I had never really thought about this subject before, rather the good old gut feeling as to whether a photo looks good; so I guess, in a roundabout way, balance is in the subconscious. However, it is a little disconcerting reading up on the subject as most seem to be of the mind that, whilst there are sorts of rules, there are no rules, it depends on what you are trying to say! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Coming from a military background and being an engineer I like symmetry but by all accounts if you are going to use this in a photo it has to be absolutely perfect otherwise it fails – morale for this fledgling photographer just took a dive! But, on the other hand, it seems that breaking the rules can create tension and tension is good! Anyway, confused or not, I trawled through some of my photos that I happen to like in order to assess them regarding balance:
Symmetry, not perfectly balanced for the purist, but I think it works. This is a sculpture on a Maori war canoe intent on striking fear into the enemy as it heralded the arrival of some 100 warriors aboard the vessel. I was seeking to capture the menace of the face and the effect of the black and red colour with the two piercing eyes. Whilst it would have been in context if I had shot the whole canoe such were the proportions I do not think it would do justice to the face.
This shot has given me something of a challenge as regards analysing the balance. I think this illustrates the complexity of the elements. On the one hand there is the jetty on the right which is opposed by the boats and land mass on the left whilst on the other there is the reflection of the sky in the lake as the early morning fog rolls across the surface. At first I thought the jetty was a distraction as the eye is drawn to it but I find it does not keep you fixated, there is more going on. The jetty and shore line, with the straight lines, contrasts with curves of the boats and irregularities of the land mass, clouds and fog bank. Whilst on the face of it this appears to be a fairly simple shot reflecting on it suggests there is quite a lot going on, for instance what are the black dots on the water beyond the jetty, are they ducks (?) – yes they are; is the fog bank coming in or receding?
I consider this to be another complex shot as far as balance is concerned. To me there is an obvious centre of mass in the middle of the shot but it is not simple symmetry given the arrangement of the components. There is almost a sense of symmetry by reason of the diagonals and contrast between the wheels, connecting rods, coupling rods and the Big End bearing. Perhaps there is also the perception of opposing forces as the wheels are driven by the connecting rods. Whatever it is, this shot is balanced for me and conveys a real sense of power and strength.
This next shot, when I first viewed it seemed to be an obvious example of symmetry, but on reflection there are other forces at work. It is the entrance to the Tate Gallery in St Ives so one would expect it to have some interest! Whilst the main part of the picture depicts symmetry with the curving frontage and vertical pillars the stepped wall, railings, sloping path and contrast of the path and retaining wall all add their own effects. So while there is not perfect symmetry and although the main part of the shot is interesting the other elements add some tension.
This shot was one of those spur of the moment photographs. The arrangement of the cheeses on the stall in the Prague Christmas market just caught my eye as I walked by – nothing to do with my love of this particular food group. Again, not a simple example of balance for me but I feel the contrast in the size, colour, shape and texture of the different cheeses gives balance. Interest is also added by the contrast between the symmetrical stacked cheeses and the somewhat jagged wedge that seeks to divide the two stacks.
My final shot completes the “cheese and wine” feature of this exercise with the celebration of Bacchus! Yet again I had to look at this photo for some time to understand why it works for me and I am still not absolutely sure how to explain it. Apart from the interest of the individual figures and their variation in size, I think their arrangement amongst the vines on sloping ground gives a sense of motion. There is the contrast between the colours of the ground, the figures and the vines, simple yet effective. Finally, something that had not occurred to me until I really began to read the shot, is the setting; there is a very strong contrast between the main element of the photo with what I would describe as their natural lines, stand fast the shape of the instruments, and the strong geometrical lines of the roof of the dome. Is this one of those photos where balance is not necessary!
This has been an enlightening exercise. Hitherto I had not given any conscious thought to this aspect of composing a photograph; probably the rule of thirds and placing the horizon was the extent of my thinking before pressing the shutter except when deliberately trying to compose something different. This has probably been one of the most significant building blocks in the journey thus far.
Freeman, M. (2007), The photographer’s eye Composition and design for better digital photos, The Ilex Press Limited, Lewes.
Prakel, D. (2006), Basics photography 01 Composition, 2nd ed, AVA Publishing SA, Lausanne.