Creating balance in the composition is achieved in the equal distribution of visual weight across all elements in a photo. Visual weight refers to the amount of impact or force that an element has in a photo. Determined by various factors like colour, shape, and size, visual weight measures how much attention an element draws from the viewer.
Looking at the photos above, you'll see that both images are monochromatic and show people smiling. Yet, only the first photo has a balanced composition.
The first photo creates viewer interest by separating the subjects from the background, making them stand out. In contrast, the second photo is so busy that there's virtually no juxtaposition between the subjects and the background. Additionally, the second photo has multiple competing subjects vying for the viewer's attention, rather than complementing one another, as in the first photo.
Why Does Balance Matter?
As a photography instructor, my long-term goals for myself and my students are the same: to continually grow our photography skills and, in effect, improve our photography. In pursuit of these goals, I often question what exactly makes one photo better than another. And, time and time again, the determining factor is balance.
An unbalanced composition can take the viewer out of the photo and make the image appear awkward or otherwise 'off.' Whereas a well-balanced composition more than improves your photography aesthetically, it makes it easier for viewers to appreciate and understand the picture instinctively.
Comprehensive Guide To Balance in Photography
For the sake of clarity, let's break down ten contributing factors of balanced composition: 1. Considering Balance Before You Capture 2. Positive and Negative Space 3. Mirrored Photo (Formal Symmetrical Balance) 4. Subject Placement (Informal Asymmetrical Balance) 5. Radial Balance 6. Tonal Balance 7. Color Balance 8. Balancing Sharpness Vs. Blur 9. Balancing Texture 10. Conceptual Balance
1. Considering Balance Before You Capture
The best way to ensure balanced composition, and spend less time editing afterward, is to pre-plan your concept. Before you capture a photo, take a few moments to consider your intention and think about the story you want to tell.
Then, identify the subject, supporting elements, and their respective visual weights. To find the compositional balance that expresses your concept efficiently and communicates your narrative, experiment with different arrangements and angles.
2. Positive and Negative Space
A quick reminder... Negative space is the empty area taken up by the subject. This is quite often confused with Active space being ahead of the subject or inanimate object facing a particular way in the frame. Positive space is the area taken up by the main or supporting focal points in the frame.
At first glance, these pictures don't appear to have much in common; the first depicts a skateboarder performing a trick, and the second shows people playing hockey. However, upon further inspection, we can see that both photographers utilize positive and negative space to create balance.
Both pictures take advantage of the monochromatic, empty areas in the background, or the negative space, to accentuate and isolate the subjects. Furthermore, both photos utilize positive space, the area in the frame taken up by the main subjects, to provide a pop of contrasting colours and motion that effectively establishes balance.
3. Mirrored Photo (Formal Symmetrical Balance)
Perhaps the most obvious way to create a balanced composition is through mirrors, bodies of water, and other reflective surfaces. To consider a photo an example of formal symmetrical balance, though, it must be capable of being divided in two, either horizontally or vertically, forming a mirrored image.
Finding interesting reflections in puddles or shooting subjects across reflecting surfaces are two of my favourite means of capturing symmetrical balance. When taking pictures with formal symmetry, keep in mind that your subject doesn't always have to be precisely centred, so long as there is some form of mirrored reflection present in the shot. Instead, focus on making sure that each side of the image is weighted equally to create balance.
Keeping in the theme of off-centre shots, the next technique for creating balanced composition is informal or asymmetrical balance. Similar to formal balance, informal balance calls for symmetry in the equal distribution of visual weight across the frame. But, unlike formal balance, informal balance does not include mirror images or reflections.
In theory, asymmetrical balance sounds a lot like shooting an off-balance photo, and it certainly has the potential to be very much that in practice. However, when executed correctly, informal balance is created through intentional, deliberate subject placement techniques like:
juxtaposing your subjects with large, predominately empty areas of space
inclusion of supporting elements that demand visual attention equally
employing the rule of thirds by positioning your subject off-center in the frame
Quick Tip: Use supporting elements of combined visual weight, whether individually or grouped, to balance the size, shape, and form of the main subject.
5. Radial Balance
The third and final type of symmetrical balance that you can create balance with is radial balance. Radial balance draws the viewer's attention moves from a central focal point outwards to the edges.
Try looking for examples of radial balance the next time you're out scouting locations. In nature, radial balance might come in the form of a flower or spider web. It might look like a bicycle wheel, in a more urban environment, with the spokes extending from the wheel hub, circles in architecture, or even a carousel.
Regardless of where you find it, the ultimate goal of radial balance is to bring the viewers' attention back to the same central element.
6. Tonal Balance
One of the most creative ways to create balanced composition in your photography is with tonal balance, the distribution of darker and lighter areas in the frame. You can try experimenting with tonal balance by converting your photos to black and white, or you can altogether remove saturation with your favorite mobile photo editing app for a faster result.
The key to tonal balancing a color photo is to apply your knowledge of color theory first as you take the picture and again later in the editing process. Arrange or edit the shadows and highlights to provide the foundation for balance in your photo and the mid-tones to communicate textures.
Quick tip: To identify heavier tonal extremes in the scene, try squinting when capturing your photo.
7. Colour Balance
Keeping color theory in mind, remember that different colours have varying values of intensity, brightness, shades, hues, etc. Additionally, as we know from the colour wheel, colors can be complementary, contrasting, analogous, etc.
Color balance allows you to apply these principles to photography, as it requires evenly weighing color in the frame without forfeiting contrast. Take a look at the picture below:
Notice how the photographer uses the vivid blue colors of the subject's jacket with the larger area of contrasting color to create balance. While a vibrant, colourful subject on its own creates unbalance, the combination of placing that subject off-center and offsetting the color with a larger area of less vibrant (or contrasting colour, as seen above) creates balance.
8. Balancing Sharpness vs. Blur
Where 'big' cameras allow you manual control over depth of field, the distance between the in-focus, sharp area, and the out-of-focus, blurry area of the frame (usually the background), smartphone photography requires a slightly different approach. We can replicate the effects of depth of field with special lens attachments, capture mode, or in the editing process on smartphones.
Try blurring the background to direct the attention of the viewer towards the sharper, more detailed areas of a photo. As you do, notice how combinations of space and blur balance out areas of sharpness and direct viewer attention.
Quick Tip: The amount of blur and sharpness you'll need to apply primarily depends on the photograph's composition, with some images require less blur than others.
9. Balancing Texture
Balancing texture requires the introduction of an unsmooth surface to counteract smooth or out-of-focus areas in a photo. Every element has a texture, and with the help of the other elements present in the frame, that texture can be accentuated or downplayed.
When capturing a flat lay photo (also known as bird's eye view), I love introducing textured elements to bring depth to an otherwise 2-dimensional frame. And, speaking of flat lay photos, they provide the perfect opportunity to experiment with scale and the layering of elements. As you play around with different arrangements and elements, pay attention to how each elements' texture promotes or upsets the overall visual balance of the picture.
10. Conceptual Balance
So far, I have explained different forms of manipulating and arranging visual weight to create balance. Now, let's go over a more abstract way of finding and creating balance: conceptual balance. Conceptual balance refers to the relationships, preconceived or communicated, between the included elements in the frame.
When I'm out taking photos, one of my favorite examples of conceptual balance to play around with is time. This might appear as an older building surrounded by modern buildings or a parent walking with a child. In both instances, it's the juxtaposition of something old and something new that complements each other and provides balance.
11. Unbalanced Composition
In contrast to balanced composition, sometimes photographers will intentionally arrange elements disproportionately in the frame. Known as unbalanced composition, this technique uses unconventional placements, scale, framing, leading lines, subject matter, strategic editing, etc., either alone or in combination.
How Does Unbalanced Composition Impact Photography?
Often, unbalanced composition creates visual tension in a photo. Visual tension, also called dynamic tension, refers to how your photograph attracts and engages viewer interest. Essentially, it's what prompts the viewer to ask themselves, 'What's happening in this photo?' and 'What happened after it was taken?'
Some examples of visual tension you may already be familiar with are images featuring subjects that appear to be falling or walking off the edge of the frame. In the photo above, the photographer creates visual tension with motion and depth.
As much as I've enjoyed sharing these tips and techniques to create balance in your photography, it's quite hard to muck it up completely. Depending on the shape and size of your subject, you may unintentionally balance your photograph simply by allowing the subject to dominate a section of the frame. The same can be said for colours, tones, textures, blur, or contrasting concepts.
Photography is a subtractive art, and when you're editing pictures, reducing a splash of colour or highlighting a particular area could be all that's required to balance your photo creation. Understanding how to assess each of the visual qualities, and practicing the various ways to introduce balance into your photos, is the only guaranteed way to produce aesthetically pleasing photos consistently.