For the viewer, an unbalanced photograph can feel, well… unbalanced. If leaving your viewers unbalanced is the goal behind your photograph then, by all means, keep your images unbalanced. There are certainly times when you’ll want to do this or when it cannot be avoided. However, if your goal is to create a pleasing and calming composition, you will need to achieve balance in the photograph.
We are familiar with physical balance from our earliest days, as we stack toy blocks, knock our sippy cups over, and learn to walk without falling on our bums. In much the same way, we can learn to see visual balance in two-dimensional images, as well.
Visual balance brings a certain stability and harmony to an image whereas, in certain cases, an unbalanced composition can make an image feel dynamic and energetic. Because visual balance imparts a certain feel to an image, a photographer can and will choose to make the scene balanced or unbalanced to help express the meaning behind the photograph.
In art, balance is dependent on the size and number of objects within a scene. If one side of a painting or photograph has a great number of large objects and the opposite side has a few small objects, the piece may look unbalanced to the viewer. Objects of the same size and number on opposite sides of an image tend to produce a balanced composition.
You can compensate for object size and population by brightness, texture, color, proximity to the camera and each other, positioning, and other elements that work to give more visual “weight” to some objects over others. Visual weight can be added to objects in the scene by positioning them higher in the frame, farther from the center, or by emphasizing their texture, brightness, contrast, or color. Isolating objects can also add visual weight. Additionally, objects on the right side of a frame tend to carry more visual weight than objects on the left.
Here are just a few visual examples of balance in an image.
As you can see in these simplified diagrams, there are innumerable ways to position objects to achieve balance, or forgo it. Balance can also be achieved in the vertical plane, as well as diagonally or radially.
The perfect example of balance is symmetry where one half (top/bottom, left/right, diagonal split) of an image is identical—or nearly identical—to the other. There are many examples of symmetry, both in nature and the manmade world, which can be intriguing for a viewer—mirror-like reflections of a landscape on water being a common example.
It’s worth noting that symmetry can create a very static image, which is not always desired. Also worth noting is that if you are trying to achieve symmetry in an image, you need to work hard to nail the effect. Sometimes the slightest misalignment can be very distracting in an image. For example, if you are creating a symmetrical photograph of a building, be sure to stand precisely at a center point and keep the camera perpendicular to the face of the building. If you are half a step off to one side, or have the camera just off the 90-degree angle, lines will deflect in the image.
Tilt-shift lenses can help remove the deflections and some post-processing software also allows you to straighten lines to help eliminate distortion effects, but, whenever possible, get as close to centered and perpendicular as you can when trying to achieve that symmetry.
It’s Up to You
Like all of the other considerations for composing an image, there are no rules requiring your image to have a balanced composition, nor are there penalties for creating an unbalanced one (unless you are entering a contest that requires the image to meet certain criteria). What you may seek to avoid is a balanced or symmetrical composition picturing a dynamic situation, or an unbalanced composition of something you wish to emphasize as static.
Also, unless you are shooting in a controlled studio environment, the objects before you cannot always be moved and changed at will. It is up to you, as the photographer, to decide what to include in the frame, and what to subtract or minimize through composition while keeping the idea of balance or imbalance in your mind’s eye. You hold the reins for how to best achieve the right equilibrium for the feeling you are trying to convey.