Space and balance should be part of any photograph or artistic work. Balance is a basic premise of design. It describes how the elements of art relate to each other in the composition. Done properly, balance provides visual equilibrium. In other words, the visual weight seems equally balanced.
Space is a part of balance and one of the elements of art. We’ll cover how to use that later in the article.
Why Space and Balance is Important in Photography
Balance is one of the 10 Elements of Composition, based upon a post I created a while ago.
Balance in photography gives the viewer a sense that everything fits in the visual weight of the composition, at least as it should. There may be creative reasons to be out of balance, in order to create a sense of tension with your photograph.
Effectively, balance is how you increase or reduce the sense of tension created by your photo.
Does your photo need to be serene and peaceful, or does it need to tug uncomfortably at your viewer’s mind? There are typically three types of balance in composition:
- Radial Symmetry
However, I’m going to add two more types to this discussion because I think there’s often overlooked when discussing balance.
People generally want balance in their lives. That’s because we know there’s a sense of inherent danger with imbalance. We worry about something perched precariously on an edge, as if we think it’s about to fall off.
I can’t tell you how many times my daughter leaves her empty glass on the edge of a counter or table, and I go and push it someplace “safe.” That’s because I’m worried that the slightest error will cause the glass to shatter. I feel tense because of a perceived danger due to imbalance around the glass.
You can do the same thing with your compositions. In fact, many will tell you that playing with the sense of balance to create tension can make a piece much more emotional and compelling. You feel as if something is about to happen, or you wonder what will happen next.
Symmetrical balance happens when both sides, either by a horizontal or vertical side, appear with a similar weight.
My photo of the Lincoln Memorial is an example of symmetry in photography. Lincoln’s statue sits in the center and we have an identical number of columns to the left or the right. It fits in balance.
The only exception, which I actually like, is the lone man sitting on the top of the stairs to camera right. It’s just a light bit of imbalance, but I like it because it reminds us that nothing is very perfect. That’s just human nature.
Symmetry offers balance and a sense of peace. I like to think the man on the stairs is having a peaceful moment, too.
This subject is an example of bilateral symmetry. There are even parts on either side of a central line. However, you can also have symmetry if the objects on either side are slightly different. They don’t have to be mirror images of each other.
Asymmetrical Balance occurs when the two sides of your composition are different, but there still seems to be a balance in visual weight. Portrait photographers often use asymmetry.
We’ve been talking about balance with regard to the weight of items on one side or another, but it’s equally important to consider the impact of depth on balance – as some objects may seem closer or farther away from the viewer.
The balance may not always be strictly horizontal or vertical, but rather diagonal. That gives the viewer a sense of balance, although it’s not strictly even based upon a horizontal or vertical line.
With a portrait, the emphasis is often on the face, giving more visual weight to the side where you see the face. Yet that difference is natural for us and more readily acceptable.
We often find radial balance in nature, where things grow outward evenly from the center. You see it within the petals of a flower or a ripple in a pond when something strikes calm water.
A hub and spoke pattern, like a bicycle wheel or a starfish, is another example of radial balance. You can find radial balance in some places you may not expect, like sculpture and other artistic structures.
When creating your own compositions, think about how you can use radial symmetry. You can organize your subjects or capture them to display their natural radial symmetry, or include them in an asymmetric balance (which is what I’ve done with these photos).
We primarily see tonal balance in black and white photography, but it’s just as much of an issue for color photos as black & white. Tonal balance is about the contrast balance between highlights and shadows, darkness and light.
If you’ve ever seen an image with blown out highlights or details lost in the shadows, you understand the distraction that either issue can cause. Our mind wants differences between highlight and shadows, but not to the extent that they don’t make sense.
This is one of my dogs, Lola. She’s a black lab photographed on a white background, converted to black and white. This photo is practically an exercise in tonal balance.
If she appeared as nothing more than a black silhouette on a white background, we’d still have a balance in tone that the eye could understand, but we’d lack detail. The trick here is to balance the highlights on her black furry body to bring out the details, yet not lose sense of the tonal balance.
On the opposite extreme, there’s Milo.
Milo is a white lab (which is an extremely light yellow lab) shot on a black background. We need to see shadows here to define his texture, just as we used highlights to bring out Lola’s black fur.
It’s really just a matter of selecting the right background and light for your subject. You can easily do the same thing with any subject. Find the background and light that flatters their tones and create a sense of tonal balance.
Photographers like to talk about colors that pop. What we often fail to mention is that we’re not looking for all of the colors to pop, but specific colors that should stand out.
That’s because brighter colors have more visual weight than muted colors. Therefore, you need something to counter-balance the weight of a bright color, like the bright red jacket on the musician in this photo. Overall, the bright red is a smaller percentage of the composition, but it has more power (weight) than everything else.
Without that color, the tonal balance of the coat actually gets lost in the composition. Instead of color being the visual weight when just looking at tones, we see the skin tones and the graphic patterns start to have more visual weight.
Never underestimate the dominance of color and how it affects your composition.
The Elements of Space
We mentioned at the beginning that Space is part of Balance. Space is one of the five elements of art, including:
Space gives the viewer room to reference the subject. If everything gets jammed together in the composition, you have a colossal mess and the eye doesn’t know what to make of your composition.
It’s important to give some breathing room for your subjects, to allow them to stand out in their own space.
You may hear artists discuss Positive and Negative Space. Positive Space is the area of your subject. Negative Space is the empty area around it. If you look at the photos of my dogs above, you can see this in action. The dogs occupy the Positive Space, and they’re surrounded by Negative Space – meaning no other subjects are near them.
There are three other types of space in your photography that I wanted to bring up to help you with your compositions.
Active Space and Dead Space typically refer to areas with a subject in motion. In the photo above, we see a runway model moving from the right side of the frame to the left.
The Active Space is the area ahead of her. It gives the viewer a sense of where she’s going and that she still has room to move.
In most of my motion shots, I like to leave more Active Space so you can imagine the subject still traveling, still having room to move. That way they aren’t boxed in or likely to stop their motion.
It’s a subtle effect, but it has a subconscious power over how your viewer perceives your subject.
Another way to look at it as that your subject is “open” rather than “closed.” Having Active Space makes your subject relatable and somewhat friendly.
Dead Space is the area behind your subjects in motion. It shows where they’ve been. You can use Dead Space to indicate speed, or the end of a journey.
There are photographers who will tell you that you should always eliminate Dead Space in your photographs, or at least minimize the Dead Space. I tend to think that’s more of a guideline than a rule.
Whether you use Active Space or Dead Space is up to the story you want to tell. If I shared a photo of the same two people running downstairs from the top, it would completely change the story. Just as the story would change if I showed them starting at the bottom and still heading upstairs.
None of those stories are wrong.
What matters is the story you want to tell, the moment you want to capture, and how you want to relate to your audience. Using Active Space or Dead Space is a compositional choice that impacts the story you want to tell.
The image above is an example of Copy Space. That happens when you have a photographic subject placed to leave room for some text or graphic element to balance the final result.
Had I shared this photo without the copy to the left, it would’ve really been out of balance. That’s a choice I’ve made in the past, just to create a bit of tension. How it gets received depends upon the viewer. Some would say it’s a waste of space, others like the minimalism implied when you have subjects out of balance with the composition.
You can achieve this look in-camera or as a composite photo. That gives you room to use all your megapixels on your subject, and then place it on a new composition with a completely different background and some copy to send your message.
Using Space and Balance to Tell Your Story
I like to say you should begin with the end in mind. That could be true if you need to use space and balance to leave room for copy space, or if you want to create some tension with your final image.
As you’ve seen with the examples above, your use of space and balance can have a subtle or strong impact on your photography. You can use these compositional techniques to tell different stories and affect the emotional impact of your subject.
Knowing how your choices can impact the way your viewer perceives your photos gives you a lot of power when you create your compositions.