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