When someone looks at your photo, they intuitively know if it works or feels just plain awkward. They have no idea what makes them like or hate it. It just happens – seconds after a first glance.
The trained artist, however, knows exactly what’s going on. It’s a phenomenon known as balance.
Every human can feel its power but only a few know how to make effective use of its power. This lesson will teach you how to be one of those few.
Before we begin, however, let me make one thing clear.
If you are expecting basic composition rules like symmetry or asymmetry, guess again. Instead, I am going to share something with you that’s much more fundamental.
When I first discovered this stuff, it blew my mind. I hope this lessons does the same for you.
To begin, we will cover a basic concept that Rudolf Arnheim describes in “Art and Visual Perception”:
“Visual Experience is Dynamic”
What does this mean? Simply put, when someone looks at your photo – or any photo – an explosion of activity takes place in the neurons of their brain.
Their eyes explore the image with skill and precision like that of a carefully engineered roller-coaster. They are instinctively guided by the motion and tension created within the frame of your images. The lines, patterns, colors, and objects all contribute to this tension.
Then, literally seconds after a first glance, they know whether the photo is good or ugly. More often than not, balance is the reason.
So how do you achieve balance in your photos?
Quite simply, you unify all the elements within your frame – the lines, colors, shapes – so that there is overall visual harmony. Most artist have a natural “knack” for this. As with all art, people love to mystify this ability and call it talent or a gift.
I say screw that. Anything that one person does another person can do.
I am going to teach you how. At first it will take some conscious effort with every shot you take. As you use these principles I will get to shortly, however, it will become more habitual.
Your goal is simple…
Create a Photo Where All Visual Forces Balance to Create Harmony
To do this, it all begins with the skeleton of your image, or in other words, the structure of the frame.
“No object is perceived as unique or isolated. Seeing something involves assigning it a place in the whole: a location in space, a score on the scale of size or brightness or distance.”
Every photo you take naturally falls into the structure of a “frame”.Four lines and four corners.
Within this frame there is a structure. Place an object dead center and you align that object with the structure of that frame.
Additionally, take a look at a simple break-down of the frame visually:
As you can see, a simple, invisible thing such as the border of your picture has a great deal of structure to it. Tensions are naturally built into this very structure.
Placing an object dead center or within specific strong-points of this structure naturally create a feeling of stability and balance.
“In general, any location that coincides with a feature of the structural skeleton introduces an element of stability, which of course may be counteracted by other factors.”
With photography, the frames structure is not enough to create a balanced photo. There are far more visual forces at play. Let’s look into a few of them…
Top and Bottom
Take a look at the photo below. Disregarding the fact that the image is upside down, wouldn’t you say something just doesn’t feel right about it?
Why does this happen? One reason…
The Law of Gravity
As humans, from birth we are trained to observe the law of gravity. We see that objects that are heavy stay on the ground and objects that are light blow with the wind. We notice that when we jump in the air, we are immediately pulled back down.
Consequently, when we look at an image, two things happen:
- Objects at the bottom third are given more visual weight
- Objects at the top third are given less visual weight.
If you’ve ever tried to fight the law of gravity by flying into the air, you’ll have realized that it’s impossible. So it is with photography.
Take a look at the photo right-side up now. So much more visually pleasing, right?
Quite simply, it’s the psychological experience called balance at play…
“If one is asked to bisect a perpendicular line without measuring it, one almost invariably places the mark too high. If a line is actually bisected, it is with difficulty that one can convince oneself that the upper half is not longer than the lower half.” This means that if one wants the two halves to look alike, one must make the upper half shorter.”
Do not fight the law of gravity. Embrace it.
Right and Left
Take a look at the photo below. Notice the speed the horses appear to be moving in.
Now, let’s take a look at the same picture flipped horizontally. Notice how the horses seem to be moving more sluggish, despite the fact that it is the exact same photo.
As I mentioned earlier about top and bottom placement, right and left placement is based upon our entire cultural upbringing.
From youth we are taught to read from left to right. As a result, when observing images, objects moving towards the right are perceived as faster and easier. Objects moving to the left, conversely, feel more stilted and difficult.
Additionally, Arnheim states the following:
“…when two equal objects are shown in the left and right halves of the visual field, the one on the right looks larger. For them to appear equal, the one on the left has to be increased in size.”
Based upon this knowledge of top, bottom, left and right, it is important when you frame your images to realize the added (or diminished) visual weight based on your placement.
Balance is a psychological experience.
The beautiful play of tension within your photograph create a literal psychological reaction to your viewer. As you have now learned, simply the choice of subject placement at the top of the frame or bottom will have a dramatic impact on the reaction from viewers.
With that said, we have briefly covered the overall structure and skeleton of the frame. Of course, with photography there is more to the photo than just the structure.
There are objects, lines, colors, and varying shapes. These all bring new visual forces and tensions into play.
How these tensions interact within your frame determines whether you end up with balanced or unbalanced image.
If your photo is arranged so that the weight, direction, and resulting tension between all the visual elements fit together perfectly, it creates BALANCE.
“In its simplest form, balance is achieved by two forces of equal strength that pull in opposite directions.”
Conversely, if even one object is slightly off, causing too much tension and unbalance, the viewer will know. They may not be able to describe it, but they’ll feel the lack of visual harmony.
To better understand how to achieve balance, let’s look into three of the most powerful visual characteristics that influence tension and force.
Every object you photograph has a natural visual weight based on the angle, lighting, and the space around it.
In essence, weight is influenced by location.
When you place an object within the framework of the structure mentioned earlier, it ends up weighing more than when it’s off-centered.
Notice how the turtle, when placed off-center, appears to weigh much more than the turtle that is centered. Even though the second image of the turtle off-center is at the bottom of the frame, the visual force of the frame structure (being centered) has more power.
When you place an object within the structure of the frame, it will naturally have more visual weight. Conversely, placing an object off of the frame structure will reduce its weight.
In addition to the structure, the spatial depth also affects the weight of an object.
The more depth that an area of an image has, the more weight it will force upon the viewer.
Additional elements that affect weight include:
The larger an object or area of an image is, the more weight it will have.
Although two different images and scenes, notice the space around the tree above compared with the tree below. The above tree with lots of negative space creates a smaller object and, thus, less visual weight. Having less weight, the photo becomes less about the tree and more about the area that takes up more space. In the case above, this is the hillside.
Compare that with the image below where the tree has less negative space around it. The result is a larger tree with more visual weight. Consequently, the tree takes more attention from viewers than the hillside.
Difference in weight creates an entirely different psychological experience to viewers. Take care when choosing how much space you want to place around an object.
Brighter objects will feel heavier than darker colored objects.
Objects completely isolated from other objects will appear heavier than the same object with a cluttered or varying background.
Simple geometrical shapes are heavier than complicated shapes.
In addition to the size of the object, it’s shape also greatly influences the overall tension within the photo.
Overall shapes of objects create lines and curves which act as invisible “arrows” for viewers to follow. The more weight that an object or area has, the greater force the visual directions it contains will force upon the viewer.
Note the photo of the boy below. The shoulders and head create diagonal lines that all point straight towards the boys eyes. Additionally, the nose, grimace of the face, and eye brow all lead viewers to the eyes.
The photo below leads the viewer towards the center bright light in the middle of the photograph.
When taking photos, make note of the lines and their visual weight. Make care to ensure that the tensions created from these forces all balance out over the photos structure and other objects.
Familiarity and Emotional Triggers
The last thing I want to discuss regarding this introductory lesson on balance is one of the strangest – yet most powerful.
While an objects shape, direction, and position within a frame all create visual force, none can compare to the visual force of an object with emotional familiarity.
“…perception may also be influenced by the observer’s wishes and fears. One could try to ascertain whether pictorial balance is changed by the introduction of a highly desirable object or a frightening one.”
Placing an object that viewers naturally fear, love, or hate will instinctively create more weight on that area of the frame.
Experimenting With Balance
Every great piece of art – whether a photo or a painting – has a sense of visual balance. Although the photo can have elements of chaos and insanity, all tensions will eventually resolve within the structure of the “frame”.
Taking photos with balance is easy when you only have one subject and a very simple background or shallow depth of field. The real challenge is when you photograph several objects or an expansive depth of field.
The key for these difficult situations is to adhere to the fundamentals of balance mentioned here. The more you experiment with them, the more intuitive you will become.
When looking through the viewfinder, act as if it was the first time you’ve opened your eyes in years. What do you see? What’s your immediate reaction? If you feel like something’s off, recompose the shot.
And remember, balance is a psychological experience!
“What a person or animal perceives is not only an arrangement of objects, of colors and shapes, of movements and sizes. It is, perhaps first of all, an interplay of directed tensions. These tensions are not something the observer adds, for reasons of his own, to static images. Rather, these tensions are as inherent in any percept as size, shape, location, or color. Because they have magnitude and direction, these tensions can be described as psychological “forces.”