In my previous article I challenged the reader to try to see the compositional elements in a landscape shot as masses and lines. I also surveyed a selection of shots and guided the reader to categorize the compositional elements, try to see how they counterbalance each other and start to get a feel for how each element’s properties determine its placement in the shot, in addition to the placement of other elements.
This time, I intend to bring more order to the discussion, and give you concrete ways to use the masses and lines concept to improve your compositional abilities.
When thinking of a composition as appealing, or balanced, it is often difficult to explain what it is about the composition that works. To most of us, intuition is the judge that tells whether a composition works well or doesn’t. But I suggest that it is always possible to improve your vision if you understand the origin and nature of this intuition. My way of putting order into composition is the notion of compositional weights and how to balance them.
The long-term goal of using this idea is to find a method of almost-mathematically balancing a composition (the ‘almost’ is important). It always depends on the weight one gives to the different elements in the shot – and those are subjective – but once they are understood, it’s possible to see how and why they are balanced. Once you get a better feel for the weight method, it goes into your subconscious, and that’s the point you start ‘feeling’ a composition instead of thinking it. Something to aspire to, for sure.
The most important term – and concept – I’d like to introduce in this article is that of compositional weight. Each mass in an image can be viewed as having some sort of significance, a measure of how ‘heavy’ it is and how much it draws the viewer’s eye. This ‘weight’ depends on many factors: sheer size immediately comes to mind, but there are less obvious ones: how detailed it is, how different it is in color and texture to its surroundings, and more.
The greater the weight of a compositional element, the greater the weight of other elements needed to counterbalance it. The immediate analogy is that of real-world scales, but in photography, we have to balance the scale in two dimensions, not only one. And moreover, the scaling takes into account much more than physical weight: it takes the compositional weight of the elements, a type of weight determined by several factors.
To make things a bit clearer, it’s good to look at an example, and here is one of the simplest ones possible.
Ice broken off Breiðamerkurjökull glacier was swept away to the Atlanic Ocean with the tides, and deposited back on the black beach of Breiðamerkursandur.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 17-40mm F4, 3.2 sec, F16, ISO100
What is it about this composition that is balanced? To answer that, we first need to apply what we learned in the previous article and find the masses. Luckily it’s a simple composition, with one mass being the ice blocks in the foreground, and the other being the lit part of the sky. The former is the foreground subject, and the latter the background subject.
|The two main masses in the composition are highlighted|
But why did I place these masses like I did? Why is the ice off-center to the left, and the opening in the sky off-center to the right? And why are the measures of these eccentricities such as they are? to answer that, let’s look at the middle axis of the image canvas, and let’s see how it relates to the center of each mass.
We can clearly see that the foreground subject is only slightly off-center, while the background subject is farther off-center. This is intentional, but what’s the rational behind it? Before reading further, try to think (or rather ‘feel’) for yourself – what is it about the properties of these two masses that determined the correct amount of off-center eccentricity?
Let’s look at another example.
Granite rocks at Parque Tayrona, Colombia
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 17-40mm F4, 4 sec, F13, ISO 100
This is a slightly more complex composition with more masses, but it obeys the same basic principles. What are the main masses in this composition? There are two foreground masses, and two background masses, as shown below:
|The four main compositional masses in the shot|
Again, let’s look at the central axis and ask ourselves how these masses counterbalance each other.
|The four masses balance each other in several ways: compositional weights as discussed below, but also in the fact that there are two masses on the right and two on the left, and also two on the top and two on the bottom.|
This time, the balancing game has more variables, but the idea is similar. To counterbalance a large, detailed, prominent mass (in other words, a compositionally heavy mass), the masses on the other side of the axis need to have sufficient ‘torque’ (in physics, a multiplication of mass and distance from the central axis), to maintain compositional balance and to prevent the image from being right- or left-heavy.
My main point in this article is that a good rule of thumb to maintaining balance in a composition is having a balance of torques around the middle axis of the image. If you’ve ever studied physics, the idea can also be described as maintaining the center of (compositional) mass close to the middle of the image.
How are the masses balanced in this image? Do the masses draw the viewer’s eye in different ways? Why?
Sony A7R, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/320 sec, F8, ISO 400
I’m aware that some of you may find this idea too mathematical, and I admit that two engineering degrees have taken their toll on my thought processes, but when I started shooting I never intended to use mathematical ideas – the connection came only when I tried to explain to myself why certain compositions work whereas others feel unbalanced. If anything, you may treat this as a model to explain and confirm why a composition works, rather than composing according to the model. A small but meaningful difference.
In addition, I’m really not saying that you should carry a computer when composing images as a photographer. I only mean to suggest that you consider the weight of the compositional elements in your shot, and make sure that they counterbalance each other nicely around the middle axis. If they don’t, that could knock the image off-balance, which would result in a less appealing, more tense composition. Carry this idea in mind, and it will help you when in doubt in the field.
What Gives a Compositional Mass its Weight
When I used the term compositional weight above, there was an underlying assumption that it’s clear what gives a mass its weight. While in physics weight is just mass multiplied by the gravitational constant, in photography it’s not quite the same. Let’s look deeper into what determines weight.
The first, and most obvious factor is size. The larger a mass is in the frame, the larger its weight, compared to other elements with the same properties. In the image below, the mountain to the left (Reinebringen) is clearly larger than the one on the right (Olstind). Considering the fact that both mountains have very similar properties otherwise, we can say that Reinebringen has larger compositional weight compared to Olstind. And indeed, Olstind’s center of mass is located farther to the middle axis than that of Reinebringen.
An aerial shot of the mountains around Reinfjorden, The Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway
Canon 5D4, Tamron 24-70mm F2.8, 1/1600 sec, F4, ISO 1600
|The larger mass on the left needs less distance from the central axis compared to the smaller one on the right.|
Does the same reasoning apply to the image below?
Salt and mud structures on the fringe of a salt lake in Dallol, Ethiopia.
DJI Mavic II Pro, 1/60 sec, F10, ISO100
The rightmost structure is larger than the middle one, and the middle structure is larger than the leftmost one. Since they are similar in most other ways, can we deduce that the rightmost structure has the most compositional weight? If we can, why is the rightmost mass located the same distance to the middle axis as is the leftmost? What are we missing?
|Why are the rightmost and lefmost masses located almost the same distance away from the middle axis?|
We are missing the realization that other factors are at work here, and have to be considered when balancing the elements. In the shot above, the leftmost element has something that the rightmost element doesn’t: prominence. By the prominence of a compositional element, I mean how different it is to its surroundings, how much it stands out. While the rightmost element is very similar in texture and lighting to its surroundings, the leftmost element is all but that. It’s dark while the salt lake is light in color. Its texture is grainy while the lake’s is smooth. Even the color is different. In simple words, the leftmost element stands out much more than the rightmost. This fact gives it more compositional weight, and compensates for its smaller size.
What about the image below:
Here, if the rising moon weren’t in the shot, it wouldn’t be balanced. Even though it’s a tiny element, the moon’s prominence gives it a lot of compositional weight, and together with its distance from the central axis (and with a bit of help from the foreground), it is enough to counterbalance the much larger mass on the left.
Let’s look at another image.
A vista to vágafjørður, taken from an elevated viewpoint in Streymoy Island, The Faroe Islands
Canon 5D4, Canon 16-35mm F4, 45 sec, F14, ISO 100
The rock at the bottom isn’t too big and isn’t particularly prominent. How is it then that it counterbalances the large mountain on the right? The answer is that its level of texture and detail is larger, and together with its textured surrounding grass, its compositional weight is increased enough to compensate for the lack of size and prominence.
So, another factor in determining the compositional weight of an element is its level of detail. The more detailed and textured a mass is, the larger its weight. This makes perfect sense, since more detail and more texture draw the viewer’s eye more easily. This easily translates into giving the considered element more importance, or in our terms – more weight.
An important point is that the amounts of weight added due to prominence and detail levels are highly subjective. One could also claim that size considerations are subjective as well, and I wouldn’t disagree: after all, the compositional weight isn’t a clear function of size, but more of how much attention the sizable element draws. That means that all this balancing theory is completely subjective too. The photographer himself has to determine how much significance to give to size, prominence and detail when balancing the elements, but this significance has to be given in one way or another, and it’s important to have all these factors working in the conscious, and later in the unconscious mind, when composing.
With all this information at our disposal, lets dissect a few more shots and discuss how their elements are balanced.
A lava river flows from the double cone at Fagradalsfjall Volcano
DJI MAvic II Pro, F4, 1/20 sec, ISO 100
I would argue that there are three main masses here: the double cone, the hill on the left and the front of the river at the bottom of the image (there are also interesting lines but for now, that’s irrelevant).
The foreground’s center of mass is exactly on the middle axis, and thus doesn’t need to be counterbalanced. What about the two background masses? The right mass is smaller, but also has much more prominence and level of detail. So, it is heavier and needs to be located closer to the middle axis in order to counterbalance the left mass, which is less prominent.
Another volcanic example:
This case is much more complicated, since there are several masses and they all differ in size, prominence and texture. The heaviest element in this image is the erupting volcanic fissure on the bottom right. The colors and brightness of the erupting lava give it both prominence and detail, and its size cannot be ignored. Therefore, this element needs a whole lot of weight to counterbalance it. This weight is in all of the elements on the left side: the lava river on the bottom and the 3 top fissures, all of which are located left of the middle axis. All of these fissures are erupting as well, which gives their masses prominence, and gives them an advantage in drawing the viewer’s eye compared to the regular hill on the top right.
But this image, even with all the volcanic craziness going on, is a bit lacking in balance. The main fissure on the bottom right has so much weight, that the only way I could counterbalance it is to have even more weight to the left than I had here. The problem is that if I tilted the drone right, the river on the left would be parallel to the sides of the image, which would feel inorganic and would really hurt the composition (more on that in the future). In addition, this would cause the hill on the top right to be directly above the fissure on the bottom right, and the 3 fissures on the top left to be directly above the center of mass of the river bend on the bottom left. Again, quite the problem.
Moreover, the top left side of the image is somewhat empty, which I dislike. The image is full of information: almost every corner has something going on, but this very fact makes the emptiness in the top left even worse. This dead space (the bad version of negative space) undermines the balance in a composition and can hurt it to a high degree. This fact shows us that we are not yet finished discussing the notion of compositional balance, since even if the weights are balanced, other aspects might not be. I intend to discuss this in more detail in future articles.
Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer, photography guide and traveler based in Israel. You can follow Erez’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to his mailing list for updates and to his YouTube channel.
If you’d like to experience and shoot some of the world’s most fascinating landscapes with Erez as your guide, take a look at his unique photography workshops in Namibia, Greenland, Colombia, The Lofoten Islands, Indonesia and the Argentinean Puna.
Erez offers video tutorials discussing his images and explaining how he achieved them.