A definition of balance is "a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions." Balance is a state where the opposing forces are matched to provide an equilibrium. In the physical world we use words like mass, weight, force, and gravity to describe the measure of interaction between objects. We can use these same concepts to describe the way the graphical elements of an image interact.
Balance within the context of images - and as usual I am including painting and other visual arts as well as photography - is about finding the equality between the strongest graphical elements of the image. There are two scenarios we should consider.
Where there are two similar elements in the image, in order for there to be balance, the elements should be equally distributed in the frame, on either side of a pivot point or fulcrum. An example would be a picture of a bride and groom - both people about the same size in the frame and standing next to each other. They occupy the same "weight" in the image. If one was further away, closer to the edge of the frame, the image would be off balance. Batman v Superman is a classic example. Have a look at almost any of the movie posters to see this sort of static balance in action.
But more often than not, we have dissimilar elements - not just subjects; any graphical elements - in our images. A surfer and a wave. A toddler and his dad. A car on the road. A mountain. A mountain and what? The sky perhaps? It's reflection in the lake below?
Let's imagine the surfer picture. As we already know, the human form attracts the eye of the viewer, so almost regardless of how small the surfer is in the frame, this element will have quite a bit of gravity. The wave on the other hand is mostly just a blue wall of water. How much of the wave do we need to show in the frame to create an equal amount of gravity, and thus balance out the pull of the surfer? Probably quite a lot.
What about the toddler? He is little compared to his dad, so, despite the cute factor, the dad would have more weight. One way to provide balance is with distance. Perhaps have the boy nearer the camera, and the dad further away. Perhaps dad is closer to the edge of the frame and the son closer to the centre, but probably on opposite sides.
How could you use focal length to achieve balance?
So far we have been balancing two graphical elements in an image. Of course there could be more than two. Some of them might be grouped together. Others might just be considered distractions.
There are many ways to photograph a mountain, but usually you'll find that landscape photographers will try use the foreground as a means to create balance. In my opinion, sometimes as photographers we try too hard to include a foreground into our landscape and it results in the background – the mountain – not getting sufficient weight in the image. The balance is off.
Colour and contrast also contribute to the weight of an element. You already know warmer colours (the reds and oranges) tend to stand out and attract our attention more than the blues. So what if our surfer was wearing a blue wetsuit, paddling out into a lovely orange sunset? The warm coloured wave is going to hold more weight in this image.
How could you use focal length to achieve balance?
Likewise an object with an opposite tone to the rest of the image will attract. Think of an empty street on a dark night with a lone car under a street light. Or a deer on a snow-covered hillside.
We refer to the "blank" areas of the examples we're imagined our way through here as negative space. The negative space is a graphical element that provides its own weight and gives the eye of the viewer a place to rest.
When we are considering the balance of an image the graphical weight of the main elements must be measured. We know that faces, people, animals, living things, man-made things, bright (or dark) objects, objects with a defined shape, bright colours have greater visual gravity. We can use the size of the subject to increase or decrease the gravity. Making the toddler’s dad smaller in the frame reduces the attraction, thereby establishing an equilibrium.
In a picture of a mountain and the sky, how much sky do we show? Perhaps colour could be used to provide the balance. If it is a bright blue sky, and the mountain is lit by the warm glow of a rising sun, then you may need to balance with quite a lot of sky. Twelve hours later, with the warm sunset sky and the mountain in a blue shadow, you may need less sky.
The placement of the elements in relation to each other plays a role too. The proximity to the centre of the frame tends to add weight, while a subject on the edge of the frame less so.
Exactly how much is down to your artistic intent. Perhaps you want to emphasise the size of the wave the surfer is riding. Perhaps the boy is being reprimanded by the dad, so you want to express the size difference. The wave and the dad need more weight so that they stand out as your primary subjects.
In summary, balanced images are more pleasing to look at. When considering the weight of the graphical elements of an image, think about the shape, colour, contrast, size and position relative to each other, and size and location in the frame.
Importantly though, don’t throw the composition non-rules out the window! Remember the Rule of Thirds and keeping the background (or foreground) distractions to a minimum.
You have just read 997 words. Maybe a picture will do a better job.