Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to balance image elements to create engaging photographs in the eleventh article of his sixteen-part series on composition.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
One way to approach good composition is to understand it in terms of balance. Imagine a child’s seesaw (see figure 11.1) running horizontally through a scene. Using the same approach that you see in a playground—a board balanced on a fulcrum—you place objects in a scene on both sides of the center in such a way that they seem balanced. Think in terms of “weight” and it makes visual sense. When the weight of each object stabilizes the seesaw in a horizontal position, the photo will be in balance and the composition, therefore, will be correct.
For example, if there is a single object in the center of a picture (figure 11.2), we can say that the image is balanced. Figures 11.3 and 11.4 show very different subjects, but both were composed dead center from left to right, and therefore the imaginary seesaw is balanced on the imaginary fulcrum. It is true that this type of composition violates the Rule of Thirds, but remember that it’s not a rule at all but only a guideline. In art, there can be many approaches to composition, and placing an object in the center of the frame is one of them. Many photographers don’t like putting their subjects in the middle of the composition, and that’s fine. Nevertheless, these two photos demonstrate valid ways of composing a picture. Even if the central object is set on a diagonal, as in figure 11.5, the image remains balanced.
You can also balance the seesaw by placing two objects at equal distances to the fulcrum on either side (figure 11.6). Images 11.7 and 11.8 are examples of this. In the shot of the redwood trees, notice how the trees were placed precisely in the middle of the frame. To exaggerate the perspective like this, I used a 16mm lens on a full-frame sensor. The house in Ireland (11.8) shows perfect symmetry and balance around the central imaginary line.
Another example of symmetrical perfection is the stunning parliament building in Budapest, Hungary (figure 11.9). When you shoot subjects like this, make sure that you compose them carefully. They must be in the middle. The picture won’t work if you are slightly off-center. (It’s fine to be decidedly off-center, but not a slight amount.) The lion in 11.10 presents an example. Although I like the shot, I should have framed the cat so his massive head was perfectly centered.
Most of the elements in scenes you photograph, however, are not so easy to fit into this simple formula. The world consists of all kinds of shapes, patterns of light, colors, and textures, and making sense of them in compositional terms isn’t easy. With practice, however, it can be done. Study figures 11.11 and 11.12, where I’ve graphically represented this idea. Various sizes and forms can be balanced as long as their respective “weights” are the same on both sides of the fulcrum.
A good example of this is image 11.13. The pumpkin display was in eastern Tennessee during Halloween, and it presented many elements to deal with. If you draw a line from the top of the picture to the bottom, exactly in the middle, you’ll see that the wagon wheel, the pumpkins and gourds, the doll, and the window are all in balance. The window and siding on the right help balance the doll. Admittedly, this arrangement was man-made, but the way you frame it and the lens you choose make all the difference. In a similar way, all of the architectural details in the castle in Malbork, Poland (11.14) are balanced. It was the medieval architect who designed this, but the way a photographer composes a shot of it makes the picture look good or not.
Go to the next article in this series: Distinctive Perspectives
Read the full series:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Graphic Design
- Classic Landscape Technique
- Moving into the Frame
- Distinctive Perspectives
- Light's Influence
- Negative Space
- Breaking the Rules