Sometimes it feels like getting the right composition is an endlessly moving target, with this technique and that idea and many other considerations. Balance is one of the more complicated concepts but is also a really powerful tool that is worth investing some time learning. To help you out, here are 9 ways and elements you can use to help you create balance in your images.
What is balance?
Balance is a way of composing an image so that all elements complement each other equally. Visual tension or harmony are created which results in a pleasing image.
Many different elements can be involved with incorporating balance into your image composition:
- Light versus shadow
- Visual weight
- Subject placement
- Relation of elements to each other
- Depth of field
- Negative space
How do you achieve balance?
When you compose your scene you need to think about the different elements and how they interact and relate to each other. What is the story you want to tell or frame up? What is the emotion you are trying to convey?
Balance can be harmonious, where all elements are equally present and form an aesthetically pleasing whole – symmetry is a good example. A landscape scene perfectly mirrored in a still pond or lake is very harmonious.
An image can have visual tension due to unbalance. It may seem counterintuitive to say that this also creates balance but think about negative space or a small spot of bright red in an otherwise dull image.
Often several different factors come into play in considering balance, it’s not necessarily just one problem to solve for each image. Every image has color, a subject, tone, contrast and so on, which are all involved in producing your final image.
Some of these concepts have to do with the mechanics of how you take the photo (light/shadow/contrast/tone) and some are more compositional (symmetry/negative space/subject placement). So there are many different things to consider at once within each image.
Let’s look at each in more detail:
#1 – COLOR
Color has a great impact on your images. When color film finally emerged it had a huge impact on photography. Being able to see bright colors instead of monochrome was very different. It lead to many different styles and techniques in photography and is still the dominant way images are processed today.
It allows you to evoke emotion, create tension, highlight a specific element, catch our attention and tell the story of the image in different ways.
Take this garden shot with all the different foliage shades of green and yellow – yet the eye goes immediately to the small but prominent red flowers. This image has balance because the red has a lot of visual weight but physically is only a small part of the overall image.
If it was much bigger it would overwhelm, instead, it gives somewhere to start the journey looking at all the different textures and colors contained in the garden.
Using color to evoke a mood, a feeling, or a period of time
This old bicycle turned into a Welcome sign at a historic homestead. By opting for a slightly sepia tone it picks up all the textures in the shot and evens out all the different competing colors. The focus becomes the bicycle and not the bright green of the grass or the red of the chicken in the background. Changing the colors balances out all the other elements and allows the subject you want to be the focus.
#2 – LIGHT VERSUS SHADOW
Light and shadow are the opposite elements necessary for photography. If you have light, in general, you will have shadows. When you have both present it gives your subjects added dimension, they become physical rounded elements, not flat even though they are being viewed in a flat 2D medium (either printed or on a screen).
Contrast and tonal difference make an image more dynamic and interesting. Contrast comes from the difference between the amount of light and shadow in an image. More contrast also widens out the tonal range of the image, when it is too similar it will look very flat (like the seaside landscape below).
So learning to use both light and shadow together can create balance in your images. The horseshoe image below was specifically shot to use the harsh midday sun to generate the shadows and capture the patterns and how they hang on the nails. It would be a much less interesting image without the shadows.
#3 – TEXTURE
Texture can be present in different ways – in the image of the spoons with spices (below) there are three layers of texture – the background surface, the spices in the spoons, and some scattered spices. While there is a lot of texture in the image, it balances due to the scale and the blending layer in between which softens the difference between the spices and the industrial background.
If the extra scattered spices were not there it would not work as well as they help transition the eye around the image.
This blueberry shot uses texture in a different way, where the subjects themselves become the textural element, with some added interest in the form of water droplets. Without the droplets, it was a much less interesting image, and the fine detail of the droplets help balance out the size of the berries, giving the eye more elements to engage with.
Think tree bark, patterns on the water, brick walls, cracks in the pavement, clouds in the sky, foliage in a garden, shiny reflective metal, stones in a pond, sand at the beach. Think long exposure to produce soft foamy waterfalls or interesting cloud patterns. Consider ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) for soft blurred effect or pretty light trails.
Texture is all around you and in everything you see, but it is often taken for granted. Texture can be highlighted and become a key element in your image if you take the time to see it and take advantage of it.
#4 – VISUAL WEIGHT
This is a tricky concept to come to grips with as it sometimes seems a bit contradictory. How can a small element overwhelm a bigger image? How can one color dominate another one?
In the butterfly image below, the tones are all very similar, even the colors are shades of yellow and brown. Yet the visual weight is actually held by the fuzzy green leaf in the bottom corner. If you crop the bottom section off it completely changes the feel of the image, and the butterfly becomes more prominent.
One of my personal favourite images is of a fresh new bright limestone headstone in a cemetary of very old and weathered stones (below). The light was at the perfect angle to highlight the one stone which carries the visual weight yet is only a very small element physically within the image.
The central placement works well in balancing the other elements around it and allows more of the story to be told – if the focus was tight on the headstone it would have had a very different feel to the image.
5. SUBJECT PLACEMENT
Where you place the subject in the frame is important in many ways. It can be used to show scale, the relationship between elements, to highlight tension, or to create a specific feel or stylistic tone to an image.
A classic example is the Rule of Thirds – where it is taught that a center placed subject lacks drama and impact – place the subject on the third lines to make it more dynamic within the frame. When the subject is looking in a particular direction, where you place them affects the feeling of the image. If they are looking out of the frame, placing them close to the edge is quite a different image than if you compose the image so that they are looking more into/across the frame.
In the cave image below the people add balance by providing scale. Without them there we would be unable to appreciate the true size of the cave as we have no context to apply. The bright colors of their clothes also offer some visual weight in contrast to the textured details of the rock walls. The positioning at the bottom of the frame grounds the image and helps tell the story.
The placement of this bellbird on the branch is an appealing balance of angles and lines. The line of the main branch is echoed by the blurred ones in the background – this gives some depth and scale to the image.
The bird is a nice size within the image, large enough to see the details, but not cramped within the frame and his crimson eye holds a lot of visual weight as well. If the bird was angled the other way it would be less pleasing as it would not be balanced the same way, as the X is symmetrical.
#6 – RELATIONSHIP OF ELEMENTS
Similar to #5 above, this takes the placement concept a step further. You need to consider the specific relationship between elements and how can you use that in composing your image.
In this landscape shot below, it’s a pretty simple land/sea/sky shot – not really very interesting at all. But the inclusion of the sign right next to the edge of the cliff changes everything. The bright red of the letters catches our attention (as it should) and even though the sign is small it has large impact.
Had the sign not been so close to the edge, it may have been a less compelling image. In composing this, the Rule of Thirds was also used to provide scale and context with the cliff edge off to the right, showing that the cliff continued (it was actually a whole headland of several hundred meters with just this one sign).
Below is a wide-angle landscape shot of some fossilized totara tree trunks at Curio Bay, The Catlins, NZ. Landscapes when taken with a wide angle often lose context if they don’t have a foreground element to anchor them.
The person also helps tell more of the story, while providing a color pop of bright blue visual interest and weight against the sand and rock. His presence in the front of the frame balances out the large wider angle landscape behind him and gives scale to appreciate how big it is.
#7 – SYMMETRY
When done well and with thought, symmetry can be a useful tool. Putting your subject dead center in the frame can be a risk too. While a mirror image in a lake or puddle can be pretty, it can also be quite static and uninteresting. An odd situation where the image is perfectly balanced and yet it doesn’t actually work compositionally!
Below, the autumn tree reflection is a mirror image but the angle at which it has been shot puts the focus on the landscape. So the reflection is not necessarily the point of the image. Instead, it is more of an added bonus. Also, the way the trees are arranged creates balance across the image, the two golden willows are rounded and slightly shadowed.
They are counterbalanced by the taller golden poplar, with similarly toned grass behind, and the green of the reeds in the water. There is enough contrast in the image with the light and shadow elements to add depth and interest while the gold/blue color combination is an aesthetically pleasing one. The reflection softens the colors and tones enough that they allow the actual landscape to take prominence.
This image was specifically composed with all those things in mind.
#8 – DEPTH OF FIELD
Does everything in your image have to be 100% sharp? My answer to that is no. You can use Depth of Field creatively, balancing the subject against the softer background, allowing the subject to be prominent and the strong focal element.
Imagine the shot of the larch cones below if the aperture was more like f/11. If all the foliage and trees in the background were in focus then the cones would be lost against it. Portrait photographers use this concept to their advantage, shooting their subject in a similar way to get them to stand out from a sometimes messy or distracting background.
#9 – NEGATIVE SPACE
Negative space is an interesting composition element that works for some shots. Remembering to keep it in the back of your mind for the rare occasion it might suit can be difficult. Also being brave enough to try a different approach than you normally use is challenging.
When used carefully, negative space adds value to an image by providing a lot of empty space to create balance for a particular subject. It is often used successfully in travel photos, where brightly coloured walls or buildings offer a great canvas for a person to be posed against, often as they walk past.
This gerbera shot has a lot of negative space on the left and underneath the flower. Because of the curving stem and the dynamic angle of the flower, this image has a lot of movement for the eye. The negative space offers a calming balance to that energy.
The smooth soft water of this long exposure offers some negative space to balance out the visual weight of the rocks and the busy sky. The light tones of the water also create balance with the darker tones of the sand.
Sometimes an image can feel just subtly off even though the subject might be good, the light is good and the composition seems to be alright. It is worth taking a look at those images with fresh eyes and considering the balance of the different elements discussed here. Perhaps you will begin to see some opportunities to compose your images in a different way?
Composition often seems to be a never-ending quest to find the holy grail of elements. Do you have perfect lighting? Is your subject awesome? Are they doing something cool or interesting? Are the colors fresh and vibrant? Is it exotic? Does it have a wow factor?
Yet your image might have all of those things and still not seem quite right. So take a look at how the different elements relate to each other from a balance point of view.
Maybe instead of trying to remember all the complicated rules of composition – let’s keep it much simpler and start with balance. Or maybe you want your work to be really edgy and challenging and you aim for the tension in a deliberately unbalanced work – that is also a viable creative choice too.
But if you feel that your images lack a certain something, try looking at them from a balance point of view and see what you get. Like everything in photography, there is no one single right way to do it. Instead, there are many different ways, and hopefully one will resonate with you to help you learn something new.
If you are someone who considers balance when composing your images, what other ways do you think about? This is merely a summary of the many possible options that I keep in mind when shooting. Please share any others I haven’t mentioned in the comment area below.