Photography composition: balance
Balance in composition is a very subtle skill, but one that can be learned quite easily. The first step to creating a balanced image is to slow down and carefully think through your photograph before creating the image.
I suppose this is the hardest part of mastering balance in composition, because in the digital age slowing down is not the norm.
What is balance in composition?
Balance is a technique used in photography composition to juxtapose opposing elements within a frame equally. In other words, when different parts of an image draw the viewer’s attention equally, the image is considered to be balanced.
When you balance elements in an image, you create interest and harmony for the viewer. We naturally veer towards balance and when we see imbalance, we want to correct it. For this reason, a photograph that is not balanced, is not as appealing as one that is balanced. That’s not to say that it is imbalanced as such, only that it’s not balanced.
Imbalance – the purposeful destruction of balance – also creates an interesting image. However, in this instance the viewer doesn’t experience harmony. Because imbalance causes tension, it’s a great technique to enhance an uncomfortable message or feeling of an image.
I’ll demonstrate the difference between a balanced image versus an imbalanced image in a moment. Let’s first look at the aspects of balance.
There are two types of balance in composition
- Symmetrical balance, which is also called formal balance.
- Asymmetrical balance, which is also called informal balance.
When we talk about balance, we are talking about visual weight, which we’ll get to.
This is the more obvious form of balance as it involves balancing one half of an image with another – either left with right, or top with bottom. However, bear in mind that objects in the top half of the frame hold more weight than objects in the lower half.
Like most informal things, this type of balance in composition is more subtle than symmetrical balance. It’s a bit of a juggling act, because you have to think about which element holds the most visual weight and then balance that with the elements in the image that hold less visual weight.
We’ll have a look at six types of asymmetrical balance for composing strong images. These are:
- Tonal balance
- Colour balance
- Size balance
- Texture balance
- Space balance
- Abstract balance
Let’s first look at visual weight for five of the elements before getting into the details. Because abstract balance in composition is more conceptual, in this instance weight is not a feature. We’ll get into it at the end of the tutorial.
1. Tonal balance
This is the balance of light and dark in an image and is particularly noticeable in black and white photographs. The lack of color in black and white photos removes any distractions, making their composition more striking.
Our eyes are naturally drawn to the lightest part of an image. When composing your image, a light subject on a dark background or a dark subject on a light background draws your viewer’s eye to the main focal point of your image.
2. Color balance
Because bold, bright colors hold more visual weight and draw the eye, it’s good to balance them with larger areas of subtle and neutral colors.
Another level of color balance within the composition of a photo is balancing cold colors with warm colors. Have a look at the color wheel in our post on color. You’ll see that warm and cold colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel and are therefore complementary.
Further reading on using color: How to use color for eye catching photography composition
The orange of the flowers stands out, because it’s bold and bright against a neutral background. Also, the orange and the blue are complementary colors, which adds to the balance of the image.
3. Size balance
To balance heavy with light, the size of the visually heavier object should be smaller than the size of the visually lighter object.
A large object on one side of an image can be balanced by two smaller objects on the other side of the image. The smaller object, or objects, are secondary objects and don’t hold the same weight as the primary object. Instead, they add visual interest so that the viewer’s eye moves to the secondary objects after looking at the primary object, and then back again. This movement creates a journey, which is always a good thing in a photograph.
In this way secondary objects add to the story of the image.
Size balance in composition is particularly useful when combined with the rule of thirds.
Further reading: Why you need to know the rule of thirds – and how easy it is.
This is visually appealing and balanced, because the foreground is dominated by the happy boy, while the rest of his family are smaller in the background, which adds to the happy family feeling.
The ruined pier in the background balances the couple lying on the beach and creates visual interest at the same time. It adds to the story by making it clear they are on Brighton Beach in the UK. Without the ruined pier this could be almost any beach in England.
4. Texture balance
Texture balance in composition also works well with the rule of thirds, because a heavily textured area balances an off centre object. The photo at the top of this tutorial is an example of using texture balance in composition.
Because texture holds more visual weight than a non-textured area, a brick wall is visually heavier than a smooth, plastered wall.
5. Space balance
When we use space to balance in composition, we’re using a subject’s gaze or movement into negative space, making it “active space”, to balance the composition.
If a subject’s gaze or movement is into the edge of the frame, it feels awkward. This awkwardness creates imbalance and adds tension to the image, which I touched on at the start of this tutorial.
More on negative space: Using negative space as a powerful positive in photography composition
The image above shows visual harmony as Helen’s gaze direct’s the viewer’s eye into the negative space. By contrast, in the image below, the sad feeling of the image is enhanced by the imbalance in composition. Because she is looking to the edge of the frame, it leads the viewer’s eye out of the image and leaves “dead space” behind her.
6. Abstract balance
When abstract balance is used conceptually, it’s all about contrasting two ideas. For example:
- nature versus industry
- old versus new
- happy versus sad
Contrasting textures or tonal balance are both great for creating balance in an abstract image. The contrast itself forms the image.
The heavy, rusty machinery in the background contrasts with the vulnerable, yet carefree woman. This creates interest and balance in the image.
Concluding balance in photography composition
The more you get into photography, the more you’ll start to feel like a juggler. Everything in photography is about juggling.
When we think of exposure, we’re weighing up our choices between, mainly shutter speed and aperture. Do we need fast or slow shutter speed, and do we want a deep depth of field or a narrow depth of field? With focus, we’re deciding on what part of the image we want in focus.
And so it is with composition, we’re also weighing up our choices. With balance in composition, we’re fine tuning our photography composition and actively measuring out the visual weight of the elements of our image to create harmony or tension.
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