Understanding Balance and Symmetry in Photographic Composition

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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.

Balance

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.

The World Trade Center is a static object, unless you make it dynamic.

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.

Different colors, brightness, and textures throughout lead to an image that is balanced, left and right.

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.

Single cupcake in the center of the image—balanced.
Two cupcakes of equal size and distance from the image center—balanced.

Two cupcakes of equal size and different distances from the image center—unbalanced.

Two desserts of different sizes at different distances from the image center—balanced.

Desserts of different sizes and shapes with a large object on the opposite side—balanced.
The darker cupcake carries virtually the same visual weight as the vanilla cake even though it is smaller—balanced.
The identically sized cakes have different visual weight, due to the brightness of each—unbalanced.
The red cupcake has the same visual weight because of its color—balanced. Hungry yet?

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.

Symmetry

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.

The S.S. Horizon Challenger is symmetrical.

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.

From the stern of the S.S. Horizon Challenger. A slight misalignment might ruin this 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.

14 Comments

Excellent (and fun) examples, which clearly demonstrate balanced and unbalanced composition. 

Thank you very much, Elinor! I appreciate the feedback!

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you very much, it was a really useful lesson.

You are very welcome, Hamid! Thank you for reading!

Mr. V.....Thanks for the great article on Balance--Lots of us as we take Pics & post process intuitively use these principles--But it was wonderful to see in writing the thinking behind why we're doing the things we do.

Lou

Thanks, Mr. Lou!

Count yourself as a lucky one if any of these composition thoughts come naturally to you! But, even if you are a natural, it's nice to study the fundamentals sometimes.

Thanks for reading!

Hi Todd,

Symmetry is often taught in designing traditional New England architecture and what is learned there can easily carry over to photography. Objects centered over objects. Unbalanced photography can be defined as "oblique"? And therfore, achieving symmetry is not possible, no matter what. Correct? 

Thanks for this article!

Hey Tom,

That sounds like some deep thoughts to me! I think symmetry is attainable in a controlled environment. In photography, things are rarely symmetrical, but if you are out of position and trying to show symmetry, you will be fighting an uphill battle!

Thanks for reading!

Wow...concise and precise with simple, easy to follow yet illustrative examples.  Thank you

Thank you, Dave! I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Todd - 

Fun stuff to read.  I agree with Bob, your blog is a bit like going to a technically precise school for me too.  

My latest fancy is shooting oblique.  There it is nearly impossible to get a symmetrical photograph.

What kind of suggestions do you have for reaching balance, specifically when shooting oblique?

Hi lance,

Thank you very much!

Tough question there. I think that shooting oblique you have to accept that you will usually be off balance. Sometimes that works for a shot, and sometimes it does not. It will be the lucky day when clouds, trees, a sign, or something else helps visually balance an oblique image, but you can't always count on that.

There is nothing wrong with an unbalanced shot...unless your goal is a balanced one! Art is subjective...thankfully!

That isn't a definitive answer, I know, but there is no definitive answer...only food for thought!

Thanks for reading and thanks for the kind words!

As usual, another great article.  Your Explora website is like getting a degree in Photography if you really dig into it.  I particularly enjoy the Event Space videos.  This is probably not the best place to ask this question, but I go ahead anyway.  In researching back to some of the older articles, I noticed that the Event Space videos were no longer avalable.  This is like 3 years ago.  I am keenly interested in some of the subjects covered.  Is there any archive of these older videos or are they lost forever?

Hey Bob,

Thanks so much for the great compliments! I am glad you are enjoying the content and sorry we are not an accredited degree source!

Good news! Yes, some Event Space videos have been removed from Explora due to data space constraints, but all of the content is still available on the B&H YouTube channel, so use your favorite search engine to dig up the old stuff on YouTube, or check out the B&H YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/BHPhotoVideoProAudio

Thanks for reading!

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