Essential Composition: Photographic Balance

There’s a concept in Gestalt theory commonly referred to as the Law of Symmetry, which states that the human mind will constantly seek out balance in all the visual information it receives via the optic nerve. It is said that if something is unbalanced, the viewer will waste valuable time trying to resolve the problem instead of focusing on the contents of the scene itself. With regard to photography and composition, photographic balance is the equal distribution of “visual weight” within the image frame. The placement, size, and brightness of 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 basically the same – or as horizontal balance – where the left and right sides of the image are equal.

A symmetrical reflection is one of the few instances where bisecting the photo through the center of the image frame works. This symmetrical composition is usually chosen 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 balance, visual equilibrium is gained 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 the strategic placement of two or more of these strong visual elements and distributing them equally in the photograph. While formal balance creates symmetry, informal balance leads to an asymmetrical composition, yet it’s still balanced.

By positioning two strong visual elements at opposite ends of the image frame, you not only give the image informal balance, but you 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 end result is an image that is not only achieves photographic balance and harmony, but is also dynamic.

You can learn more about photographic balance, as well as 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.