Balance in Composition - the basics.

Started Aug 7, 2008 | Discussions thread
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ianbramham
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Balance in Composition - the basics.
Aug 7, 2008

Jeri raised some issues a while ago on this forum that made me think more about the so-called compositional rules that get quoted so much.

Personally I believe that composition is all about achieving good balance in the rectangle of the viewfinder and that there are a host of different ways in which the elements of the photo can be arranged so that they look harmonious.

As an architect I've been dealing with issues such as aesthetic balance in building design, light & shade, colour and tone all my adult life so I tend to trust my instincts when composing a photo in the viewfinder, however I would imagine that there will be members of the forum who have spent all their lives in a scientific background rather than an artistic one and who may be struggling with some of the basics.

One of things I learnt when I was still a student was that proportion and composition in architecture are closely linked to the basic principles of maths and music so this got me wondering if there was a logical way to explain some of the basics of composition to the more mathematical minded members of the forum who are new to photography and the whole issue of compositional balance.

As a student of architecture we also had to learn how to design basic reinforced concrete beams and the like and it occurred to me that simple force diagrams hold strong links with some of the principles of balance that I subconsciously use when I'm looking through the viewfinder.

Taken to the extremes of simplicity the principles are the same as those of a seesaw and I've done a few sketches to illustrate what I mean.

Before I explain further it's important to realise that, like a seesaw, the plumb center of the photo is a hot spot around which all balance in the composition of the photo revolves.

Everyone understands the basic idea behind a seesaw as in the sketch above...if you have two people of equal weight they need to be equidistant from the center fulcrum, however it is also possible to balance the seesaw with two people of widely differing sizes and weights by making the larger one sit closer to the fulcrum as in the sketch below.

The same principles of balance apply exactly when you are composing a photo if you think of the centre of the image as being the fulcrum about which the differing elements need to balance out in their visual weight and importance within the overall image.....generally speaking the futher an element in a photo is away from the centre the more power it holds so a smaller element on the edge of the frame can counter balance a larger one nearer to the center.

This is how the idea might apply in a photo:

This idea is not just limited to the fundamental size of the object but also it's colour and tone....a small vivid, red or yellow coloured object in an otherwise plain image can balance out a much larger lesser coloured one elsewhere in the frame. Likewise in mono photos the depth of tones of the objects are fundamental to their importance and 'weight' within the overall image.

In the sketch below a dark coloured small strip of sea might balance out a larger strip of pale misty sky at the top of the image and you can see how the simple principles of the seesaw are starting to get interesting:

Obviously these same principles apply in the 3D view we get through our viewfinders with the object of balancing out elements between foreground and distance .....hence why so many professional landscape photographers go on so much about the importance of balancing a good vista with a nice foreground.

I looked through my laptop to see if I could find a few of my photos that I could use to illustrate the idea and I'd welcome feedback from anyone who thinks this is a useful first step to approaching balance in composition.

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