Photography Composition: Balance and Symmetry

The brain loves symmetry, in fact, we’re drawn to it so much that we find the most symmetrical faces more attractive just for being so. Photos have something called visual weight. This means that each element within an image can either be strong or weak, causing the eye to focus on, or ignore the element. Some items simply hold more weight, like the brighter contrasted subject above, because of good composition.

In terms of balance, it can mean level horizon and object that are visually balanced in the frame. Photos of a building that is crooked is literally an unbalanced photo. With balance we also mean the size and number of objects in your scene, is there one large subject on the right and a small subject on the left, are colors more vibrant on both sides or just one… Here are a few things that may catch the eye more:

  • Reds. The eye has more receptors for the color red in it, so you’re naturally drawn to red colors.
  • Large items. The bigger something is the more attention it commands.
  • The eyes. When you’re looking at a person you are drawn to look at their eyes; the same applies for animals. The eyes can also show direction, making you look at what they’re looking at.
  • Bright/contrast areas. The brighter an item and the more contrast it has to the background the more likely you are to focus on it. The same can be said for saturation: the more saturated a subject is compared to the background the more the eye will focus on it.

You can achieve a balanced composition out the main subject’s “visual weight” by including another object of lesser importance to fill the space. But having a balanced photo is not necessarily the right thing to do, it just creates a more visually peaceful image. Having tilted and crooked lines and different sizes of objects can create a more dynamic image though, perhaps to express some sort of meaning.

Balance also applies to having a degree of symmetry. Images that have a decisive left/right divide and equal weight on each part are perfectly balanced. Symmetry is balance where the top and bottom or left and right sides of the photo are visually similar or even identical. This can be something in nature like trees or manmade like a large building or reflections of a landscapes in the water can create a symmetrical image on top and bottom. This is a style that you may love or hate, and it might depend on what and where you are shooting.

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Continue to lesson 21: Using perspective & angle in your composition