictly is not always the best thing for your image.

Both very true, though I was trying to be a little more straight forward with this article, as a starting point. The images that you submitted actually adhere pretty well to traditional standards, though, perhaps with minor adjustments.

For example, your seagull image. If you look at the vertical position of the gull (the main one), it’s pretty much dead-center.  To my eye, that makes the image a little top-heavy… all of the interesting stuff is at or above the center line. However, if you cropped the bottom of the image off, so that the bird were placed towards the bottom of the frame, it would be almost a replica of my “mountain and flower” example… the bird as a strong subject in the lower right, balanced by the bright reflections on the water in the upper left.

For me, the hardest thing to balance is an image that uses either “negative space” or otherwise undefined space to balance the subject…. where there isn’t some “thing” that has visual weight to balance the subject, but just diffuse “background”. It’s very easy to let the subject dominate.

One of my favorite fine-art photographers, Michael Levin, is a master of balance in this regard. For example, in his image “Code”:

Code, a photo by Michael Levin

Anyone interested in balance will enjoy taking a look through his images. Many of them are symmetrical, but the rest are very strong and intelligent in their use of balance: http://www.michaellevin.ca/gallery

Alfred Lopez
Editor

Actually, it’s very interesting that you find the seagull photo “top-heavy” since I *did not* intend for the lone seagull to dominate the photo, nor did I intend the flock to do so as well. What I was going for was strict ambiguity: I wanted the viewer to shift between the two in an almost even fashion. In other words, I wanted the viewer to see the lone gull as “interesting”, but to take equal interest in what could potentially be going on with the flock. The reason for the “forced perspective” (blurred flock) was to lead the viewer’s eye from the gull to the flock instead of the traditional left-to-right that we normally do.

Also, thanks for the Michael Levin link. This is something that I thought of doing, but prospect of long exposures doesn’t suit my lack of patience. :-) I’ll talk more about that in the “Creativity” part of “Style and Sensibility”.

Matthew Gore
Guest

Right, I think that’s what the image does… the lone gull is the subject (whether you intended it that way or not), but it’s not the sole interest of the image… the eye is very quickly drawn away from it up to the brighter area in the water, and then the other birds along the shore. But it’s the fact that all of that’s happening in the top half of the photo that I was referring to.

Matthew Gore
Guest
Matthew Gore

I’ve just added 3 images to the “Balance” article gallery by Alfred Lopez. I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say about these images, too :)

Thomas
Guest
Thomas

Eh. Mediocre.

Matthew Gore
Guest

Hi Thomas,

I appreciate that you took the time to comment, but it would be more useful if you provided a bit more detail. Or any detail, I guess… are you referring to the article? The images? The examples? I’m willing to admit that the article is mediocre :) ; I find “balance” to be one of the hardest areas of composition to write about, since everything is based on metaphor.

– Matthew

Alfred Lopez
Editor

Most likely referring to my photos, which is fine by me. I have no need to defend them.

— Alfred

Matthew Gore
Guest

Who knows. I guess I don’t normally feel the need, either, but the discussion is sometimes fun :)

Rob Carmell
Member
Rob Carmell

Wow….where do these people come from ? Matt you are too kind, I really admire your patience.

Matthew Gore
Guest

:) Thanks, Rob. As you may know, I taught Logic in the Philosophy department while I was at Ohio U. for 2 years, to students who didn’t care and didn’t want to be there (but it fulfilled a math credit)… after that, my patience is pretty endless.