Visual Weight, Composition and Voice

Visual Weight, Composition and Voice

If you want to develop your voice as a photographer then one of the ways of getting there is to use visual weight to make your compositions more compelling.

Here’s how it works. There are three steps to this thought process.

1. Decide what the main subject of your photo is 

If you’re making a portrait, for example, then the subject is obvious. It’s your model, as in the photo below.

Portrait photo

If you’re making a landscape photo it’s less obvious, but it’s helpful to rephrase the question slightly and ask yourself what the focal point of the photo should be. 

In the photo below the entire scene is the subject, but the rock stack is the focal point. It’s the reason I made the photo. 

Landscape photo

Incidentally, your choice of subject is a big factor in developing your voice as a photographer. What subjects appeal to you personally and how do you like to photograph them? We’ll explore this idea in more depth over the coming weeks and in my new course Finding Your Creative Voice (enrollment for this course is open for December only).

2. Make the composition as simple as possible

Simplifying the composition of your photos helps make it clear what your subject is. It also helps make it clearer what you’re trying to say about your subject, which is another aspect of voice.

For example, if you’re making a portrait, are you trying to show the model’s beauty, or their character? Or maybe a bit of both? 

If you’re making a landscape photo, are you trying to show the beauty of the landscape in sunny weather, or are you more interested in the mood and light created by bad weather? Knowing what appeals to you most is part of developing your voice.

3. Use the principles of visual weight to emphasize your subject

This third step is about going beyond the rule of thirds and developing an understanding of some of the deeper aspects of photographic composition. Once you’ve decided what your subject is, and thought about simplifying your composition, you need to work with the principles of visual weight rather than against them. That’s how you get a good composition.

What is visual weight in photography?

Visual weight (also called visual mass) is the idea that some elements of a photo pull the eye more than others.

For example, take a look at this photo. Where does your eye go? 

Visual weight and composition

Most likely the words Mercado Central because they are big and white. Words in a photo have visual weight, and so do highlights and contrast, so that makes the writing in this image stand out.

Now let’s look at the principles of visual weight (or visual mass) that you can use to improve the composition of your photos in more detail. 

There are lots of layers to this discussion, so I’ll concentrate on the four elements that make the biggest difference: highlights and contrast, people, color and sharpness. I don’t want to give you too much to think about in one go, and these four ideas will get you started.

1. Highlights and contrast

Light tones and highlights pull the eye more than dark ones. This is why images that use tonal contrast are so effective, especially in black and white.

You saw this idea in action in the photo above with the words Mercado Central. In the photo below the table top is the lightest part of the photo and your eye goes straight to it. The subtle plays of light and color are what attracted me to the scene and made me photograph it.

Visual weight and highlights

High contrast has more visual weight than low contrast. In the photo below the Chinese letters pull the eye because that’s where the contrast is. 

Visual weight and contrast

This is also something to think about when you’re developing your photos. For example, what happens to the composition when you add contrast and texture at the bottom? 

Visual weight and contrast

The answer is that this area draws your eye more. Think about where you want the viewer to look in a photo and how you can encourage the eye to go there.

2. People

Part of the human condition is curiosity about other people. Because of this our eye goes straight to any people in a photo. This works even when they are small in the frame. 

One application of this is to use people to give scale and context in photos. It works because our eyes goes straight to them, as long as they stand out from the background. It’s a great technique to use in landscape photos.

Visual weight and people

The reverse of this is that people can also be distractions. There’s nothing worse than a passerby stepping into your photo at just the wrong moment. If you’re in a public place get in the habit of looking around the frame to see if there are any unwanted people in your photo.

3. Visual weight and color

Color is powerful. Bright, saturated colors have lots of visual weight. Warm colors like red, yellow and orange have more visual weight than cool ones (blue, green etc.).

In the portrait below, the warm tones of the model’s hair and scarf have more visual weight than the cool tones of his t-shirt and the background.

Visual weight and color

You could write a book about color in photography (I probably will, one day), but the most important thing to remember is to try and use color intelligently. The easiest way to do this is to keep the composition of your photos as simple as possible. 

One way of doing this is look for brightly colored subjects juxtaposed against dark backgrounds with subdued colors. In the photo below the brightest colors are the green water in the boat, and the yellow rope and green moss in the background. It’s a subtle but effective use of color.

Visual weight and color

The way you use color becomes part of your style and voice. The sooner you start using color purposefully, the quicker they’ll develop.

4. Sharpness

Sharp parts of the photos have more visual weight than blurred ones. This is most obvious when you use a prime lens at a wide aperture to make the subject sharp and the background blurred, like the photo below.

Visual weight and sharpness

It’s also something to think about when you’re developing your photos. Try using the Select Subject masking tool in Lightroom Classic to add Clarity or Texture to the main subject of your photo to help it stand out.

Putting It All Together

Let’s look at how you can put these ideas together.

  • Start by deciding what the main subject of your photo is (in most cases this should be obvious).
  • Simplify the composition. 
  • Then think about how you can use the four principles of visual mass discussed above to make the composition of your photo better. How can you use color? Can you use a wide aperture to blur the background?  Where are the highlights and contrast? Do any people in the photo (if they’re not the main subject) make the composition stronger or distract from it?

Another important point is that you can have different types of visual weight in the same photo, and that they should work together.

For example, in the photo of the Chinese symbol above the symbol stands out because it’s a highlight, has contrast, and has a warm color (against a blue background). Everything is working in harmony, none of these things are fighting each other.

As you practice this a sense of style should start to emerge as you  develop your own approach to composition. Style is part of voice, the two go hand in hand. 

Further reading


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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. 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 lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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