Balance in Composition - the basics.

Started Aug 7, 2008 | Discussions thread
mosswings
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Re: Wow! the DPR Fora REALLY need sticky threads.
In reply to eNo, Dec 18, 2011

eNo wrote:

This is a terrific discussion, Ian. Though I'm one of those technical/scientific types you mention, this idea of balance has come somewhat naturally to me. In fact, I think studying composition and "the rules" spoiled me a bit for a short time. I would use the rule of thirds and things just wouldn't feel right. When I started looking at things more graphically and thinking about the arrangement of objects, both in terms of shape and size, things started clicking. Still, in the end, it comes down to how things feel.

One follow up to this that might be interesting is the concept of imbalance. Here's a recent shot of mine that feels right to me, but is ultimately imbalanced.

This concept of imbalance is very prevalent when chiarroscuro comes into play. Here's another sample shot from my concert photography porfolio that shows a shot that (I think) works, even when there's no large or small object counter-balance. Instead we just have negative space to the left. It works (I think) because there's an implied object over there, namely the audience, and (I've read in books) the negative space itself becomes the larger object that counter-balances the singer.

If you hadn't posted, eNo, I'd have never known that this excellent thread existed. That these precious gems fade away for no other reason than their age is a poverty. Fortunately, Ian has archived his thoughts on his own site for others to discover. Something similar should exist here.

We are pattern-discerning creatures. We constantly strive for meaning and explanation in any way that is most comfortable and familiar to us. Even if a clear explanation is not really present. So it is with the concept of balance. I'm comfortable with the literal idea of balance, being technically inclined, but ultimately what we are doing with our pictures is striking an emotional chord that captures the viewer's attention and connects to something in their own makeup. I repeatedly ask the question - "does it tell a story?" to focus my mind on the aspects of the process that don't come as naturally to mind. Many times the application of rules and such come post-facto during the viewing of a particularly pleasing picture as I intellectualize what was, when I can remember it, a less clearly structured process. When that shot was taken, I can often remember feeling good about it at the time of capture, but nothing much more.

eNo brings up the concept of implied balance, negative space, and intentional asymmetry. These all point to the idea that balance is not strictly physical, but rather emotional. The draw of a picture is often not as much what is (physical balance) but what it is becoming or has been (emotional balance). Thus we can get the lack of a counter to the subject completing the picture, in a way that is unique to the observer and therefore deeply personalizing. We can also get a sense of calm from a picture that possesses explicit physical balance.

When I looked at Ian's 4 original pictures and noted his struggle to explain why the bridge, lighthouse, and fisherfolk images worked so well, I didn't think so much in terms of balance but rather in terms of clarity and movement. To me, the organizing idea behind the bridge was that of infinity; this picture described a tremendously dynamic process of becoming as the eye followed the line of the bridge deck. I saw something similar in the lighthouse, though circularity was a strong organizing structure. But fundamentally, the converging lines of the lighthouse drew you deep into the picture almost against your will, and pointed your attention towards the infinite sky. In the fisherfolk I saw a dynamic tension. Something was about to happen, and the illumination of the yellow of the jackets by an opportune sunbreak in the midst of a brooding sky only hightened that sense of anticipation.

In looking at Ian's subsequent images, they all show a masterful sense of clarity and editing. Ther compositions are profoundly intentional - architectural, if you will - but they are not forced, and I can sense that a human emotion is being recorded in the captures, regardless of whether they conform to a guideline or just as often bend or break it. Again, they tell stories, clearly and simply.

I know that "telling a story" is not in itself terribly helpful; the artist must understand how to use his/her tools to do so. But it reminds me to let go of the intellectual when the moment feels right.

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