6 Tips Using Visual Weight to Improve Your Composition

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Visual weight (also called visual mass) is the principle that some elements of the photo pull the eye more than others.

Take a look at the portrait below. Where does your eye go? It should go straight to the eyes, because they have the most visual weight. They are the element exerting the greatest pull.

Visual weight and composition

Notice that the model’s eyes are not positioned on the traditional intersection points created by the rule of thirds. That doesn’t stop them from pulling the eye, although it could be argued that their visual weight would be strengthened by placing them on a third.

Let’s look at the principles of visual weight (or visual mass) that you can use to improve the composition of your photos.

1. Light tones

Light tones and highlights pull the eye more than dark ones (the basis of tonal contrast). There is a strong contrast in the portrait above between the model’s skin and hair, and the dark background. It is easier to see in a black and white version of the same photo.

Visual weight and composition

2. People

Curiosity about other people is part of the human condition. Our eye goes straight to any human figure that is present in a photo. Recognixable faces exert a stronger pull, while the eyes (the window to the soul) have the strongest visual weight of all.

This explains why you can use people, small in the frame, to give scale and context. It works because our eyes go straight to those figures, as long as they stand out from the background (gestalt theory in action).

The people in the photo below are small, yet the eye goes straight to them. The inclusion of the human figures helps give the scene scale, and emphasizes the size of the mountain behind them.

Visual weight and composition

3. Visual weight and size

The larger the element of a photo, the more it pulls the viewer’s eye. This principle works in harmony with the others discussed in this section. A small human figure, for example, can have much more pull than a large, inanimate object. A small splash of red can also pull the eye very strongly. But for objects of similar texture and colour, the larger one has the stronger pull.

For example, the dials in this photo are virtually identical in terms of shape and design. The one on the right has the most visual weight because it is the largest of the two.

Visual weight and composition

4. Sharp or recognizable elements

Objects that are sharp or easy to recognize pull the eye more than ones that aren’t. According to gestalt theory, the mind looks for patterns and shapes that helps it make sense of chaotic scenes. Once something is identified, it gains significance in the frame compared to those that aren’t.

The most obvious example of this is a portrait taken against a strongly blurred background. The visual weight of the background is reduced because it is no longer sharp, and no longer recognizable. The use of negative space also comes into play.

Visual weight and composition

5. High contrast

High contrast subjects have more visual weight than low contrast ones. This is a good principle to apply in post-processing as well as the photo taking stage. Instead of increasing contrast universally across the image, try increasing it more in the areas where you want the viewer’s eye to travel. Lightroom’s Clarity slider is an excellent tool for this.

In this example I used the Clarity slider to emphasise the texture of the old car and help draw the eye to it.

Visual weight and composition

6. Visual weight and colour

Bright, saturated colours draw the eye. But not all colours are equal. Warm hues have more visual weight than cool ones. Red is the strongest colour of all.

Simplifying the composition makes the relationship between the colours in the photo easier to see. A technique you can use, if your subject is brightly coloured, is to position it against a background comprised subdued, less powerful hues like grey, green and brown.

Simplifying works for all aspects of visual weight. Eliminate everything that isn’t necessary. Keep the background as simple as you can. Once you’ve done this, look at the remaining elements and think about how the eye will move around between them, according to the principles of visual weight. The relationships between them become clearer as the composition is simplified.

The red figurine in the centre of the photo below has the most visual weight. I emphasised this in post-processing by using the Clarity slider to increase its contrast and adding a vignette to darken the background.

Visual weight and composition


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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  • George Johnson

    The one thing I tell people, which relates directly to this, is the concept of “emotional weight”. Where the perceived emotional bearing an object carries often has to be in balance with other elements. The physical size of the thing is often immaterial, it’s the emotion they convey. Living things often have far heavier emotional weight than inanimate objects. When I mention it photographers look at me like I’m mad! The best examples are when the moon is captured in an image, even though it’s physical size within a picture is often small it carries a huge emotional weight, a big heavenly body, stories and mythology, etc. Another obvious example is people, as you state above. People have huge emotional weight within a frame, the classic image of a person standing on a rocky outcrop in a mountain range. As you say a person pulls you in and even though the mountains maybe staggering in scale compared to the tiny person, the person carries an emotional state we can empathize with.

  • Michael

    I usually use the positive settings of Clarity slider most of the time except when post-processing women and child shots where I use the negative settings. Your article made me to think about the importance of visual weight. Thanks!

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    I am unsure about your assertion that red is the strongest colour. Sure, in a picture with a single bright red item amidst duller colours, that is where the eye goes. But I think it is the visual contrast that is at work. The human eye registers the yellow part of the spectrum most strongly. For example, in this picture taken at the Paraparaumu Beach market, which stall captures your eye?

  • Good point. The element of life adds another dimension to photography.

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