a photographer about balance and tension in a photograph and they’ll
look at you like you just asked them about the mathematics of hyperfocal
distance. Actually, that’s unfair; I know a number of photographers who
could speak at length about the latter. I know fewer who can speak
about the former. But ask a painter or sculptor the same question, and
they’ll have real thoughts on the matter.
Balance and tension have a great deal to do with the feel of an image. But for all their importance, I have yet to read a good definition of balance or tension, which I think is okay here, as I’m less interested in defining the terms than I am in talking about them and posing questions and ideas that will help you use them more effectively. I think you can work with balance and tension as tools—and understand their effect on how we read an image—without being able to perfectly define the concepts themselves.
It all begins with terms we borrow from the physical world: pull and weight. I’ve mentioned the idea of visual mass a few times already in these discussions, and understanding this concept is really important for wrapping your head around both balance and tension. Here’s how I see it: every element in a photograph pulls the eye—some more, some less. Much of it has to do with contrast. So the large, bright, sharply-focused yellow ball is likely to draw your attention much more than the muted, out of focus background because there’s massive contrast between the two, and we’re interested in that. In this context, that ball has visual mass. So far, so good?
But in this hypothetical image, imagine the large yellow ball is not the only element in the frame. Perhaps there’s a smaller red ball. Now you have two elements in the same photograph that are pulling at the eye. Do they pull the eye the same amount? Probably not. The large yellow ball probably has more visual mass than the red one. Why “probably”? Because the frame itself also matters. If the rest of the image is filled with blue (the sky, for example), then that yellow ball has a lot of contrast, and therefore, visual mass. And because it’s larger, it probably has more mass than the red ball. But what if the background of the image is yellow? That would create much lower contrast for the yellow ball, and the red ball would jump out, and your whole experience of the image would change.
Why does this matter? Because if all the elements in the frame pull the eye with unequal force, then how we arrange those elements determines whether the image is balanced, and how, and it helps us understand tension. And both balance and tension determine where we look and how we feel about an image. This is not a math problem for which there is a formula to apply; it’s experiential. We feel it. Here are some questions to help you explore this:
- More visual mass on one side of the frame than the other will throw the photograph out of balance. Can I put something else in the other half of the frame to provide a counterbalance?
- Can I remove something from the heavier side of the frame to lighten it up? What about giving the image a little more negative space?
- How can I use the so-called rule of thirds here? It suggests we place the most important element one- or two-thirds of the way into the image, either horizontally or vertically. The rule is silly, but it encourages an important principle: dynamic balance. All other things being equal, if the element with the most amount of mass is on one-third, then the lesser important elements that fill the other two-thirds of the frame offer counterbalance to the heavier third of the frame. The photograph stays balanced but not in a static way. Understand this as a principle, but be suspicious of it as a rule.
- As balance and tension are better experienced than explained, it might be helpful to ask these questions as you study photographs, either your own or those of others. Ask yourself if the image feels balanced to you, and how that balance is achieved. Is it heavier on one side of the frame than the other? Ask yourself if the photograph creates tension and, if so, how that was accomplished and whether you think it serves the subject or not. The longer you consider and experiment with visual mass, balance, and tension, the more you’ll be able to control them as you make your photographs.
- Placing all the visual mass in the middle of the frame will be balanced—but potentially boring if the subject is intended to be energetic or dynamic. Is my subject best expressed with words like “serene,” “symmetrical,” or “calm”? If so, this static balance might be just what you need.
- Some elements in the frame not only pull the eye to them but pull in a particular direction. Imagine a man in the image looking toward the left of the frame. The viewer’s eye will not only go to the man, but also along the direction of his gaze. Now imagine two people in the frame, each looking in opposite directions. The viewer’s eye is then pulled in different directions, toward both the left and right edges of the frame, creating tension. So ask yourself: Am I aware of the tension in this image? Does it work for me? Would waiting for a moment when these two people both look in the same direction reduce that tension? If I want more tension, would waiting for a change in their gaze create that?
You don’t need to understand or be able to articulate all of this, at least not at first, but you do need to understand that the eye gets pulled, and how it gets pulled creates a feeling of balance or tension. The big questions are these:
- Is that balance or tension helping to express my subject?
- How does it feel to me?
- Does that feeling complement or contradict what I want to say about the subject?
As balance and tension are better experienced than explained, it might be helpful to ask these questions as you study photographs, either your own or those of others. Ask yourself if the image feels balanced to you, and how that balance is achieved. Is it heavier on one side of the frame than the other? Ask yourself if the photograph creates tension and, if so, how that was accomplished and whether you think it serves the subject or not. The longer you consider and experiment with visual mass, balance, and tension, the more you’ll be able to control them as you make your photographs.
The article above is Chapter 13 of my latest book, The Heart of the Photograph. It’s one of the harder aspects of composition to master, but I think the more you wrestle with it, the easier it becomes. The Heart of the Photograph launched a month ago, and it’s been just about the weirdest month I can remember ever living through—though I spent a month on morphine while I was in hospital almost nine years ago, and that comes pretty close. 🙂 You can download more sample chapters and get your copy of The Heart of the Photograph here. Already have a copy? I’d be so grateful if you took a moment to let potential readers (and me, too) know what you think with an Amazon review.
My sincerest hope is that you and yours are safe and healthy in these challenging times.
For the love of the Photograph,