Editor's note: Stuck at home in April with nothing to do? We’ve decided to put our Mastering Photography ebooks and Lightroom Classic presets on sale, but with a twist – you get to decide the price (minimum price $1). Click here to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.
A lot has been written about the rule of thirds but I think it helps more if you think about balance in composition when you decide where to place your subject in the frame.
Balance in composition
Let me explain what I mean with a couple of examples. Here’s a portrait that I made with the model in the center of the frame.
There a few interesting composition related things happening here.
- The composition has symmetry. If you draw a line down the middle of the model’s face you can see that one half of the image mirrors the other, with a few variations (mainly in the background).
- This in turn creates a strong sense of balance.
- As the model’s face is positioned in the center of the frame, the eye tends to go to it and not wander around the frame much.
Now let’s look at another portrait I made where I moved the camera to the right to change up the composition. The model’s face is now in the left third of the frame, not the center.
In this version the eye is encouraged to move around the frame more by off-centre composition. Placing the model’s face off-center has created a more dynamic composition and adds a kind of visual tension.
The first composition is balanced, the second is unbalanced. The subject is the same, but one simple variation (the portraits were created four seconds apart) creates two different effects.
I’m not going to say that one is better than the other. That’s up to you to decide, and if these were your portraits you could pick your favorite to present to the world. But hopefully they challenge the idea that you have to place the subject off-center (or on a third), and that central compositions can be just as powerful as off-center ones.
Two focal points and balance in composition
We’ve already seen that you can create an unbalanced composition by placing the subject off-center. The dynamics change again when you introduce a second focal point or subject into the composition.
If your subject is people, then creating a composition with two people in it is interesting because it makes the eye move from one to the other. Our innate human curiosity is at its strongest when we look at photos of other people.
In the portrait above it is nearly impossible not to keep looking from one woman to the other, taking in the differences and similarities between their features and clothing. The contrast between young and old creates interest, and the balanced composition makes sure both are equally prominent in the frame.
You can do the same with objects as well as people.
Tonal balance in composition
So far we’ve looked at visual balance, but there are other types of balance you should take into consideration. One of these is tonal balance – the distribution of light and dark tones throughout the frame.
Light tones have more visual mass than dark tones. This means that your eye naturally goes to the highlights when you look at a photo.
Take a look at the photo below. I’ve presented it in black and white to make the tones easier to see. As you look at it ask yourself these questions.
- Which part of the photo does your eye go to first?
- How does your eye move around the frame?
If you’re like most people you eye will go to the brightest flower on the left, then move around taking in the rest of the photo before returning to the flower.
Tonal contrast and balance
How does this affect balance? Light tones pull the eye more than dark tones. Therefore, to create a balanced image, there needs to be more dark tones than light tones, which is what you can see in this photo. If the ratio was around equal, the image wouldn’t feel so balanced.
This idea can work in reverse too. In the landscape photo below the two rocks form a visually balanced composition.
But there’s also another type of balance in action, a balance between the dark tones of the rocks and the gray tones of the sea, sand and sky. In this case the rocks have more visual mass than the background. Therefore a small amount of rock balances against a large expanse of gray.
This is related to the idea of using negative space in composition, which you can read more about in the article linked below.
Learn more: How To Use Negative Space In Composition
Resolving dynamic tension with balance
Let’s look at another example of how this works. The photo below is split into three bands. The top and bottom thirds are predominantly dark tones, the middle third is very bright.
Once again the light tones balance the larger expanse of dark tones. But there is another way that the composition is balanced. The mountains occupy the bottom part of the frame, and are balanced by a large expanse of stormy sky. The mountains have more visual mass than the sky, therefore the photo benefits from having more sky in it.
Then there’s something that unbalances the composition – the telegraph pole in the bottom right third. It has so much visual mass that even at this small size it’s the main focal point of the photo. It’s what the eye goes to when you look at it.
There’s no other focal point to pull the eye away from the telegraph pole, so in this sense the composition is unbalanced. But the other types of balance in the frame (between light and dark tones, and the mountains and the sky) kind of compensate for the lack of balance created by the pole.
Does any of this matter?
It’s an interesting discussion but it’s perfectly valid to ask whether any of this matters? You may be wondering if I was thinking about any of these concepts when I created the photos.
The answer is I wasn’t. I tend to work on instinct and gut feeling when I compose images. Then, as I write articles about composition and look harder at my best images I discover new things about them.
This in turn gets internalized and hopefully makes me a better photographer even though I’m relying on instinct rather than following rules. So yes, I think it does matter, because the process of thought, analysis and internalization, repeated over and over, makes you better at this.
An important thing to remember about concepts like visual mass and balance is that they are difficult to condense down into easy to follow rules. Every scene is different and the best composition may depend as much upon what you’re trying to achieve (i.e. would you like a balanced image, or a less balanced one with more dynamic tension?) as it does upon the subject.
One of the best ways to improve the composition of your images is to read as much about these concepts as you can, absorb them, keep analyzing your own photos and then let it all go and compose according to feel.
Does the image feel right when you look through the viewfinder? Can you change the composition to make the photo more interesting? How balance or unbalanced is it? The answers to these questions are often your best guide. As your understanding of composition improves, so will your photos.