There is one “rule” when it comes to composition in photography that probably isn't talked about or written about as much as these other “rules” and that is balance.
You'll note that I put the “rule” in quotes. I do this because rules really aren't hard and fast rules.
I hesitate to use rules in the composition of photography particularly with those just starting out or getting interested. Constantly attempting to strictly follow these rules will only serve to limit your creativity. However, as a beginner, you need to be aware of how these “rules” affect your composition and how being aware of them and using them to your advantage will absolutely improve your photography as a whole!
So let's talk about balance in photography. Uh… no… not balance when snowshoeing… I'll leave that to my lovely bride Tammy!
What Is Balance In Photography?
First of all balance in a composition is a difficult thing to describe and even be specific about. It's not like the previously discussed leading lines and the rule of thirds. Nonetheless is sure is a compositional element that is worth a few brain cells as you look through your view finder and frame your shot.
In fact… and I hope that after reading through this brief tutorial on balance in photography, you'll be able to go back through some of your old photographs and be able to recognize the ones where you achieved it and the ones you didn't. And just so you know… we all have those that don't. All of us.
Everyone has taken shots where the eye-catching point(s) of interest of the composition is framed to one side of the photo with a chasm of emptiness on the other. So don't worry.
Let's start with symmetry in photography. Most all are familiar with symmetry and how it relates to balance. Just like a teeter-totter, a composition that has symmetry will be fairly easy to spot. The elements of the composition will be fairly balanced from the left side to the right side of the frame.
In the picture below of an old Southern plantation building that I took, you can see the symmetrical balance of the elements with the window in the center and the benches lining both sides of the room. For this shoot, I took shots from several different perspective, but after looking through all the different shots I took of this room, it was the symmetry of balance that ultimately worked for my eye.
Add A Secondary Focal Point –
Let's look just a touch deeper and hopefully see how by even having a secondary focal point that counter balances the main one can improve your composition greatly. By learning this you can add just a touch of balance (or weight) to an area to the shot that may have otherwise been engulfed in emptiness!
For the shot just below, I cheated just a bit by using a light painting photography technique to achieve the balance I was after. This was a pre-dawn shot that actually had the lilies pretty much in the dark. During the exposure time by hitting the main lily with a spot of light then just briefly touching the background with the light.
This enabled me to bring in the secondary focal point of the unopened lily in the background to add just a touch of weight or balance to the composition in both the immediate foreground as well as the background. And yes, it took me a few attempts to finally get the result I was after. I'll get into more detail on light painting photography in separate posts for you a bit later.
As a photographer achieving balance in your photography is something that evolves and you learn (or become more conscious of) over time. So it will come for you.
Just like all things photography, every situation is different and presents its own unique challenges to capture the composition that you know must be there. So let's look at a few things that can help you get there.
Honestly for me (and I think the vast majority of photographers) the vast majority of pictures I take, I will crop to some level.
Altering Your Shooting Point Of View –
We are going talk in more detail on this one but this is a biggie… a real biggie for me when I help people. In word, it means move your feet! Move your body around! Take shots high. Take shots low. Walk around (be safe) but walk around and take lots of shots from different perspectives!
This is where using a tripod can actually be a big hindrance for photographers. They get to the location that they've scouted out, take the time to set up their tripod… then never bother to move from that position. I gotta tell you… I'm not that good. I can't mentally see the perfect composition well enough to make a one time decision on the perspective I want and then nail it. If you can… Kudos!
Moving Your Elements –
If you have compositional element in your frame that you can move around such as in food photography or interior architectural photography don't be afraid to do so. This can achieve the same effect as altering your point of view as we just discussed.
Be aware at this point that not all that is balance is determined by just properly distributing the weights of object of the composition. Balance in the composition of photography is very often determined by what catches or captures the eye in a photograph.
Balance In Photography Guides The Eye –
Take a look at the photo just below. You can obviously see the very large and weighty element of the beautiful old Live Oak tree and the awesome detail presented in its bark and canopy. So what balances out this big ol' beautiful tree? Take a moment to note where does your eye seem to travel in the composition after it checks out the Live Oak.
Obviously, the old plantation in the background would be a good thought. But for me (and everyone's eye and perception is different) and getting pretty specific here… it's the the front door… and even more precise (again for me) is the half moon transit above the door in the distance that is framed in architecturally by the columns on either side! That's, at least what I was after.
Okay, so now that I've said that, take another quick look and mentally note where your eye sequentially travels in the photo. Does it seem to want to go from the Live Oak tree to the front door?
If so… good job outta me! If not… darn it.
Photographic Elements That Attract The Eye –
So what all pulls in the eye and therefore becomes a “weighted” element of the shot? We've touched on a few so far, and here a few more. The following isn't a comprehensive list… but will get you started thinking.
Areas of Contrast –
Dark vs light and different tonal elements.
Focal Point –
Items that are in focus vs those that aren't. Especially true when you have but one item in focus and the entire rest of the composition is blurry… such as a flower or my bee on that flower (see below). This uses a technique known as Depth of Field and is a great way to add some balance to your composition. I'll help you with that in a post to come. So stay tuned!
Bright Spots –
Certainly bright spots will attract the eye – both in a good way and a not so good way if you're not careful.
Saturated Colors –
Color contrasts contrasts and Warm (red & yellow) colors
Large Items –
Well… large items… you know.
The eyes of your subject and the direction they are looking. Even though the eyes are small, people will almost always tend to look at your composition in the direction that the subject's eyes are looking too!
Elements Closer to the Camera –
Carry a little more visual weight.
Elements That are Physically Heavier –
May also carry more visual weight.
Ok. The thing about balance in a photograph is this… any time an element stands out in your composition as compared to the rest of the image, then it holds some sort of “visual weight”.
Final Thought –
This element may or may not be the main subject of your composition, but if you're truly trying to achieve balance then you have to take this element into consideration. And you do this by either moving around to get different perspectives, or re-arrange the particular element (if possible) or yes even give yourself enough room in the frame to later crop specific elements of the picture.
Balance in photography is important even though it isn't one of the most talked about. The key for you as a beginner is to first be aware of it. Then like all things photography, you have to get out and work with it and practice!
Take lots of pictures! In these (digital) days the “film” is free! So get out there and assign yourself a project where you go out and literally practice taking shots with good compositional balance in mind!
Don't Forget To