Balancing Compositions

October 11, 2014

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I mentioned in my overview on composition that I think balance is the most important aspect of framing your photos.  A picture can be balanced or unbalanced, but either way it takes thought from the photographer.  Balanced photos are created deliberately with the goal of making the photo seem pleasing to the eye.

 

(Note that portions of this article were originally written for a school-related essay.)

 

 

Left-Right Balance

When a photo is balanced, it means that the left and right halves of the photo draw the eye equally.  Even if your subject is on one half of the photo, the photo can be balanced by having important features on the other side of the photo.  For example, the leaf is the main subject in the photo below, but the waterfall itself also draws the viewer’s eye.  This makes the photo balanced.

 

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The left-right division is the only one in your photos which matters for balance.  This is the same phenomenon as how we see people as being relatively symmetrical.  Clearly, this isn’t true from top to bottom (unless you have feet growing out of your head), but the fact that people are symmetrical from left to right makes us seem balanced.  You can have a photo where all the subjects are along the bottom, and it can still be a balanced photo.

 

What Attracts the Eye?

To know how to balance a photo, you need to know what attracts your eye in a photo.  I’ll create a short list below:

  • High contrast spots
  • Bright areas
  • Saturated items
  • Red/yellow colors
  • The eyes of your subject
  • PeopleItems that are in focus (applies only to photos where little is in focus)
  • Large items

 

If you have any of these in your photo, it’s important to know that they carry significant visual weight in your composition.  Unless you want one side of your photo to be more “weighty” than the other side, it helps to balance the appearances of these items across the frame.  Or, if there is just one of these items in your composition (a very minimalist photo), putting it along the center vertical will give your frame maximum balance.

 

Yosemite Tunnel View sunrise"Dawn in Yosemite"When I saw this scene, I was looking over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. I was awe-struck by the way the morning sun sculpted the valley, igniting it with color.


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- Finalist image in Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition.

 

Putting in into Practice

To see how well your photo is balanced, put it in the middle of an imaginary see-saw.  Count the number of weighty items on each side of the photo (and if an item ticks several boxes, such as a bright, large, red wagon taking up part of the photo, count it three times).  Count items more if they are farther from the center (our eyes tend to view the middle of a photo the most, so anything noticeable outside that region carries more compositional weight).  Add up rough totals for each side of the photo, and see if the composition generally balances itself over the center of the see-saw.  Both sides don’t need to be identical; in fact, there is no way to make every frame identical on both sides.  But when you are composing a photo, it is important to realize that vastly imbalanced frames will cause tension for a viewer.  For many scenes, especially if you are a landscape photographer, this is undesirable and easily avoidable.  Be meticulous with your compositions.  

 

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Imbalance

In some photos, in fact, many photos, a degree of imbalance is necessary.  For a scene to have movement and tension, your composition almost necessitates that the scene isn’t in perfect equality from one side of the frame to the other.  Take the below photo as an example:

 

"The Fox of Amiens""The Fox of Amiens"I walked through the pristine streets of Amiens, France, without finding any graffiti or street art. Then, on this one abandoned building, there was more graffiti than I had ever seen on a single city block. And I've been to San Francisco.


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In this frame, the photo is not evenly weighted between both halves of the composition.  The bright, in-focus left half of the frame is more punchy and draws the eye better than the darker, blurrier, and less-colorful right half.  Still, it isn’t so unequal that it is distracting, so it won’t irritate a viewer.  The tension that this composition conveys is inherently dramatic, very appropriate for this photo.

 

Unless your photo is extreme minimalism, your photo will always have side-to-side variations which make it imbalanced, no matter your efforts.  These aren’t worth worrying about because a photo with a minor imbalance will not irritate viewers.  

 

In Practice

When you are actually taking the photo, your work is simple.  Mentally divide the frame into two halves, and, if you want a balanced photo, make sure that the most important parts of the photo do not all cluster too far over on one half. 

 

If you think about it, it is always possible to compose a frame which is perfectly balanced.  Even though the halves of the photo won't be symmetrical, there is a composition where the elements of the photo will have exactly equal weights on each side of the frame.  If you have a large, dark tree on the left half of your photo and a small, bright moon on the right side of the photo, there is some way that you can arrange them so that the halves of the photo are compositionally equal in weight.  This is a simple example, and I can say almost without exception that it is possible to balance every frame you take.  If you compose a photo that has too much on the left side of the frame, turn the camera far enough to the left and there will be too much on the right side of the frame.  Somewhere in the middle, there is a single spot where the frames are perfectly balanced. The ability to find this spot and know what to do with it is what makes a photography master so great.   Again, this doesn't mean that photography masters always shoot the most balanced photo possible, but that they could, given enough time under constant conditions.

 

As with all things, practice is required to get better, but a lot of your knowledge about compositional balance is intuitive.  This is why beginners tend to put everything in the very middle of the frame, no matter the situation.  We are naturally inclined to take balanced photos, and proper practice can mean that even complicated scenes of yours seem very well-balanced, like the photo below.  Continue to work at it, and you will be closer to being able to recognize the "perfectly balanced" composition that is theoretically possible in every frame.  

 

 

 

Thanks for reading!  I hope this exploration of balance in photography was helpful.

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