Welcome to May’s Exploring with a Camera! This month we are going to explore the concept of Visual Weight in our photographs.
When we studied Balancing Shapes a couple of months ago, I had to touch on visual weight in order to discuss balance. The two really go hand in hand! As I prepared materials for my latest class, A Sense of Place, I realized that the concept of Visual Weight not only provides a foundation for balance, but it provides a foundation for many other compositional principles that apply to photography.
So, this month let’s take a look at how Visual Weight works in our photographs.
What is Visual Weight?
Visual weight is a concept describing the way elements in a photograph attract the viewer’s eye relative to one another. Something that attracts the viewer first has more visual weight than the other elements in a photograph. We can use all sorts of compositional principles to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject, but if the subject does not have an adequate visual weight relative to the other elements in the photograph, our composition may not be effective.
There are a number of ways that an object garners visual weight and attracts the eye of the viewer. Here are a few:
- Bright colors attract more attention than subdued colors. The flower in this image is the brightest color. It immediately attracts our eye and pulls us to it as the subject, even though there are many other elements in the photograph.
- Brightly illuminated objects attract attention more than shadowed objects. The tree is illuminated by the light, in contrast to the shadowed buildings behind. Our attention is immediately on the tree as the subject.
- In focus objects attract more attention than out of focus objects. The subject and background are nearly the same in this image, the only difference that distinguishes the a single bunch of flowers as the subject is the focus.
- Objects on the edge of the composition attract more attention than objects in the center. There are many patterns in these floor tiles, but placing the subject pattern of the spiral off center gives it more visual weight.
- Isolated objects attract more attention than those in a dense or cluttered area. There are many trees in this image, but the ones that attract the eye first are the ones that are isolated. The trees that are clustered seem to recede into the background.
- A break in a pattern attracts more attention than the pattern itself. This image is mostly made up of the pattern in the bricks. The words, which break the pattern, attract the eye first.
- Human faces attract more attention than inanimate objects. While human elements in general will attract more than inanimate objects, faces have an especially strong draw for the eye. While there is a busy background and a lot of color in this image, my son’s face is the first thing you look at.
Looking at Examples
The best way to understand visual weight is to look at example photographs which catch your eye and see how visual weight plays into their effectiveness. Visual weight is only one concept playing into the overall composition, but you can readily see its effects.
In this first example, the red leaf is clearly the subject. While the color of the red leaf is not necessarily brighter than the yellow leaves around it, greater visual weight is given to the object that is different and breaks the pattern. The visual weight of the leaf is further enhanced by the relative focus between it and the surrounding leaves, and its off-center placement within the frame.
In this image from a Steve McCurry photography exhibition, all attention immediately rests on the eyes of the subject photograph. The human face has greater visual weight, which is enhanced by the illumination of the photograph relative to the background and the off-center placement within the frame.
In the image below, my attention is drawn to the chair in front of the door even though the contrast between the door and the chair is not great. The door first pulls the eye by being a brighter color than the surrounding wall and ground. Next I notice the chairs, my eye pulled to the isolated chair in front of the door. The off-center placement of chair and door add to the visual weight of these elements.
The fan in the photograph below has the greatest visual weight through the brightness of the color relative to the other elements. It breaks the pattern of the bars and mesh in front of it, as well as the empty space behind it. Placing it off-center enhances the visual weight.
Time to Explore
Now it’s time for you to explore! A great way to explore this concept is to look through your archives. Pick photographs that you love and analyze the visual weight of the elements. If you have photographs that you were disappointed in, look at the visual weight in those as well. You may find the image falls flat because your subject was lacking visual weight relative to the other elements.
As you go out exploring with your camera these next couple of weeks, keep visual weight in mind. Look closely at the relative visual weights of your elements before you compose your photographs, and see if that changes anything you do.
Come back here and share your results, either new or archive. We’d love to see what you’ve learned about visual weight!