The concept of balance in composition is one most people can easily understand, even those who don’t consider themselves artists or photographers. After all, the idea of balance can be a lifestyle goal; balanced time, a balanced diet, and just trying to stay balanced and upright to keep from falling over are things to which we can relate. Balance is a universal concept.
In gestalt theory, the Law of Symmetry states that the human mind will constantly seek balance in all visual information it receives from the eyes via the optic nerve. It says that if something appears unbalanced, the viewer will waste valuable time trying to resolve the problem instead of focusing on the scene’s contents. Concerning photography and composition, photographic balance refers to “visual weight” within the image frame and how it’s arranged. The placement, size, and brightness values of all the visual elements will determine if the image feels in equilibrium or not. Photographic balance is harmonious. When an image is out of balance, it can give the viewer a negative or uncomfortable feeling or sensation.
There are two types of compositional balance used in photography, art, and design: formal and informal balance. Symmetry is a type of formal balance where two sides of a photo are mirror images of each other. Symmetry can refer to vertical balance – where the top and bottom are essentially the same – or as horizontal balance – where the left and right sides of the image are equal.
A reflection is one of the few instances where bisecting the photo through the center of the image frame is effective compositionally. Symmetry works when the photographer wants to communicate or project equality, equivalence, uniformity, or even fairness. There is little visual tension with this arrangement, and all the visual elements are harmonious.
With informal or asymmetrical balance, visual equilibrium is achieved by counterpoising two or more elements at opposite ends of the image frame. The arrangement can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. Image balance is achieved by strategically placing two or more of these strong visual elements and distributing them equally within the photograph. While formal balance creates symmetry, informal balance leads to an asymmetrical composition, yet it’s still balanced.
When positioning two powerful visual elements at opposite ends of the image frame, you give the image informal balance and trigger powerful visual tension and energy by moving the viewer’s eye back and forth between the two elements via a virtual diagonal line (see above). These elements could be two competing focal points with varying sizes and colors, as long as they are conspicuous. The result is an image that achieves photographic balance and harmony and is also dynamic. You can learn more about photographic balance and many other compositional concepts in my e-book, Creative Composition: Image Design Masterclass.
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Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe.