Balance in Composition
Knowing how to properly compose is what will make your pictures stand out from the crowd. The technique is important, sure, but if you don’t manage to find a great composition, your photo won’t be great. They’ll be good pictures, since you know how to shoot, but they’ll miss something. To whoever ask me what is the most important thing I think of when I’m out on the field, the answer is always the same: the composition. It’s not something you can correct in post production, there’s not a magic formula for every situation: sometimes you just have to go out there and scout the location till you find a composition that works. That could require seconds, minutes or hours, who knows. But I also think it’s one of the most exciting phases of doing photography: an unpredictable part for which you can’t fully prepare.
Or maybe you can? On a certain degree, you can prepare yourself by studying some rules about how to compose a powerful photo.
In this article we’ll see together how to master the balance in composition, by placing all the subjects and elements of it in the right position.
1. What is Balance in Composition?
Composition by itself as an argument is already not considered as much as it should be between photographers, let alone talking about balance in composition.
You may don’t know this, but in every photo you already took, you made an unconscious choice between capturing a balanced or imbalanced image. So, you may wonder, what’s the point of the whole article? Making an unconscious choice means that you didn’t know the consequences of your actions; what’s the difference between placing my subject in the centre or on the left? Between using a symmetrical composition or use the rule of the third? The aim of this article is to give you some knowledge about how the composition (and so the balance) you’ll choose will affect the look and the emotions that the image will transmit to the viewers, so that you’ll be able to make a wiser choice in the future.
Now, the first thing to know when talking about balance in composition is that there’s not just one type of balance, but you actually have many options when choosing where to place all the subjects of your picture.
2. Balance or Imbalance
In some situations you’ll be “forced” to opt for a balanced composition, in other situations you’ll have to go for an imbalanced composition, as you’ll have just one way to make the photo works. There’s an nice amount of situations though where you’ll have the power to choose what type of composition you want to use, and that’s where the “balance vs imbalance” dilemma comes to play.
Even if there’s no magic formula that will help you choose, you can start by thinking what kind of emotions you want to evoke in your public: are you looking for a calm, serene atmosphere, or for a more dramatic, drastic look? In the first case, you should opt for a symmetrical shot, as they’ll feel much more peaceful to the viewers, while if you are looking to evoke some strong (and specific) emotions you better venture with some imbalanced composition.
The first type of balance we’ll talk about is symmetry: I bet that many of you are already familiar with the concept of symmetry.
So, how does that apply to photography? It’s easier that you’d think: in a symmetrical photo, both the upper and lower (or left and right) parts share the exact same importance. As you can see from the photo here, one of the best situations to apply symmetry in photography are reflections: to enhance the “mirror effect” given by the lake’s reflection, the best solution is to place the horizon in the middle and create two perfectly balanced parts in the frame. Reflections are just an example, you can find symmetries pretty much in every environment if you search for them!
Generally, the aim of creating a symmetric photo is to transmit to the viewer a peaceful, calm atmosphere; the eye will be pleased to see the subjects of the photo equally disposed in the two sides of the frame.
2.2 Asymmetrical Balance
The second type of balance we’ll study is.. Try to guess? Asymmetry, of course! Asymmetrical balance, to be precise. This may come as a surprise to some of you, but symmetry is not the only way to compose a balanced shot: even with the use of an asymmetrical composition you can still balance the different parts of the image.
Let’s use as an example the photo above: I placed the mountains (which will be commonly considered the main subject of the shot) in the upper right side of the frame. By placing them in that position, I had to pay a lot of attention not to leave the opposite side (the bottom left corner) empty, otherwise the photo will look unbalanced and there’ll be nothing to lead the eyes of the viewer to the mountains, which are the main subject: so, I went low and close to those lovely flowers and by placing them in the empty part I obtained a nicely balanced, asymmetrical shot.
Always remember that in order to create an asymmetrically balanced photo the different parts of the image should get the same amount of attention from the viewer, so be careful about where you put your subjects.
An asymmetrically balanced photo will still please the eyes of who is observing it, but with the correct placement of your subjects you’ll manage to sparkle even more attention as the image will feel more dynamic compared to a symmetrical photo, which instead will generally look more static.
2.3 Tonal Balance
Another way to balance your compositions is with the correct use of colors; a few reads about the color theory will give you a jump start at which colors to use in your photos.
Sometimes, even if subject-wise your composition may look imbalanced, it still feels like it’s perfectly balanced. How that can happen? Well, sometimes colors will fill up areas of the frame that otherwise may look empty.
Look at the photo with the sea of fog: if the blue tones in the fog were of a warmer color, the shot would probably look like it’s missing something. With the nice combination of cold/warm tones, I managed to balance more the composition.
2.4 Ideal Balance
This kind of compositional balance is probably the most difficult to achieve, since the message you want to pass with the photo should be crystal clear and strong enough to cover the empty parts of the frame.
Even in the photo above, the feeling of solitude, loneliness is probably not strong enough to cover for the lack of subjects in the rest of the frame - composition wise. Colors are helping in this specific case, otherwise the photo would still look empty.
You can use this kind of balance when the message you are trying to transmit with your picture is stronger than the picture itself: the photo will gain importance thanks to the message included in it.
A few examples of subjects that will work with this kind of balance are pollution, global warming, poverty or also happiness, celebration, victories.
Sometimes an imbalanced composition will work better than a balanced one. If you aim to transmit a dynamic feeling or evoke some other specific powerful emotion, then an imbalanced shot should be what you are looking for.
Take for example the shot with the flowers here; I clearly wanted to give more importance to the poppies than the country house or the sky, and that's why I opted for an imbalanced composition. I wanted also to transmit a feeling of happiness, joy and a more immersive experience: that’s the main reason I placed the main, colorful subject "closer" to the viewer.
As I already said, the main goal of creating an imbalanced composition is to create a sense of instability, of movement and tension all around the frame.
You should use imbalanced compositions with care, but be also aware that sometimes they will transform an otherwise boring photo in a really powerful one, capable of transmitting some emotions.
There’s not a general rule about when to use this type of compositions instead of balanced ones, so my suggestion is to always try different compositions for the same subject and see which one works better.
Learn on the field.
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3. What is the Importance of Balance?
When choosing the compositional balance of your pictures, you are actually choosing what kind of feelings you intend to transmit and what kind of atmospheres you want to create with your pictures. It already feels a bit more important now, isn’t it?
It’s not about the balance (or imbalance) of the composition in itself, it is more about making a conscious choice, having the power to decide what your photos will look like. There’s an enormous difference between pictures taken by photographers that knows the different types of balance and photographers that don’t: a correct composition will make the viewer feel exactly the emotions that the photographer wanted to transmit, while with a random composition the viewer will hardly feel something.
4. Tips for Using Balance in Photography
The first and probably most important tip I feel to give you is: don’t stick with the same type of balance each time. A big mistake that many photographers do is to find a compositional balance that fit with a good percentage of the situations they generally work in and stick with it at all times. Why? Because normally, it works. Don’t do that! Always keep your mind open and experiment everytime you find yourself shooting a subject. Even in places you’ve already been, try to stop for a moment and think “what if?” by looking at some different types of composition. To sum it up: get out of your comfort zone.
Another recommendation (actually, a difficult one) is to be as objective as possible when shooting: sometimes you may feel “overwhelmed” by your subject or the scene, and skip the part where you think about the composition. The rush, the beauty, the light.. I know. It’s not easy to follow the tip; just try to apply it whenever you can!
Want more stuff on composition?
Here you go with another article on horizontal lines and compositions!