Balance in photography composition is when all elements in your frame are distributed throughout the image in such a way no areas are weighted heavier or lighter than others. You can also think about balance as symmetry.
A pleasing composition is well balanced. If the composition is unbalanced you might feel uncomfortable looking at the photo.
Balanced or unbalanced?
In certain situations you might intentionally want to make an unbalanced image, like when you want to create tension or any other effect on the viewer. However in general most images tends to be well balanced, in particular in landscape photography.
Balance in photography makes the composition feel natural and stable. This is not only valid in photography composition. In any situation, you immediately recognize when something is unbalanced, and you want to stabilize it.
Me for example - I hate when a book or a stack of magazines on a table is not aligned in parallel to the edges of the table. I find myself adjusting this when I see it. Yes, I probably have some other flaws and paranoias as well.
Balance in photography can be symmetrical or asymmetrical
Symmetrical balance in photography is often referred to as formal balance. When the perceived visual weight of all elements in the composition is equally distributed and no parts of the image feel heavier or lighter, it is called symmetrical balance.
Symmetrical balance is often achieved by using objects of similar form and shape. You compose a symmetrical photo by placing the elements symmetrically on each side of the frame, almost like the elements are mirrored.
Think of an old type balance scale where you place equal weight on each side to balance the scale. If the two objects on each side have the same size and weight, it is a symmetrical balance.
In landscape photography, a typical example of a symmetrical balanced photo is reflections of a mountain or another object in the water. When the mountain is reflected in the water, the reflection has the same size and color as the mountain itself. In this example placing the horizon line in the center of the frame will also work.
A photo with formal balance tends to look static and not so interesting. If you place your main subject in the center of the frame your photo will be balanced. But by placing the main subject in the center you will get kind of a boring photo.
Asymmetrical balance in photography is also referred to as informal balance. Again think of the scale above but this time you balance the scale by using the same object on one of the sides and on the other side you now place two objects with half of the weight. In this case, you have an example of informal balance.
The scale is quite easy to understand but in real life in landscape photography it take some practice to master informal balance. However when you do this right, an image with asymmetrical balance is more interesting.
If you place the main subject near one of the edges, you can balance the main subject with other elements on the opposite side to maintain balance in the composition.
Radial balance is not so common in landscape photography. You can think of it as a circle where elements are balanced around the center of the circle.
If you throw a stone in water and photograph it from right above the ripples will move out in a circle. This a typical example of radial balance. A sunflower with its petals is round and symmetric, another example of radial balance if you photograph it close up.
Important techniques to create balance in photography.
The further from the center an object is placed the more weight it has in the composition. In the western world because we read from left to right, an object placed to the right in the frame have more weight than a similar object place to the left at the same distance from the center.
The same is true when an object is placed high up in the frame. This object will have more weight than a similar object placed at the same distance from the center in the lower part of the frame.
Elements near the edges of the frame get more attention so be careful with the edges and corners when you compose your photos. If you are unaware, unwanted elements near the corners and edges can ruin an otherwise good photo.
You should also avoid unwanted mergers with the edges. If you do, make it look natural.
How to give different elements weight when composing a well-balanced photo.
Small vs. Large
Logically enough, a large object has more weight that a smaller object in a composition. To balance a larger object you have to use two or more smaller object in the composition
The white foam balance the rocks to the right
Light vs. Dark
A dark object has more weight than an object with light colors. The darker element can be balanced by adding other light elements or by adding elements with dark tones
Contrast vs. Less contrast
You can balance elements with a lot of contrast with elements having less contrast.
Intense colors are perceived heavier than lighter muted colors. Complimentary colors tend to balance each other. The same does warm and cold colors. Therefore it is no coincidence you will find the warmer and colder colors on the opposite side of the color wheel - they are complimentary colors.
Busy vs. Simple
If one part of your scene is busy, you can balance it with something simpler on the other side.
Textured elements have more weight than similar object without texture. A brick wall is perceived heavier than a white painted wall of similar size.
Space and eye direction
Even empty space can create balance in photography. If you place a person or animal near one of the edges of a frame and they look in the direction of the closest edge, it will look awkward, and we feel the image is unbalanced.
If the same animal or person is looking in the direction of the furthest away edge the empty space between the object and edge can act as a balancing element. Such a composition will feel much more natural and pleasing.
Keep an eye on the edges of your composition
As already mentioned earlier in this article, the edges of the frame are very important. Our eyes have a tendency to leave a frame at the edges. By adding elements near the edges or corners of a photo you can push the eyes back into the frame.
One way of doing this is to add a framing element like a branch of a tree at the top of the image.
The same technique is often used in post processing where a darker vignette is added to the edges of the photo. The vignette stops the eyes from leaving the frame.
Composition is all about balancing the different elements in a photo. Take your time and look through the frame before you press the shutter. You can also read more about how to use framing as a composition element.