How to Find Balance in Photography Compositions

symmetry in photography

You regularly hear photographers and vloggers throw around the term ‘balance in photography’ while discussing composition.

Balance in photography
Areas of texture, colour, or tone can be used to provide balance for your focal point or subject.

In everyday terms, balance refers to an even distribution of weight or a situation where different things exist in equal or correct amounts.

But what exactly does balance mean in the context of photography and visual art? And how do we best use it to elevate our landscape and nature photographs? It’s a good question and one I will do my best to answer in this tutorial.

What is balance in composition?

Composition is a very subjective and personal thing. There is no definitive right or wrong, or specific formula for a truly balanced image – interpretation and personal taste are always key factors.

However, there are several compositional ‘rules’ that we can adopt to improve how we frame our subjects. I’m sure you are already familiar with the rule of thirds and the rule of odds, for example.

balance in landscape photography
In this instance, the texture, flow, and shapes of the foreground snow and black sand help balance the mountain peaks behind.

It is essential to understand tried-and-tested compositional guidelines like these and know how to apply them, and also when to ignore them.

Ultimately, whether you use or abuse these rules, the one thing your photographs need above all others is balance – images that look or feel imbalanced are unlikely to please, engage, or retain the viewer’s attention.

While adhering to compositional rules will certainly help you to produce balanced results, it is not quite that simple; there are other contributing factors also to keep in mind.

If I asked you to list the essential qualities that make up a good photograph, you might scribble down things like light, composition, mood, flow, emotion, colour, energy, tone, and storytelling.

balance in photography
The out-of-focus background snowdrop acts as a foil for the subject, providing both balance and a sense of symmetry.

In truth, there is no sure-fire recipe for success; you can’t work from a checklist. Some of the greatest award-winning images might even feature some of these qualities and be lacking in others!

However, without question, for an image to succeed it must appear ‘balanced.’

Quite simply, the concept of balance is central to composition. In photography, balance refers to visual harmony – our eyes are instinctively drawn to scenes and images that are composed and arranged in a harmonious and balanced way.

In other words, elements within the scene are placed and arranged in a way that they achieve equal visual weight across the entire image space.

balance in photography
The bright, light sun, which much smaller than the subject itself, acts as an effective counterweight to the boat, neatly balancing the scene.

It can be helpful to compare the image space to a traditional set of scales – to achieve a visually pleasing result, you need to distribute the elements within the frame so that one side of the frame feels equally weighted to the other.

Read more: Composition in Landscape Photography – The Essential Guide

Where to begin?

Normally, the start of the compositional process is to choose your focal point for the composition and then decide where to place this within the image space to achieve maximum effect.

Next, study how the visual weight of this element compares to other objects in the frame and begin building your composition by arranging the elements to create a balanced frame.

balance in photography
The shape and size of the uncurling fern balances neatly with the teneral broad-bodied chaser dragonfly.

Pay attention to how the secondary objects relate to one another. Applying methods like the rule of thirds or golden section will help you to logically organize the frame to achieve the visual balance desired.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that many successful compositions do not conform to traditional proportions, so while the rules help, you shouldn’t be ruled by them – instead, always trust your intuition.

In my experience, it is best not to overthink the process – if the frame appears balanced to your eye, then it almost certainly is.

Read more: Where to Focus in a Landscape Photo


There are several types of balance, but the two best-known are symmetrical (or formal) balance and asymmetrical (or informal) balance.

For some visual artists, balance equates to symmetry, but this is only one of several ways to achieve a balanced result.

symmetry in photography
Mirror-like reflections produce symmetry and formal balance.

Although all symmetric photos are balanced, not all balanced photos are symmetric and, in practice, balance is rarely achieved by both sides of the image space being totally equal – most photos are asymmetric instead.

To help you understand how visual balance works, again compare it with physical balance.

For example, if you place two objects of equal weight on a seesaw, they will need to be equidistant from the fulcrum to balance one another – symmetrical in effect.

But if we take two objects with different weights, the lighter or smaller object would need to be placed further away from the pivot to balance the heavier or larger object.

The same basic principle can be applied to visual balance.

balance in photography

Photographers need to consider the visual weight, strength, or dominance of the key elements within the frame and try to balance them.

It can be worthwhile ‘splitting’ the scene in half and looking at each side and comparing their visual weight. Larger, brighter, more vibrant features will grab more attention. Meanwhile, objects closer to the edges, and on the right half of the frame, tend to have greater perceived visual weight.

Having considered this, look for ways to balance any visual inequality by including or introducing a suitable counterbalance.

What is visual weight?

So, what exactly constitutes visual weight in photography?

Clearly, in a photograph, we can’t consider or define the physical weight of our subjects or focal points. Instead, visual weight refers to how much attention a particular element or feature demands from the viewer.

balance in photography
Objects placed close to the edge of the frame have more visual weight, allowing smaller subjects to balance much larger ones.

This can be influenced by a variety of things, including size, proximity, contrast, brightness, colour, tone, texture, and placement. Much of this is rather subjective, but below are a handful of examples:

  • A small object further away from the visual fulcrum will balance a larger object closer to it.
  • A small area of high contrast will balance a larger area of low contrast.
  • A small area of bright, saturated colour will balance a larger area of neutral or less saturated colour.
  • Small, complex shapes can balance large, simpler shapes.
  • Complex, high-contrast texture on a small object can balance a large object or area with smooth texture.
  • Objects near the top of the frame have more visual weight than those near the center.
  • A small area of white or light tones can be balanced with an area of dark or black tones.
Balance in photography
In this instance, the texture of the out-of-focus flower on the left provides a counterbalance for the subject.

Negative space will also influence balance. Too little space can create a sense of clutter, tension, and imbalance, while too much can create a feeling of emptiness. The right amount of space will provide balance and harmony.

Read more: How to Use Negative Space in Macro Photography

Get moving

Of course, landscape and nature photographers can’t physically move or rearrange their subject. Instead, you will need to consider your shooting angle and perspective and position yourself thoughtfully to achieve the most balanced result.

balance in photography
The foreground ledge and water motion, bottom left, provide a sense of balance with the background castle in the upper right of the frame.

A photographer once said that the most useful compositional aid you have at your disposal is your knees and your feet! In other words, move around – sometimes just a small step left or right, forward or backward, can dramatically change a composition.

Also, remember to bend your knees – camera height (and its orientation) will influence the visual balance of a scene. Moving around can help you exclude unwanted objects from the frame – or introduce elements to the scene that will act as a counterbalance for your main focal point.

balance in photography
In this instance, the dark, shadowy ledge in the bottom left provides a juxtapose for the metal railings.

Avoid being static as a photographer – always shoot handheld at first, as this will promote movement and freedom. Then, once you have identified your composition, use a tripod (when practical) to refine and perfect your framing.

In conclusion

Although it is one of the least discussed principles, balance is key to good composition.

While there might be occasions when you wish to capture an imbalanced frame to create discord, typically photographers should endeavour to capture images that are balanced in some way.

At first, you might find you have to consciously adjust your composition to distribute the visual weight more evenly across the frame. Or alter shooting angle or focal length to purposefully include or exclude objects, or to place emphasis on certain elements.

It takes practice and consideration, but you’ll soon find you frame things instinctively. The best advice I can give you is to always trust your instincts.

Visit Ross's website

Ross Hoddinott is among the UK’s best-known landscape and natural history photographers. He is a multi-award-winning photographer and the author of several bestselling photography titles, including The Landscape Photography Workshop (with Mark Bauer). Based in Cornwall, Ross is best known for his images of the South West of England, but he travels all over the UK in search of outstanding views and atmospheric conditions. He is a Nikon Alumni, an Ambassador for Manfrotto and a Global Icon for F-Stop Gear. Ross is a popular and experienced tutor and co-runs Dawn 2 Dusk Photography, specialising in landscape photography workshops.

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