There are two types of balance in photography: formal and informal. Understanding both – and knowing them – is an important part of composition. Let's dig in it.
Balance is part of the composition well before the appearance of photography. It is an integral part of most Renaissance paintings. It's also a slightly slippery concept. It is based on an idea called "visual weight", which is in itself a metaphor. The idea is that the different objects of a scene all have different visual weight. People, brightly colored objects, highly contrasted objects and unusual subjects, for example, all have a high visual weight. Other elements, such as large areas, the sky, the water or the soil, have a low visual weight. The only way to master it is to see it in action and play.
Formal or symmetrical balance
The formal balance is symmetry. This is where the frame is divided in two, vertically or horizontally, and both sides have equal visual weight. Look at this portrait.
It is essentially perfectly symmetrical along the vertical axis.
Both sides of the image have equal visual weight. There is nothing that draws our eyes to one side or the other of the image.
Here is another portrait where, again, the model is central, so it is rather symmetrical.
And one more.
As you can see, the formal balance can work well with portraits. This gives an impression of serenity, seriousness and solidity. I deliberately used a formal balance in the next photo of a Soviet statue in Transnistria, because I wanted it to be as if it had stood upright for years.
The formal balance is easy enough to understand: place the subject in the center. Let's move on to the more delicate concept of informal balance.
Informal or asymmetrical balance
The informal or symmetrical balance allows you to balance the image by juxtaposing objects with a similar visual weight instead of balancing them symmetrically. Let's look at some examples.
In this photo, I have enough visual weight to properly balance the mountains and clouds. You still have an idea of the scale, but the image does not seem empty. People are visually very heavy, so they can often find a balance.
Here is another similar idea. Will, the skier, is even smaller in the frame but still balances the huge mountain behind him.
Let's see this in reverse. Here is an unbalanced shot. The castle is cool and interesting, but there is not much else on the photo otherwise.
Moments later, a boat went up the river. We are now on something. The small boat in movement is enough to balance the gigantic ancient castle.
You can also balance a single object with a high visual weight with many objects with a very low visual weight. Here, the stars in the sky balance the tall trees of Joshua. The smaller trees also balance the big tree.
Perhaps the best example of asymmetrical balance does not come from photography, but from the art. The creation of Michelangelo's Adam is wonderfully balanced: Adam and the earth have the same visual weight as God and the chorus of angels.
Asymmetric or dynamic images
Do not forget that balance is only one tool in your composition toolbox. There are also other things like landmarks, limited color palettes, and much more. This means that all your images do not need to be balanced. Unbalanced images tend to have tensions, dynamism and a sense of activity.
Just look at this picture. Will jump into a black abyss. This gives an impression of speed and drama to what he does.
Or, take this picture of the Santa Monica Pier. Do the sky and the sea balance the pier? Maybe, but I would probably not say so. Instead, we have this dynamic photo of the sunset showing the pier throwing itself into the ocean.
For me, this is what you are trying to convey. If you want strength and stability, go for a formally balanced image. If you're looking for something more dramatic that always has that balanced look, try asymmetrically balanced compositions. Or, if you want something tense and dynamic, opt for an unbalanced image.
Play: Whichever composition you use, it may not work, but you may end up with something wonderful! And at the very least, you'll learn something along the way. There are very few rights or wrongs here.