Welcome to the March installment of Exploring with a Camera! This month I am going to talk about balance in photographs, specifically balancing shapes.
Not too long ago I posted this image of a green door, which I love. After posting it I got to thinking… Why do I love this simple image? What attracts me to photographing scenes like this? Why do I distill the world down into bits and pieces like this? After some thought, I realized that capturing images like this is just plain fun for me, because the compositions are all about playing with balance. I see a scene like this and I get to experiment, balancing the shapes in different ways, seeing what works best to create an interesting image. When I do this kind of play, I’m not only learning how to balance simple 2D shapes within the frame, I’m establishing a foundation that helps me to balance more complex compositions.
So let’s start with this image, breaking it down into the basic shapes and looking at how they balance.
The shapes in this image are the square window, the circular doorknob, and the line of the door jam. (For the purpose of this discussion of balance let’s define a line as a shape.) The square window is my focal point – it is the largest element, has the highest contrast and the most interest with the bit of paint in the window, giving it the greatest visual weight. The door knob and door jam are lower contrast, they are supporting elements in this composition. The empty space is also a supporting element in the composition, providing room for the different shapes to interact. The square of the window is balanced both diagonally in the frame by the grouping of the door knob and door jam in the lower right, and horizontally by the line of the door jam on the right.
This simple example introduces a few important concepts in balance: Visual weight, symmetry and direction of balance.
Visual weight goes beyond the relative size of an element, encompassing all the factors that affect where our eye is attracted first in the photographic frame. The element with the greatest visual weight will attract your eye first, regardless of physical size. Visual weight could be an Exploring with a Camera topic of its own, so I’ll distill it down to the relevant points for this discussion of balancing shapes. Generally, an element will have a greater weight if it has:
- Higher contrast with its surroundings. This is not just light/dark contrast, although that is the simplest for our discussion here.
- Brighter color than its surroundings.
- Higher complexity than surrounding objects.
- Unique or Distinct attributes as compared to the surrounding objects.
Typically, you can balance visual weight with an opposite:
- High contrast can be balanced with low contrast.
- Bright color can be balanced with neutral or more subtle color.
- Complexity is balanced by simplicity and space.
- Unique or Distinct attributes can be balanced by sameness – such as a repeating pattern or open space.
Look at this example of the door above. The bright color and complexity of the door, along with size, give it the greatest visual weight. The door is balanced by the neutral-colored space around it, and the simple line of the black pipe on the left.
Symmetry and Direction of Balance
Symmetry describes how the shapes reflect each other within the frame, while Direction of Balance describes how the shapes interact in terms of balance. A perfectly symmetric composition will have elements that mirror each other, both horizontally and vertically. The direction of balance does not always match the symmetry of the shapes, as the examples below will show.
This image is an example of a completely symmetric composition. The shapes are symmetric in both directions, a mirror image of each other whether you look horizontally (left-right) or vertically (up-down). The focal point shape, the letter slot, is also balanced evenly by the shapes of the door detail in each corner. This type of composition is pleasing and peaceful, but it doesn’t happen often in the real world and would get boring pretty quickly.
A partially symmetric composition will have elements that are either horizontally, vertically or diagonally symmetric. The direction of the symmetry, however, does not necessarily provide the direction of the balance. In this example, there is horizontal symmetry in the shape of the elements in the hull of this boat, but the texture created by the seawater in the paint at the bottom of the frame, the real subject, is balanced vertically by the stripe of dark blue paint at the top of the frame.
In an asymmetric composition you won’t have any obvious horizontal, vertical or diagonal symmetry. You balance between each individual element and their relative visual weights to create a composition. These types of compositions are the most dynamic and interesting. They are also the most challenging, and the ones you are going to encounter the most in the real world. Consider this example. The mail box, my intended subject, is the focal point because of its high contrast with the dark space around it. It is balanced to the right by the window and box of flowers, and below by the siding. The amount of window/box that was included in the frame was chosen intentionally to balance the element of the mail box, the red flower repeating and balancing the red letters and flag on the mailbox.
A Framework for Building Balance of Shapes
While I am out shooting, I don’t necessarily have all of these concepts at the forefront of my mind. I play around with different compositions finding the one I like best, which always seems to be the one with the best balance, even if I wasn’t thinking of balance at the time. To develop a feel for balancing shapes, as you shoot consider these three questions:
- What am I balancing? This will be your main element or subject.
- What do I have available to balance? This could be space, or other elements. Distill the elements down to shapes and lines to look for opportunities to balance.
- How can I balance these elements? Look at visual weight, symmetry and direction of balance. You can balance horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Explore orientation of the frame, either landscape or portrait. Allow some of the elements to be cut off, creating a line or a shape defined by the edge of the frame.
Let’s look at a few more examples of balancing shapes using these questions as a framework. We’ll also keep the ideas of visual weight, symmetry and direction of balance in mind.
What am I balancing? The red mailbox.
What do I have available to balance? The white wall, the blue door, and the numbers on the door.
How can I balance these elements? The red mail box wins for visual weight, because of the bright color and the contrast of the surrounding white wall. It is balanced by the white space around it as well as diagonally by the contrasting numbers in the blue door, and horizontally by the large shape of the blue door itself.
What am I balancing? The colors painted on the wall.
What do I have available to balance? The pipe and attachment, the neutrally painted wall, and the texture of the wall.
How can I balance these elements? The greatest visual weight is the with the painted colors, both for their brightness and the contrast of complementary colors yellow and purple. The contrast of yellow and purple is first balanced by the space of the light purple around the yellow. The bright color on the top of the frame is balanced vertically with the neutral color on the bottom, while the weight of the color contrast is also balanced vertically by the pipe attachment on the wall. The line of the pipe and the texture of the wall provide a continuity throughout the frame that ties the whole scene together. You’ll notice that the photograph has more going on in the right side, both top and bottom. This is balanced by the open space to the left.
What am I balancing? The ladders.
What do I have available to balance? The bright wall, the ground, the sign.
How can I balance these elements? The ladders have the visual weight because of their contrast with the bright wall, the complex shape, and the space around them. The contrast of the ground and the wall is minimized by including very little ground, only enough to place the ladders on to ground them. The ladders are placed to the lower right of the frame, balanced by the sign in the upper left corner. The rectangle of the sign is cropped so that the shape provides the appropriate balance, and only as much text to be relevant and non-distracting is revealed.
It is important to note in all of these examples that a balance is achieved both by how these elements are included in the frame as well as what is excluded. All of these images are a subset of a larger scene. Exploring balance requires a give and take of including and excluding the available elements. (See more on the idea of exclusion in Exploring with a Camera: Process of Elimination.)
Time to Explore
Even when looking at basic shapes in the 2D plane, the topic of balance can be complex. You are balancing shapes, color, contrast and complexity with multiple elements within the frame. If you’re like me, you probably do this naturally and intuitively, but it’s a good exercise to look a closer like this to understand the underlying principles. As you use this framework to play with the simple balance of shapes in your compositions, you can begin to develop a deeper understanding of balance in general. This knowledge will extend beyond simple shapes in the 2D plane to more complex situations and compositions, which are what we usually encounter and photograph.
I look forward to seeing the results of your experimentation with the balance of shapes. Go through your archive or go out shooting over the next couple of weeks looking for this type of balance. Use the questions I’ve provided and the ideas of visual weight, symmetry and direction to help you evaluate the balance of shapes you can achieve. You can link your explorations below. I can’t wait to see and learn more from you!