There are two kinds of balance in photography: formal and informal. Understanding both—and knowing how to them—is an important part of composition. Let’s dig in.
Balance has been a part of composition since long before photography came along. It’s an integral part of most renaissance paintings. It’s also a slightly slippery concept. It relies on an idea called “visual weight” that is, in and of itself, a metaphor. The idea is that different objects in a scene all have different visual weight. People, brightly colored things, high-contrast objects, and unusual subjects, for example, all have high visual weight. Other things like large areas of space, sky, water, or ground, have low visual weight. The only way to get a handle on it is to see it in action and play around.
Formal or Symmetrical Balance
Formal balance is symmetry. It’s where the frame is split in half, either vertically or horizontally, and both sides are given equal visual weight. Have a look at this portrait.
It’s essentially perfectly symmetrical along the vertical axis.
Both sides of the image have equal visual weight. There is nothing that pulls our eyes to one side of the image or the other.
Here’s another portrait where, again, the model is central, so it’s pretty much symmetrical.
And one more.
As you can see, formal balance can work well with portraits. It gives a sense of serenity, seriousness, and solidity. I deliberately used formal balance in the following shot of a Soviet statue in Transnistria because I wanted it to feel like it had stood for years—since it had.
Formal balance is pretty easy to grasp: put the subject in the center. So let’s move on to the trickier concept of informal balance.
Informal or Asymmetrical Balance
Informal or symmetrical balance is where you balance the image by juxtaposing objects with similar visual weights rather than just balancing everything symmetrically. Let’s look at some examples.
In this photo, I have enough visual weight to balance the mountains and clouds nicely. You still get a sense of the scale, but the image doesn’t feel empty. People are visually very heavy so they can often balance a lot.
Here’s another similar idea. Will, the skier, is even smaller in the frame but is still balancing the huge mountain behind him.
Let’s look at this in reverse. Here’s an unbalanced shot. The castle is cool and interesting, but there’s not a lot going on in the photo otherwise.
A few moments later, a boat passed up the river. Now we’re onto something. The small moving boat is enough to balance the gigantic, ancient castle.
You can also balance a single object that has large visual weight with lots of objects that have very little visual weight. Here, the stars in the sky balance the large Joshua trees. The smaller trees also balance the big tree.
Perhaps the best example of asymmetrical balance comes not from photography, but art. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is wonderfully balanced: Adam and the earth have the same visual weight as God and the choir of angels.
Unbalanced or Dynamic Images
Remember, balance is just one tool in your compositional toolbox. There’s also other stuff like leading lines, limited color palettes, and much more. This means that not all your images need to be balanced. Unbalanced images tend to have tension, dynamism, and a sense of activity.
Just look at this photo. Will is jumping into a black abyss. This gives a sense of speed and drama to what he’s doing.
Or, take this shot of the Santa Monica Pier. Do the sky and sea balance the pier? Maybe, but I’d say probably not. Instead, we get this dynamic sunset shot of the pier thrusting out into the ocean.
What it comes down to, for me, is what you’re trying to convey. If you want solidity and stability, go with a formally-balanced image. If you’re looking for something more dramatic that still has that balanced look, try some asymmetrically-balanced compositions. Or, if you want something tense and dynamic, go with an unbalanced image.
Play around: whatever composition you go with might not work out, but you might end up with something wonderful! And at the very least, you’ll learn something along the way. There are very few rights or wrongs here.