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Balance in Photography – Part 2

How to balance your images with Pics of Asia

Balance in Photography – Part 2

We have discussed in Part 1 of our article about Balance in photography. Let’s discuss here the different techniques we can use to bring back balance to our images, focusing on people photography.

How to Bring Back Balance

In some cases, we face a situation that will potentially create an unbalanced image. Shooting busy markets in Asia, or simply busy street scenes, can be messy. Things are all over the place and we’re not going to ask everyone to move into the “right” spot. We want to be better photographers – so we’re working hard on our composition skills. Which is why we don’t stage our images.

So how can we bring balance back to our images in other ways? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Read on, and I’ll explain!

Try Middle Placement

This is probably the easiest way to balance your image when your background is even or symmetrical. middle placement in photography to understand balance

Apply the Rule of Thirds

As I mentioned earlier, using the rule of thirds (when you have one subject) will create a pleasing result for the viewer. Simple compositions bring simple photography rules, most of the time.

portrait of a novice monk in Myanmar

For more complex compositions (when you have more than one element in the frame), I think that the rule of thirds means much more than simply placing things on the third of your frame. The rule of thirds also helps you bring back balance to your image – by adding another element on the opposite third. Not only this will lead the eye from one side of the image to the other, but it also balances the visual weight of our composition.

Women picking up tea leaves in Sri Lanka

Note: In fact, this is often the quickest and easiest way to achieve balance in visual weight. It also helps you improve your composition skills – because you’re not just not looking at your main subject, you’re trying to find other interesting elements to include in your frame. This creates better compositions and tells a more compelling story.

Practice Tip!

If you’d like to practice and experiment with these points, find yourself a clean background where people walk by. A river, the blue sky, a blank wall – something that allows you to focus your attention on your subjects, without any background distractions.

Create Balancing With a Walking Subject

Now, here’s an interesting point that’s easily applied to people photography. The point that people, by definition, are not static (depending on which country you’re in, perhaps!) And so you’re able to adjust your composition depending on how your main subject moves, and which direction they’re about to go.

There’s a composition rule that says your subject should “look into the picture and not into the frame”. The first unbalanced image I have used in this tutorial is clearly unbalanced, as the main character is walking out of the picture.

When your subject is looking into the main image you’re presenting, it feels as if by heading towards the rest of the image, it’ll bring back some balance. Almost like we’re anticipating that the subject will soon walk into the rest of the picture. This is the reason why, I believe, simply using the rule of thirds with one subject is enough to create pleasant images.

A Red Dzao woman walks in her rice field

Balance Your Subject Using Negative Space

Negative space is a very powerful creative tool for your compositions. First of all, because it draws more attention to your subject. Since the eyes are not resting on anything in the negative space (simply because there are no details to look at!), they’ll go straight to the main subject of the image instead.

Secondly, using negative space tends to create more emotional images. It works particularly well with single subjects, as the “empty” space around them can create a feeling of loneliness and solitude.

Also, the negative space can help you tell better stories, by including elements related to your main character.

Negative space in photography with Pics of Asia

Distribute Elements at Equal Distances From The Edge

This is when the concept of visual weight really comes into play.

When you think about balance in composition, you should consider distances – the distances between the elements you’re photographing and the edges of your frame. As I mentioned earlier, the closer an element is to the frame, the more visual weight it has. So following that, you could balance a big element in your frame with a smaller one, by placing the smaller one closer to the frame. Check out the below examples. While the first image feels to me unbalanced and doesn’t create a striking composition, the second one does a better job.

 

The distance from the man on the left and the left frame, and the man on the right and the right frame, is equal. And, if you remember what we talked about earlier, even though the man on the top far right is smaller, he’s in the area where there is more contrast, which is increasing his visual weight in the frame.

Not only is the boat on the top right closer to the frame, which brings a better balance against the heavy elements in the foreground, but the man on the bottom left is now looking towards the rest of the frame. And the only difference between capturing these images was 2 seconds!

Tilt Your Frame

This is becoming a hot topic, and something I’ve always wondered about: when is it good to tilt our images? I meet a lot of people who tilt their images because they’re used to doing so, or because they feel it makes their images more dynamic. And sure, tilting your image makes straight lines become diagonal lines, increasing the overall image dynamism. But too much tilting tends to lose its dramatic effect – so we say “don’t tilt too often, only when it helps you create a better balance in the image.” The impact of gravity can be a key factor, too, and something you can play within your images.

A man riding an elephant along a river in North Laos

 

 

Let me explain:

In this example, we can clearly see that the image is unbalanced. Our main character is on the right side of the frame, and so is the fishing net in the background. There are no interesting elements leading my eyes to the left side of the image. To me, this composition doesn’t work – but there may be a way to make it more interesting. I would normally try to move around so the lady on the boat is on the left and the fishing net on the right side, each along the line of thirds. But as we were on a boat, I couldn’t move much (while riding a boat to go visit a local market in Central Vietnam, we threw a rope to this lady to tow her to her destination).

By tilting the frame to the right, the situation surely doesn’t improve. Not only are all my elements now on the right side, but they’re falling even more to the right because of the perceived gravity, creating a very unsatisfactory feeling that my subject will soon come out of the frame.

I believe tilting the frame to the left, though, slightly improves this image. Because we now feel that our main subject is falling towards the left side of the image, we feel that soon she’ll be filling that empty space – and it feels less disturbing, somehow than the images above. Of course, it would be better if the boat was pointing towards the left side of the frame, to lead the eyes to the left (or if my subject had looked to the left).

Now let’s look at the next image. My subject is clearly coming out of the frame; but the perceived gravity caused by the frame being tilted to the left makes me feel that she’s falling back into the image, thus restoring some balance.

keeping balance in your photography

Tilting my camera in those situations is something I did unconsciously, and I wondered why I did so at the time. Photographers, take note: Follow your instincts!

Another example is this image taken last year in Bangladesh. As the cows have a very strong visual weight (they’re big, they’re in the foreground and we can clearly see their faces), shooting with a straight horizon would have unbalanced the image to the left. Tilting to the right just felt, well, “right” to me when I took the image.

Use “Visual Direction” to Lead The Eye

I’ve already discussed this earlier in this article, but I’ll elaborate here. If your subject is looking towards a certain direction in your frame, it’ll add visual weight to that direction. Plus, as we explain in our creative portraiture tutorial, the lines created by the “line of sights” of your subject help make an image easier to read. If used correctly, this technique can create a nice flow to lead the eyes easily through the frame.

using travel images from Pics of Asia to explain about balance in photography

Using the Emotional Value of Your Elements

There are things that, culturally, have more or less visual weight depending on who you are and where you’re from. Take, for example, the Eiffel Tower. Anyone seeing it in a picture will instantly recognize it and feel attracted to it (we usually feel comfortable with what we’re familiar with). It will carry a stronger visual weight because it is a recognizable landmark. And even though the below example is not a recognizable landmark (unless you know about Islamic architecture from the 14th century), different building styles will still be recognized as “exotic” from our past experiences of watching movies or reading books.

folding the tents after Arba'een festival in Jameh mosque in Yazd, Iran

But we don’t have to use landmarks for emotional value. I find that palm trees, from a Westerner’s point of view, evokes some strong emotions (associated with the beach, holidays, and summertime). They carry an emotional value that adds weight on the scale. The same applies (in my own case) to conical hats, giant terraced rice fields, old destroyed houses, kids wearing torn clothes, Buddhist monks, big smoky chimneys, people covering their faces, etc… These elements will carry more visual weight for me, but maybe not for you. So it’s important to question what might evoke emotion in the viewer. It’s also important that you don’t fall into any clichés and stereotypes by only shooting exotic things!

Taking photo of the sunset with rocks and palm trees in Sri Lanka with Pics of Asia photography tours and workshops

  showing contrast in your tavel photography with Pics of Asia

Remember, a little goes a long way. Because these “recognizable elements” already carry a strong visual weight with me, I don’t need to include too much of them in my frame. Showing just a little of these elements is enough to create a balance with my other subjects.

Use the Current Emotional Value of Your Subject

This involves, in very simple terms, waiting for the right moment to take a portrait. But it is no easy thing to achieve.

I see a lot of photographers jumping on their subjects, just because they can. “Oh, this woman is ok for me to take her photo, so let’s do it right now!” Mostly, when people travel to a location for the first time, they get excited by what they see and tend to rush their portraits this way.

Photographers should think first, about the state of mind of their subjects AND the environment surrounding them. Do they go together? Is my subject looking smiley and happy, in which case I will tend to create more balanced compositions? Or is my subject looking sad or even threatening, which will inspire me to unbalance the composition and make my viewer feel the awkwardness, the discomfort, I felt when taking the picture?

using balance in portrait photography with Pics of Asia

Keeping Balance When Photographing Busy Activities: Practical Examples

The thing is, it gets more and more difficult to keep a balanced image when more and more elements enter our frame. Balanced images are easy to create when the photographer is dealing with simple compositions.

But when taking photos of people in Asia, we’re often faced with very busy activities. It could be a busy market or a factory, or simply people walking in the street. Our subjects move without telling us where they’re going to move. Unbalancing our images work very well in these situations – but a photographer may want to keep balance, in order to make the image easier to read and more pleasant to the eye. Like I said earlier, I usually try to keep a good balance in my images, simply because it’s what feels right to me. But of course, there’s no exact science, and everyone will feel like doing something different. And by all means, please do so!

Lines of workers unload sand, rocks and coal from boats along he river in Dhaka, during a photography tour with Pics of Asia

Breaking Rules

In the images below, my main subject moved from the left side of the image towards the right side. If I had kept her on the left side as she moved closer to me, I would have had only her in the frame, losing the other woman in the background. Thus the image would have been unbalanced, which wasn’t what I was going for.

 

Because my goal was to keep the balance in this image by keeping both subjects, I then broke the rule that says my subject should be “looking towards the image and not towards the frame”. Also, I tilted the frame so I could fit as much of my subject as possible in the frame. I am not saying that this worked, or that it made a great image, but I tried to keep consistency in my thought process while adapting to the moving situation. And this, when applied to busy situations, is how you can create powerful images.

Using Triangles

Another good way to keep balance in more dynamic compositions is to try and place your elements in a triangular shape that fills the frame. That means getting close and waiting for the right moment. It also means taking A LOT of images due to the fact that the scene is evolving very quickly. Good thing that nowadays, we shoot digital!

layering interesting compositions in Bangladesh with Pics of Asia

Shooting A Strong Foreground

Also, if I find that the elements in my background are very busy and will overpower everything else, I try to include a “heavy” foreground to balance the image.

using a strong foreground to balance our photos

Filling your frame

By spreading all your elements throughout the frame and avoiding juxtaposition, you can create a nice flow from one corner to the other, thus creating a feeling of balance and “organization”.

men sitting on the street in Kolkata

 

Conclusion: To Balance or Unbalance? That is The Question

It’s the same concept that’s raised in graphic design, or in design in general. That trying to keep an image balanced in complex scenes could lead to images that lack visual appeal, that are a little bit too clean, almost too polished. And anyway, if we always perfectly balance our images, won’t they all become too similar?!

My thoughts on this? Get experimenting! Try the different techniques I’ve shared… oh, and don’t be afraid to go against everything and come up with something original instead. Happy snapping!


Etienne

Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

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