How to use Balance in Photography
Balance is at the base of every composition; it determines whether the photo is pleasing and harmonious to look at, or rather uncomfortable and unresolved. If you look at balance in a literal sense, a very basic analogy comes to mind which is that or the weighing scales.
If you divide the photo in half with a fulcrum in the middle, you can place objects in different parts of the scene to make the photo appear balanced or unbalanced. When a photo is largely symmetrical, it’s easy to see the balance, but obvious balance is somewhat boring. I like the photo below, but if it relied purely on the image’s balance, it would have been boring.
Along with placement, we have size and visual weight, which can balance the photo, depending on the positioning. For example, you may have a small and a large object, which would be impossible to balance at equal distances from the center of the photo, but if you place the smaller object to the far edge of the frame and the larger object slightly off center then the balance becomes a lot better resolved – just like it would be in real life with actual weights on a scale.
If you compare the visual weights of the 2 primary subjects in the photo below from reader Timothy Sax, you’ll see that the slightly off-center subject is counter balanced by their smaller shadow being at the edge of the photo. You also have the use of converging and horizontal lines which help to provide a solid base for the photo, which in turn provides stability and balance.
Balance is good to have in some photos, but if you want to make your images a little more interesting, unbalanced photos help to attract the viewers attention. Unusual placement of a single object, dynamic tension, and single leading lines all help to unbalance a photo as they produce a feeling of unresolved tention like in the photo below.
Balance is of course much more complicated then just weighing out a couple objects in a photo, as it’s uncommon for you to actually see two objects sitting on a solid base, outside of architecture, symmetry and reflections. The weighing scale analogy is good for explaining the basics, but when it comes to the majority of photography, it’s much more complicated and there’s a lot less rules.
I would consider the image below mostly balanced because even though the main visual weight of the subject is to the left of the frame, the vertical lines imply a solid base and the multiple horizontal lines create a zig zag of natural tension, which act as a weight for the right side of the photo.
Balanced or Unbalanced?
Balanced or unbalanced photos are determined in the eyes of the viewer, and it’s up to the photographer to decide how they want the viewer to perceive the photograph. Simply put, deciding between balance and unbalanced is the same as deciding between tension and harmony, and each degree of choice has its different uses. We’ve already looked at balanced photos, so lets have a look at unbalanced photos and their uses.
If you’re purposely looking to add dynamic tension to your photos then you’re going to automatically find that the tension itself acts as a techn
ique for unbalancing the photo. In the photo below it would be hard to find the center of gravity as the image goes outwards from the photo in so many contrasting directions, and the small detail in the top lefthand corner of the photo is even more distracting.
You may also want to unbalance a photo in order to direct the viewers attention to a certain part of the photo, but this should be done with caution. If you chose too unusual of a position for you subject, then the unbalanced technique that you’re using becomes very obvious and in doing so, much less effective.
If you have a look at my photo below, you’ll notice that the balance is definitely leaning towards the left of the photo, but that leads your eye to wonder what’s in the rest of the photo which draws your interest towards the pier and the people on the beach, which made my photo more interesting, and increased the time my viewer was looking at the photo.
If you take the same effect and exaggerate it a little bit more with the use of a shallow depth of field and less posible subjects, it can be hard to tell whether the BBQ is the subject or potentially the tyre swing in the background. This unbalanced technique can change the subject from the obvious to the seemingly insignificant by sparking the curiosity of the viewer and making them want to look at something that they think they’re not supposed to be looking at.
Lastly, you should consider the positioning of your subjects in terms of height within the frame. In the photo below, the fireworks seem to balance out the weight of the stage. Even though the stage is clearly a lot wider, the overall size of the fireworks and their vertical positioning creates a downforce for the left side of the image. Different composition techniques have different effects on the visual weight of objects in your scene, so the better you understand them, the better your balance will be.
A Note to Finish
As photographers, we spend a great deal of time creating awesome images, using different compositional techniques that the viewer is unlikely to pick up on. You may find it frustrating at times that they’re not seeing all your hard work, but that’s not what’s important, it’s the creation of a photo that you and your peers know is good, that is.
The more aware you are of the effects of balance on your photos, the better your photography will be, so it pays to think about how you want to portray your image before you pick up your camera. Degrees of balance is at the heart of every photo and can’t be ignored so use it wisely, and remember, that any technique, if used to excess, is going to lose its worth.