“What makes a good photograph?”
This is one of the hardest, yet most common questions photographers tend to ask themselves. You might be able to put together a long list of attributes a good picture needs to have: composition, emotion, story, iconicity, tones, color… Only then to visit the photography website of a fellow shutterbug shortly after and fall in love with an image that is the complete opposite. Much like describing what art is, there’s simply no way to come up with a detailed checklist of features a good photo must have.
There is, however, a single quality that every photographer needs to possess: balance.
In photography, balance represents that je ne sais quoi that can either make people fall in love with your work or give them an odd feeling that turns them away. Our brains are naturally wired to notice this visual harmony, meaning that we’re instinctively drawn to capture balanced images.
However, this innate knowledge is applicable only to basic arrangements. Understanding balance in photography is a skill every photographer should master in order to successfully shoot more complex scenes. From defining what this enchanting je ne sais quoi is, to the main ways in which you can put it into practice, this is all you need to know about balance in photography.
What is balance in photography?
Balance is a composition technique that arranges elements within the frame to achieve equal visual weight across the image. The visual weight of an element essentially measures how much attraction it draws from the viewer. This is influenced by a number of factors, including contrast, color, size, proximity, placement, and texture.
Visual weight is a powerful compositional tool used to determine the focal point of your image. But it’s also a double-edged sword, as it can make or break your shot. The easiest way to understanding balance in photography, is imagining your frame as a traditional scale. In order to achieve a visually appealing result, you’ll need to distribute your image’s elements on each side to make sure they both reach an equal visual weight.
How do you capture a balanced photo?
There are two main balance techniques, formal and informal, and five types of balance in photography: symmetrical, asymmetrical, color, tonal, and conceptual. Mastering every one of them is the key to capturing a balanced photo under any circumstances. We’ll dig into each of these balance types shortly, but first let's take a look at the general idea of composing a balanced photograph.
Start by splitting your scene in half and taking a look at each side. The larger, brighter, vibrant, and more visually interesting an element is, the more attention it draws to itself. Plus, objects near the edge of the frame are also more noticeable that those that are closer to the center, and the right half has a slightly higher visual weight.
Knowing these principles, notice the visual weight of each half and how they compare to each other. Once you have done this, look for ways to compensate any visual inequality in the composition. This can be done by repositioning the elements, emphasizing certain traits of those with a lighter visual weight, or by isolating them.
It’s important to remember that there isn’t a photography rule that dictates all pictures must be balanced. However, understanding balance in photography is an absolute must to understand how this technique affects your images and have full control over the message or feeling they evoke.
Formal or symmetrical balance is the most obvious and straightforward way to compose a visually appealing photo. In a symmetrical composition, one half of the image is nearly identical to the other. While not all balanced photos are symmetric, all symmetric photos are balanced. This is the main reason why beginner photographers tend to place their subjects in the center of the image.
The most common use of symmetrical balance in photography is a horizontal split, primarily because of how common it is to encounter such scenes in nature. However, diagonal and vertical symmetry result in images that are just as visually powerful.
Informal or asymmetrical balance is much more common than its formal counterpart, yet it requires a higher skill level. This technique allows photographers to create more complex compositions that draw the viewer’s attention across the image. Because of this, most of the primary photography composition rules actually rely on asymmetrical balance, proving just how important understanding balance in photography in all its forms is.
In order to achieve asymmetrical balance in your composition, start by placing your main subject off-center. Study how the visual weight of this element compares to that of the rest of the objects in the frame, and rearrange them as necessary. As you do so, pay attention to how the secondary subjects relate to each other and the resulting visual journey across the image based on their visual weight and positioning.
All the other types of balance in photography are primarily based on asymmetry, so make sure you understand how this one works before moving forward.
Vibrant colors have a much higher visual weight than neutral tones. Think about a bright red apple next to a faded green pear. Which one do your eyes feel drawn to? The vast majority of people will answer “apple” without a second thought. This same concept applies to images where certain parts are covered in bold colors.
A burst of color in an otherwise plain picture will immediately create a strong focus point. Because of it’s visual weight, images dominated by vibrant colors can feel quite overwhelming. In order to balance a small area of bright colors, you’ll need to create a large area of more neutral shades, and vice versa.
Tonal balance works in a very similar way as color balance, only focusing on light intensity rather than color vibrance. In this case, darker areas are visually heavier than lighter ones. This is especially noticeable in black and white photography, as the contrast is much easier to distinguish once the visual weight of color has been removed from the picture (literally).
In order to achieve a perfect tonal balance in your photo, use large bright elements to compensate for darker areas. If your main subject is a light tone, keep it as far away from dark objects to avoid causing any distractions.
Conceptual balance is the most philosophical type of balance in photography. While it’s commonly based upon symmetrical balance, it has little to do with how the rest of the techniques are applied to photo composition. The essence of conceptual balance resides in the background of the elements of a scene, rather than their visual traits. In most cases, conceptual balance is achieved by juxtaposing two subjects, the meaning of which complement each other.
Because of its complexity, it’s recommended to focus on this technique only after fully understanding balance in photography in all its other forms. Take time to perfect the previous four types of balance techniques before trying to master conceptual balance.
Ready to put this knowledge into practice? Create a photography website and share the results with the world!