What is balance in photography
Balance in photography is seen when an image has subject areas that appear balanced throughout the composition. It is obtained by moving the frame and juxtaposing the subjects within it so that the objects, tones and colors have the same visual weight. A picture is balanced when the subjects equally hold the viewer’s attention.
Why is balance important in photography?
When it comes to balance, photography is very demanding. Even the most beautiful subject and the best image quality cannot hide an unbalanced composition. And the error is not visible only to the expert eye of a critic. It is visible to anyone looking at your photo, even if not everyone understands where it came from. A certain discomfort, inconvenience or indifference will confuse the viewer.
Aesthetics aren’t the only aspect that suffers from a lack of balance. Without balance, photography is reckless, chaotic and unpredictable. The viewer’s attention will go to the most impactful element and stay there. The imbalance will distract from the narrative or story of the image and not deliver the message you intended.
The purpose of composition photography is to ensure that the viewer explores all areas of the photo and receives the message that you have embedded in the image.
How does balance affect composition?
Using balance in photography means composing the frame so that all of its elements have more equal power in the composition. However, the first step is to break the scene down into elements and mentally give them weight and meaning.
Visually, you can think of the image as a collection of shapes, lines, textures, colors, reflections, and shadows. Conceptually, you can think of the image as a collection of objects, contrasts, actions, and feelings.
When you want to incorporate balance into photography, you have to decide on the relationships between the elements. You can’t just compose a frame using what’s in front of you. You need to consider how the distance between the camera and the subject, camera settings, and camera angle affect the relationship between elements and change their weight in the frame.
Types of balance in photography
You can use these composition techniques to create a balanced photograph with lightness, heaviness, varying shapes, and even meanings behind a composition. Below are the five types of balance in photography to help you create more engaging and meaningful photographs:
- Symmetric balance
- Asymmetric balance
- Color balance
- Tonal balance
- Conceptual balance
Also known as formal balance, symmetrical balance is the most common way to photograph an image. After all, it’s natural for people to place their main subjects in the center of the image. Photography professionals and studios often advise new photographers to avoid shooting their subjects front and center, preferring a more off-center approach. But in the case of the photo above, a symmetrically balanced composition works perfectly to give the main subject visual emphasis and appeal.
In symmetrically balanced photos, both sides of the frame have the same weight. Each side can even mirror the opposite side. Sometimes subjects are surrounded by negative space to give more emphasis and impact. You can intentionally center subjects so they look perfectly symmetrical when split horizontally or vertically in half.
Example of symmetric equilibrium
In the photo of St. Charles’s Church in Vienna above, the church and its mirror image on the pond are centered to create a symmetrical image by reflection. Meanwhile, the spinning top photo below, the spinning top completes the balanced composition with lines and borders that direct the viewer’s eye to the middle and add visual appeal.
Finally, while it’s generally not advisable to shoot portraits with the person right in the center of the image, it can sometimes be a good compositional technique for red carpet candids and beauty close-ups, like seen in the photo below, especially when using a shallow depth of field to minimize competing distractions.
Also known as informal balance, asymmetrical balance is the most common composition technique in photography tutorials and art workshops. As this requires intentionally placing your subject off center it is more difficult to achieve but becomes easier with daily practice.
The rule of thirds uses asymmetry to your advantage. This technique suggests that the best location for an image’s focal point is one-third from each edge of the frame and one-third from the top or bottom. The best way to visualize this idea is to imagine a tic-tac-toe board drawn on your image. The best place for the focal point when using asymmetric balance is at the intersection of two lines. Another way to use asymmetry to create balance in a photographic composition is to balance your main subject with another less important subject that contrasts with the first in terms of size, color, or overall appearance.
Example of asymmetric equilibrium
Take the picture of the window and the bike above. Not only are the subjects off-center to the left and right edges of the frame, but they complement each other by varying in size. Therefore, they have balance in both size and subject placement.
In the landscape photo below, the horizon and the setting sun sit along the lines observed by the rule of thirds. The lighter areas of the sky and water are balanced by the darker area of the stones in the foreground. Each side of the frame balances the opposite side.
In the photo on the left, the differently sized subjects (larger silhouetted bicycle and smaller hot air balloons) and the contrasting tones between the upper and lower part of the frame create an asymmetrical balance in the composition.
Another interesting way to create an asymmetrical balance is to use colors. As you can imagine, a photo with too many bright colors, like reds and oranges, can make an image seem overwhelming. You can achieve color balance by balancing a small area of bright colors with a larger area of neutral or more pastel colors, and vice versa.
Example of color balance
In the image above, the rainbow colored abacus beads would have been too heavy on the eyes if placed on a colored surface instead of a solid white surface. Too much color can create an unbalanced composition. The two images below have been off-centered and are not balanced by a second subject. On the contrary, they have balance by using more neutral and less striking colors around them.
This type of asymmetrical balance is best in monochrome or black-and-white images where different tones stand out easily. In this case, tonal balance appears in terms of the contrast between lighter and darker areas of an image.
Example of tonal balance
Like bright colors, darker areas are “heavier” on the eyes and are better balanced by larger, lighter areas. See this in the photos below, where the foregrounds are darker and are in harmony with the lighter backgrounds. The fact that the foreground subjects also follow the rule of thirds adds even more visual appeal to the images.
Conceptual balance is the most philosophical type of asymmetrical balance where two subjects complement each other and are different beyond size, shape, and form. In many cases, conceptual balance is achieved in an image where there are two contrasting textures or meanings behind its subjects. That said, it’s obviously more difficult to compose a conceptually balanced image because it usually takes more than just tilting the frame.
Example of conceptual balance
In the photo above, the two subjects (an old building and a glass skyscraper) are on the left and right sides of the frame. In addition to the asymmetrical balance, colors and tones, the conceptual balance is respected as the buildings highlight the effect of modernization and industrialization.
The same goes for the photo of the two types of wind turbines below. On the right, the photo of the denim pants shows the color balance as well as the conceptual balance, through the textural contrast between the distressed denim and the smoother, less textured surface around it.
How do you capture a balanced photo?
Taking a balanced shot requires some strategy when looking at the scene in front of you. What are the first things you notice? Try to highlight these subjects as focal points of the picture by placing them strategically in the frame. We have discussed the rule of thirds and symmetric equilibrium. Try experimenting with negative space, or empty space surrounding the subject, to give the image more impact.
Take some test shots. Look at the scene and the images you have taken. Is it a balanced or unbalanced composition? Do you feel like both sides of the picture are fighting for the viewer’s eye? If there’s too much in the image, how can you adjust the depth of field to balance it out? Does a shallower depth of field make the image more balanced by minimizing distractions?
Practice each of the techniques we talked about. As you begin to familiarize yourself with each variety of visual balance, your images will improve and become more visually pleasing.