In photography, composition is one of the most important things you need to learn about and practice. Visual mass or visual weight, and balance go hand in hand and work together to make well-composed, strong images.
How you arrange the elements in your photos matters, and you can improve your photography immediately – without buying any new gear – just by practicing and working on improving your composition.
In this article, you’ll learn about visual mass and how to use it to create balance in your images. By studying the tips and example images here you’ll be on your way to taking better photos in no time!
What is visual mass?
Visual mass, also called visual weight – this is how much space or attention an element in your photo holds. It’s not just about the size of the object, other factors can affect visual mass as well making an object project or appear larger in the frame.
Things such as the following have more visual mass:
- Bright spots like strong highlights or large sunlight areas.
- Intense or saturated colors, especially warm ones like red, orange, and yellow.
- Areas in sharp focus.
- High contrast areas, especially against a lower contrast one or shadowy area.
Some things in photographs or art pull our attention more than others. That’s an example of visual mass.
I discussed these things in another article about watching the background in your images.
Read more here: How to Quickly Improve Your Images by Checking the Background
How to use visual mass in photography
As a photographer, you can use visual mass to help balance your image and make your subject stand out more. Ideally, that will lead the viewer’s attention right to the subject.
Balance is achieved when the arrangement of the elements in your image feels natural and pleasing to the eye. The image will feel imbalanced if one element has too much visual weight in the image.
Balance is essential in photography in a few ways. First, you’ll know immediately if an image is not balanced. You might not be able to put your finger on it, but something will feel off.
Secondly, balance helps to keep the viewer engaged in the image. When it’s done right their eye will go from one element in the image to another, and round again (in the image above the eye goes from the red boat to the background and back again).
When the viewer can’t take their attention off the image, that is a sign of great composition and a potentially great photo. The image of the red boat was really popular at art shows and I sold many prints of that one.
Symmetrical balance is exactly what it sounds like – the elements on each side of the image are equal. That means there is an equal visual mass on both halves as seen in the examples below.
Those are all examples of horizontal symmetry where the elements are even on both the left and right sides of the image. But you can also achieve vertical symmetry when the top and bottom portions are evenly weighted. Reflections are a great example of that.
This is a bit harder to achieve and can take a bit of practice, but is also more visually interesting.
Think of a seesaw with an adult on one side and a small child on the other. How is balance achieved in that situation? The fulcrum or angle point of the seesaw must be off-center, not in the middle (as seen in the diagram below).
The same is true for photography composition. Let’s look at some examples of asymmetrical balance.
To achieve asymmetrical balance start by placing your main subject off-center. Think about the rule of thirds, and put the subject on one of the intersections or powerpoints as shown below. Then if the image feels imbalanced add one or two secondary objects in the background to give it more balance.
Remember, this takes practice! So try different arrangements of the elements in your scene. I almost always take at least four or five images of anything that grabs my eye.
Don’t just take one photo and run – work the scene a little and explore the options.
For the image of the chocolate shop below, I waited on the street (in the rain) for about 10 minutes until the right person passed by and completed my composition. I knew I needed something to balance the image as the bike carries too much visual weight.
Webmaster note: She waited 60 minutes for the right person, not 10
I took a few other images but they didn’t feel right as the secondary subject took too much attention (for example, someone with a red umbrella). So have patience! If the photo is worth creating – take your time and do it to the best of your abilities.
Composition tips for achieving balance
The elements in your image do not need to be identical to create balance. As long as they are similar in terms of visual mass and overall appearance they will seem to be equal and balanced in the image.
Things you can use to create balance or intentional off-balance:
- Size (obviously larger objects have more visual weight)
- Tones (dark objects have more visual mass)
- Colors (bright, especially warm colors appear larger and project in an image)
- Subject to background relationship
- People and animals (our eyes are naturally drawn more to living things)
- Shapes mirrored in the subject and background
- Texture against smooth
- Sharpness (objects in focus have more visual weight than blurry elements)
The image below has been composed off-center, and off-balance on purpose to create some interest and tension in the image. So you need to know when to break the rules too.
Here are a few case studies. Study each photo before you read the information below it to find out what compositional tool or element was used to create balance in the image.
The vibrant red color of the dock and the buildings on shore is very strong. So I positioned myself at the end of the pier so I could include equal amounts of each to help balance the image.
This image taken in Thailand uses juxtaposition and shapes to achieve balance. The white of the wall, versus the black scooter. The square angular shapes of the wall art contrast the curvy lines of the bike. Art versus science or technology. Soft versus hard. Antique or old versus modern.
Can you see how balance can be many things including an idea?
There’s a lot happening in the scene above, captured in Pushkar, India. I got really close to the men having their morning coffee so they are large in the frame. The camels in the background not only provide balance but context as to who the men are and what they do.
In the scene above, you see two kite flyers in Varanasi, India. Without the second young man in the background, the image would lack balance. Sometimes even numbers are all you need to create balance.
Once again shapes come into play in the image above. Notice that the triangular shape of the orange tent is mirrored in the background by the mountain. By placing them in opposite corners of the image, balance is achieved but your eye is drawn to the tent in the foreground because of its warm color and sharpness.
Are you starting to get the idea?
Can you see the interplay between the orange tarp and the background and how they lead your eye around the image?
The image above would be really off-balance without the colorful buildings on the left side. Here both the subject and the background are colorful, but the subject has more visual mass not only because it is larger, but also because the character is in sharp focus.
This is another example of asymmetrical balance. The subjects only fill about 25% of the frame but they are balanced nicely by the arches above them on the left. Once again, where you position yourself to create the image matters. I moved around the scene for several minutes until I settled on this framing.
Now, look at the three images below. Can you see why I didn’t choose these compositions?
Diagonal lines are powerful
By incorporating some diagonal lines into your image you can add a sense of movement as well as balance. Straight vertical or horizontal lines can feel static and boring. Diagonals are more dynamic.
A fish-eye lens was used to capture the two images below. Its lens distortion automatically creates diagonal lines.
The flowers in the marigold field in the next image created a lovely diagonal through the image. So I asked the model to hold out her veil to create more movement and lines to balance it out.
Look at the following series of images of this Vietnamese fisherman. I wanted to use his hat and pole to create diagonal lines and balance the image. Some are more successful than others and you can see how my process works as the final image evolves.
So I zoomed out to include more of the pole and background. This image feels too heavy on the left now, can you see why? The man is very large in the frame (visual mass) and the secondary subject (the boat) is too small to balance the image.
My next step was to get closer to him and put his face in the upper left part of the image, and his hands in the lower right. Draw the rule of thirds over the image in your mind – where do the lines cross?
Better! But I still left like it was off somehow.
The image below is the final version. I love his expression, the smoke in the air fills a bit of the blank space AND I added the birds in the post-processing phase (using Luminar).
Here are a few more of the same man. Some of the images are balanced, some are not. Example them and see if you agree.
Does an image always need balance?
The short answer is no. But make sure you make a conscious choice to either create balance in your image or not. Don’t count on luck – do intentional and mindful photography. Control the scene and your composition.
As you practice, keep the following statements in mind as well.
Balance is harmonious and feels natural.
But imbalance is more dynamic and can be more visually interesting.
Practice, practice, practice
Don’t worry if you aren’t getting the hang of this yet. I’ve been doing photography for a long time and I’ve spent many hours perfecting my craft.
The best advice I can give you is to just do photography as often as you can. If you can’t get out photographing yourself, study images online. Not just photographs but famous paintings too. Look at the composition and see where the elements are all placed.
See how the photographer uses visual mass or the artist balances his painting with visual weight of items or subject.
Then be intentional with your own photographic composition. Stop! Slow down! Think and FEEL before you press the button.
Composition comes to me by feeling more than anything else. I review my images on the back of the camera and ask myself, “Does it feel right?”.
Do that with our own photography and keep practicing.
Remember . . .
Photography is not a destination it’s a journey – so enjoy the ride!– Darlene Hildebrandt (me)