How To Use Balance In Composition

How To Use Balance In Composition

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.

balance in composition

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).

balance in photographic composition

  • 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.

Balance in portrait composition

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.

Balance with two people in a portrait

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.

Balance with two objects in a photo

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?

Balance in flower photo

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.

Tonal contrast and balance in 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.

Balance in landscape photo composition

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.

Further reading

Check out these articles to learn more about composition techniques in photography.

Five Simple Tips For Better Composition

Ten Useful Composition Rules For Photographers

Five Things Nobody Tells You About Composition

Mastering Composition ebooks

Learn more about composition with our ebooks Mastering Composition and Mastering Composition Book Two.

Mastering Composition ebooks

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

Comments

  1. It is difficult to absorb all aspects of an image in a small viewfinder or camera-back screen, so culling is an essential process in successful photography. It is often best to compose at the camera from the gut and to evaluate/crop/develop at the computer based on principles like these.

    1. Author

      I often find that photos look much better on the relatively small camera screen than they do on the computer. On the computer you have all the time you need to evaluate your photos and to see which ones worked and which ones didn’t. Like you say, it’s two different but complementary skills – gut level composition when you take the photo and good editing skills when you edit them.

  2. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience again Andrew. Some great images here too. I love the use of negative space and minimalism with the grey rocks and was surprised to find I preferred the young man’s portrait in the centre. It made a stronger impact on me than following the rule of thirds.

  3. I am thankful for this in-depth explanation and clarification on how to use the aperture and how to handle the balance and installation thanks so much

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