Understanding Balance and Visual Weight in Photography

Balance is an important concept for achieving photos which feel well composed and visually appealing. Learn how to achieve it in your shots.

In photography, balance is when the elements in your photo are arranged in a way that feels natural and pleasing to the eye. A well-balanced composition feels harmonious while an unbalanced one can feel "off" and less engaging.

Every element in your photo has a "visual weight", which is affected by things like its size, contrast, colour, tone and texture. For a balanced picture, you need to position these elements so that no one part of the image has too much "weight" compared to other parts.

Let's take a look at the different types of balance, the factors that influence it and how you can deliberately make your pictures more (or less) balanced.

Symmetrical balance

Also known as "formal balance", this is the simplest and most obvious way to compose your photo. Simply arrange the elements of your picture so that they're symmetrical about the centre.

Man doing handstand in office

Horizontal symmetry gives a pleasing natural balance. Image by Tokkes.

It's most common to see photos arranged with horizontal symmetry, but vertical symmetry also produces a strong composition.

Industrial building reflected in water

Vertical symmetry can often be found in reflections. Image by Randen Pederson.

The elements in your scene don't need to be identical. As long as they are similar enough in terms of visual weight and general appearance then they will appear balanced.

View down canal in Tronchetto, Italy

Although this composition isn't strictly symmetrical, the elements on either side have enough similarities to give a feeling of symmetry. Image by Marco Verch.

Asymmetrical balance

Sometimes called "informal balance", this is trickier to achieve but generally produces a more interesting photo. It's more subtle than symmetrical balance but gives an equally harmonious feel to the image, drawing the viewer in for longer.

Girl taking photo across landscape

The arrangement of the cave, girl and hills draws the viewer's eye around the scene, giving equal weight to all parts of the shot. Image by Giuseppe Milo.

When arranging a photo asymmetrically, place the main subject off-centre, perhaps using a different compositional technique like the rule of thirds. If the image feels unbalanced, place one or more secondary subjects in the remaining space.

These secondary points of focus give the viewer something else to look at, guiding their eye around the scene. They should have less "weight" than the main subject so that they provide additional interest without becoming a distraction.

What affects visual weight?

Whenever an element stands out from the rest of your image, it holds some level of visual weight. The amount depends on a number of factors.

Size

Perhaps the most obvious factor, bigger objects hold more weight than smaller ones, and therefore attract the viewer's attention more. In general it's best to make your main subject the biggest object, and support it with smaller ones.

Boat at sunset in Antwerp

As the largest object in the scene, the boat in the foreground carries the most visual weight, with the city and sunset providing extra interest and balance. Image by Amine Kaytoni.

Tone and contrast

Darker items have more visual weight than lighter ones. If your subject is a light tone, watch out for distracting shadows and dark objects, and reframe your shot to exclude them if necessary. This is particularly noticeable in black and white photography.

Similarly, areas of high contrast naturally draw your eye. A light object on a dark background, or vice versa, is a great way to focus the viewer's attention on your main subject.

A beach at sunset

Here, the dark foreground objects carry the most weight and draw the eye. The contrast of the lighter background adds interest without overpowering the scene. Image by Ian D Keating.

Colour and saturation

Bold, bright colours stand out more than subtle, neutral shades. A burst of contrasting colour against a more monotone background provides a strong focal point in your photo.

Girl sitting on floor next to two paper boats

The brightly-coloured paper boats in this shot act as an effective counterbalance to the extreme positioning of the woman. Image by Helga Weber.

Texture

Patterns and textures are visually interesting and therefore become natural points of interest. Strong textures in supporting areas of your photo will help balance an off-centre subject, but beware of textured backgrounds which detract from the main focal point.

Rugged landscape by the sea

The texture of the water gives it extra weight, helping to counterbalance the strong imagery of the cliffs. Image by Giuseppe Milo.

Focus

Objects in sharp focus hold more weight than those which are out of focus. This is particularly useful for reducing the impact of unwanted elements in your scene. Adjust your depth of field to blur distractions and pull attention back to the main subject.

Bottle on wall with blurred building in background

The brightly-lit building has been thrown out of focus to reduce its weight and prevent it drawing too much attention away from the main subject. Image by Matthias Ripp.

People and animals

We are powerfully attracted to living creatures in a photo, particularly if we can see their eyes. This can be a blessing or a curse. If your main subject is a person, other people can appear distracting, whereas in a landscape scene they can provide an interesting focal point.

Husky sitting in front of snowy landscape

The husky in this image breaks up the expanse of featureless land and balances the mountains in the background. Image by Markus Trienke.

Gaze

If your image includes a person, viewers will naturally follow the direction of their gaze. This lends weight to what would otherwise be empty space and can be an effective counterbalance on its own.

Man gazing out of the frame

The off-centre positioning of the subject is balanced by having him look into the frame. Image by Marc Hirt.

Abstract types of photographic balance

The elements of balance discussed above can all be physically seen when looking at a photo, but you can also achieve balance in more abstract ways.

For example, juxtaposing man-made objects against a natural scene highlights their differences and gives an extra layer of meaning. You could use this to emphasise the destruction of natural environments, or to show how nature finds ways to thrive even in urban or industrial areas.

Chimney with plants growing out of it

The balance in this photo is abstract rather than compositional, showing the contrast between the chimney of an abandoned factory and the way nature is reclaiming it. Image by XoMEoX.

Other sources of contrast and balance include ancient vs modern, living vs decaying, young vs old, and permanent vs temporary. Exploring these themes will give your photos extra significance.

Using imbalance for tension

If balancing the elements in your shots gives a sense of harmony and peace, deliberately avoiding balance does the opposite. Unbalanced compositions instil a feeling of uneasiness and tension which, when used carefully, can be a very powerful effect.

Silhouette of man and big wheel

This photo is very right-heavy, but the imbalance adds a sense of mystery which is very engaging to the viewer. Image by Reiner Girsch.

Balance in photography is a simple but important concept to get to grips with. Next time you're framing a shot, stop to think about the visual weight of the elements in your scene. A small change of composition can have a big impact on your photo's balance, making the difference between an average shot and a great one.

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