Since I’m not traveling much at this time of year, it’s a great time explore new territory in photography knowledge!
Recently, I’ve been working on a new course on photography composition. And it’s been very interesting!
This week I was hashing out particulars on balance. What does balance mean? How do you quantify it? In an attempt to make a photo look more pleasing, should I attempt to achieve balance or imbalance? After all, if a “dead center” composition is perfectly balanced yet still looks dead, then…is it really imbalance that we’re going for?
I’m looking forward to sharing many new things I’m learning in the entire arena of composition, but for today, I thought I’d share just one illustration that I found to be quite enlightening.
Here’s a photo I took a long time ago, when some friends and I were exploring the spectacular White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. What an incredible place! We reserved a campsite far out in the dunes. It was situated in a little “valley” surrounded by nothing but white walls of sand. In the late afternoon, we hiked in so we could enjoy and photograph the sunset, the moonlight, and then the sunrise the following morning. Even though it was April, it was quite hot while we were hiking. But I was shocked at how absolutely freezing cold it was at night! I really didn’t sleep much, being so cold. So I eventually just got up, set up my camera for some long exposures, and sat on the sand all bundled up in my sleeping bag waiting longingly for the morning. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relieved at the first appearances of dawn. After sunrise and breaking camp, I was sweating hot again as we hiked out. A very interesting experience.
Anyways, this is a shot I took while hiking out. The two figures trudging up the sand dune, juxtaposed against the hazy blue sky, wow, I could see a great shot.
But do I like it?
Do you like it? Does it feel like the kind of photo you would want to have in your portfolio? Or does it look…“dead”?
My centered composition just wasn’t working.
Looking at this photo, it appears as though complete balance is static. If you were to literally put the visual elements on a scale, you would think that it would appear something like this:
From the initial assessment of things, you could conclude that balance is a bad thing.
But, let’s not jump to conclusions too fast.
Are the two figures the only elements in the composition?
What else is there?
Did you notice the shadows? What about the scuffed up sand on the very far right? And if you’re going to consider that, what about the very faint trail behind the left figure? If we quantified all of these, we might come to realize that this centered composition isn’t truly a centered composition! It isn’t balanced.
Now we can see that it isn’t necessarily the “centered” aspect of a composition that makes a photo look “dead”. It’s imbalance in a seemingly centered composition that makes it look bad, just like it’s imbalance in any kind of composition that makes it look bad. When there’s an imbalanced photo sitting in front of us, our eyes knew right off that there’s something wrong with it, even though it might take our logical brain some time and observation to figure it out.
Call me far fetched, but I really think that composing photos in a pleasing way is very mathematical. Art isn’t as subjective as we think. But this is not the time or place for a conversation along those lines. There are thousands of factors that can be considered in every single photo, and I’m not going to pretend that I understand them all.
But what I can do, is adjust this photo until I like it and see if the reason I like it is because it’s balanced.
How about this:
I’ve framed it ever so slightly in a different way. The answer wasn’t simply “pull the subjects off the center”. No, the answer was tweak it till it looks good. So that’s what I did. To me, it looks good now.
And guess what? I think it looks good because it is now properly balanced.
Since the composition was right-weighted before, shifting the objects over to the left now helps to balance out the imbalance.
The other elements are pretty much the same, except I left plenty of empty space on the right side to make sure the heavy elements on the left aren’t too heavy. Empty space, you know, actually holds a lot of visual weight.
To me, this photo now looks more like this on a scale:
I don’t know. That’s just me. What do you think? Does the second image appear more pleasing to you?
You’ll also notice that I cropped a considerable amount of sand out of the image too. That’s because there’s not just pleasing right/left balance that our eyes inherently pick up. There’s also top/bottom balance.
And get this: what if a photo is centered? That introduces a third type of balance. But that’s getting pretty deep. For now, if you’d like to know when Lenspiration’s new course, Mastering Composition, is available, let me know here!
May these discoveries about balance be a reminder to us to not jump to conclusions too quickly. There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God. Search the Scriptures, for in them you will find eternal life. Is my delight in the law of the Lord? If so, I’ll meditate in it day and night! We’ll be able to understand real truth, and not be carried away with what only appears to be truth at first glance.