John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche


creating balance in a photograph

Where would we be without balance? Falling over, that's where.

That's why the eye appreciates the appearance of balance in a photograph. It makes us feel centered, steady, and stable. It suggests poise and gracefulness. When the elements of a photo are in balance with each other, we notice them individually, but it's the overarching sensation of equilibrium, harmony, and unity created by their relationship to each other that captures the mind's eye. Many theories in psychology talk about how balance in our emotions and personality traits contributes to mental health. So too a balanced image looks complete, robust, and healthy. This visual balance can take a variety of forms, both visually and psychologically.

Visual Weight: Objects in an image have different "visual weight." Elements that are bigger (more mass), brighter, and/or more colorful have greater weight than objects that are smaller, darker, and/or less colorful. The greater the visual weight, the more the eye is drawn to and lingers on that element of the image. Often, perhaps for evolutionary survival reasons, things that are big, bright, and colorful are important to humans. The comparative visual weights of the elements in an image contribute to the sense of equilibrium. When the proportions of weight feel right, the photo feels balanced. In this image at the top of this page, the thinner, more delicate, but spacious and intricate tree on the left balances the thicker but truncated tree branch on the right.

balance in photography

The Fulcrum: According to the traditional pivot point or fulcrum principle, elements in a photo can balance each other as if seated on a seesaw. If a small object is far from the pivot point - which is usually invisible and near the center of the image - it can balance a larger object which is closer to that point. So imagine a large rock in a field, just a bit left of center in the foreground of an image, and a smaller rock in the background that is off to the right and closer to the frame. The human mind attributes mass to the rocks. Knowing what it does about fulcrums, the eye assumes that the smaller rock balances the larger one, just as a small person sitting on the very end of a seesaw balances a larger person sitting close to the pivot point. The visual weight of the elements determine where they can be placed on the seesaw to balance each other.

The golden ratio: Also know as the golden “section” or “mean,” this proportion of lines and areas in an image possesses a special feeling of balance that was popular in classic art and architecture. Some people even believe that nature itself operates according to this ratio, and that we humans instinctively react to these proportions as “beautiful.” The mathematics behind the golden section is a bit complex, but the ratio is approximately 5:8. Just think about the shape of a nautilus shell. If the elements of an image are arranged according to its proportions, you’ve got the golden ratio!

Vertical/Horizontal: The visual weight of objects can balance each other across the horizontal plane, across the vertical plane, or, in more complex images, across both the horizontal and vertical. Horizontal and vertical lines also can balance each other. In the image of the trees, the vertical lines of the branches balance their horizontal lines. In some images the mind attributes lateral movement to horizontal lines and vertical movement to vertical lines, so their balance also might feel like an equilibrium of movement. Because vertical lines tend to dominate horizontal ones, due to their energy, they may not be as long as the horizontal lines in order to adequately balance them. Opposing diagonal lines can also balance each other, as can any opposing lines in an image. In the fashion of evolutionary psychology, the painter Maurice de Sausmarez suggested that a vertical line extending above a horizontal one produces a deeply satisfying and resolved feeling because it symbolizes the human experience of standing erect on the ground with absolute balance.

Rest/Energy: The mind might see a horizontal element as being in a state of rest, while a vertical element as moving upwards or downwards. This would be a balance of rest and energy. In fact, any type of moving and static elements in an image may balance each other. A person running provides balance for a person who is sitting. A spoon falling to a table top balances the cup that rests on the table. In the image above, the tree seemingly suspended in mid-air creates a feeling of energy that is balanced by the tree that is rooted to the ground. If an image contains a repetition of a shape, that visual rhythm might also be balanced by a element that appears stationary. If there are two or more lines of repeating shapes moving in different directions, the energy and movement suggested by those lines might balance each other.

Foreground/Background: Balance can be achieved across the foreground and background elements of an image. For the image above, in addition to there being a left to right equilibrium, the heavy but truncated branch in the foreground balances the thinner but more spacious and elaborate tree in the background.

Emotional balance: Opposite emotions portrayed within an image might provide a psychological balance with each other. Happy and sad, sleepy and alert, love and anger. These emotions may be depicted by people and animals, but through the very human process of anthropomorphization - a fancy term for attributing human qualities to inanimate things – objects too might provide emotional balance with each other. As I mentioned above, some psychological theories speak about how the human personality embodies a polarity of opposite feelings which creates intrapsychic dynamism, and, when balanced, intrapsychic unity. When an image contains people, animals, or objects with opposing emotions, the viewer will notice the different feelings of the individual subjects, while also experiencing, perhaps unconsciously, a sense of overarching unity and completeness.

Balance by interest, size, and tone: Small, interesting areas of an image can balance large, dull ones. Similarly, large or bright elements can balance small, muted, or dark ones.

Balance of similarity and difference: If one element of an image differs drastically from the other elements, it stands out as a focal point or even as an anomaly. Overall balance and unity might be lost. However, if all the elements are very similar to each other, the image can become monotonous and boring. A balance of similarity and contrast, of unity and variety, often results in an interesting image.

Balance of contrasts: As you might have guessed from the discussion so far, almost any contrasting elements of an image can be composed to balance each other. In fact, this was one of the essential principles of the Bauhaus school of photography in the early 1900s. Johannes Itten, one of the masters of this movement, created a list of possible contrasts, including such items as: point/line, high/low, long/short, broad/narrow, thick/thin, light/dark, black/white, much/little, straight/curved, pointed/blunt, horizontal/vertical, diagonal/circular, smooth/rough, still/moving, light/heavy, transparent/opaque, continuous/intermittent, liquid/solid, sweet/sour, strong/weak, and loud/soft. Notice how the list cuts across the range of sensory modalities, including not just the visual, but also the senses of taste, sound, and touch. In photography, the trick is to translate these sensations into the visual, and to find a way to balance them.

Symmetrical balance: In symmetrical balance, the elements on the left and right side of the image, or on the top and bottom, mirror each other in a very predictable, formal, and orderly way. This type of balance is very easy for the viewer to recognize. Although pleasing, because it feels so centered and steady, the image sometimes might seem too predictable and perhaps even boring. An image that attempts to be perfectly symmetrical but contains some element that falls short of that precise balance might look quite awkward, unsettling, and careless.

Asymmetrical or dynamic balance: In asymmetrical balance, there is a balance of dissimilar elements on the left and right, or top and bottom, using the principles mentioned above, especially the fulcrum principle and the golden ratio. Asymmetrical balance tends to be more interesting and dramatic. It usually includes a variety of sizes, shapes, and contrasts as well as a careful distribution and activation of empty space. In such compositions, there is a visual "center of gravity" where the balance of visual weights of the elements all come together. It isn't necessarily in the center of the image, as it would be in symmetrical balance, but it might fall into a position consistent with the "rule of thirds" or the golden ratio.

Radial and crystallographic symmetry: In radial symmetry, elements and patterns radiate out from a central point. A sensation of spiraling and inward/outward movement is created, which is interesting to the human mind that attributes unity, wholeness, and spirituality to such circular shapes. The ancient mandalas are a good example of this. In crystallographic images, an evenly distributed “all over symmetry” is created, as in wallpaper designs

Balance versus Tension

Now that I've spent all this time describing the different types of balance, I should mention that an image doesn't necessarily have to be balanced to be good. When balance is lacking, tension results - and that might be exactly what the photographer intends. The question is really a matter of how much tension and balance to create. As in compositions using asymmetrical balance and the golden ratio, images tend to be more interesting when our mind has to spend some time investigating them to detect their qualities of balance and tension, rather than when the balance is handed to us on a plate. Similar to music, an image containing tension that resolves into harmony feels very satisfying and complete. There also is something quite mysterious and wonderful about an image that contains both tension and balance, but you can't immediately explain why. Even a very unbalanced image can be quite effective - for example, a subject standing at the edge of a beach with nothing but a vast expanse of sand stretching across the frame. As long as an image doesn't seem too contrived or gimicky, the viewer will feel enticed to investigate the reasons for the unusual composition. The photographer might even use such tension to direct the viewer's eye to certain parts of the image that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, when instinctively searching for something to balance the subject at the edge of the beach, the viewer might be drawn to the texture of the sand on the opposite side of the frame.

If everything was stable, harmonious, and unified all the time, that would be rather boring, don't you think? As in life, the human mind appreciates equilibrium in a photo, but it also enjoys at least a little bit of tension, precariousness, and unpredictability.

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Negative Space
The Rule of Thirds

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche