When you take a photo, you want the viewer to notice certain details of your composition. There’s a term used by photographers to define the subtler elements of composing a shot. That concept is called visual weight and once you understand what it is you’ll see it everywhere.
For example, the yellow flower in the image below carries more visual weight, because it is set in absolute contrast to its background. As the viewer looks at the photo, their eyes naturally focus on the flower, which is the main subject in the composition.
What exactly is visual weight?
Balance stands at the base of any composition and determines whether the image is either pleasing for the eye or rather uncomfortable and vague. When a particular element keeps your eyes focused on one spot, that area or object is carrying more visual weight. In other words, visual weight is a concept that describes how much of your composition draws the eye of your viewer.
Objects that are bigger, brighter, and more saturated have greater visual impact than smaller, darker, or faded elements. The bigger the visual weight, the more the viewer’s eyes will tend to linger on that object.
As a photographer, you can use the rules of composition to present your subject in such a way that it carries a lot of visual weight and grabs the viewer’s attention. On the other hand, if you ignore the concept of visual weight, you can mistakenly create images with many irritating distractions.
Strive for balance
Ideally, you want to create balanced compositions, meaning that no single element of your photo grabs your eye so much that you get stuck in one spot. Instead, your eye is free to explore the photo and take it all in.
If your attention is too focused on one element of the image, it results in a sense of tension and uneasiness. You will classify that image as uninteresting, because you will actually feel repelled by its lack of equilibrium. To create balanced compositions, you must make up for each element with a counterweight. As I will explain in the following sections, certain colors, brightness, and orientation express specific visual weights.
For example, you may have a small and a large element that would be impossible to balance at equal distances from the center of the image. If you place the smaller object to the far side of the image and the larger object a bit off-center, you achieve balance.
Creating elegance with the rule of thirds
You can create many exciting photos by experimenting with visual weight. Keep in mind that an object with equal visual weight should counterbalance every “heavy” element.
Where you put your object is also important. The elements around the edge of the frame attract more attention than what is in the center of an image, which is why you should place your subject off-center.
Here are two examples to illustrate the visual difference between placing your subject off-center versus at the center of the frame:
As you can see, the bird in the first image was centered in the frame, which might feel a little uneasy. However the next image is a good illustration of the rule of thirds in action:
By placing the subject off-center, the author gave the image some dynamism.
Let’s take a look at another example of the way visual weight can be counterbalanced with a little creativity. As you can see in the next example, because the barn so close to the corner, it takes several hay rolls to counter-balance its visual weight. If there were only green grass in front of the barn, the image would seem unbalanced and somewhat tensed.
The takeaway here is that when an object is close to the edge of an image, it affects its visual weight. So, the closer you place your subject to one of the corners, the more visual weight it carries and the more tension it creates.
Which elements carry the most weight?
1. The eyes
There is a reason why the eyes are called “the windows to the soul”. The most highly attractive subjects in photography are the elements of the face, especially the eyes, because this is where we get most of the information for understanding people’s feelings.
One of the best ways to capture emotion is to communicate with your subject. Start a conversation about their significant other or their best childhood memory. You’d be surprised at the changes you can see in their eyes.I also found that asking people about a painful memory or something that made them angry is also a great way to capture the change in their eyes.
From a photography standpoint, eye contact is always tempting, because it’s such a great way to capture emotions and interact with the subject. The eyes must express an emotion to get the viewer involved, and if your subject is looking away from the camera, it forces the viewer to look at multiple elements of your composition.
Typically, brightly illuminated objects attract more attention than shadowed objects. Very bright or very dark elements (in relation to their background) also attract the viewer’s eyes. If you want to focus the attention on a bright element, put it against a dark background.
We can intuitively tell which colors weigh more than others. Typically, more saturated colors will grab more attention than unsaturated counterparts. For example, a red element will have more visual appeal than a pale yellow object. Similarly, a spot of color against a neutral background also attracts the eye.
In the image above, the red booth draws your attention more than anything else in the scene. The red element carries a lot of visual weight and compensates for the road, the two trees and the light pouring down through the forest.
If you try to reverse the colors in your mind and “see” the forest and the road as red and the booth as green, you’d realize just how powerful red is. The red forest would create a lot of tension and the image would be completely unbalanced.
4. Isolated elements
Isolated elements in a photo draw more interest than those in a cluttered space. As you can see in the image below, there is more foliage in the frame, but the element that grabs the eye is the tree on the left.
The elements in the image compensate for each other’s visual weight across the horizontal and vertical levels—the vertical lines of the trees counteract the horizontal lines of the branches.
Sometimes, horizontal lines may suggest lateral movement and vertical lines may suggest vertical movement, so their balance also might feel like a balanced motion. Opposing diagonal lines can also counterbalance each other, creating a deep sense of satisfaction and resolved feeling.
5. Location and orientation
As a rule, the weight of an object increases in proportion to its distance from the center of the image. A larger element placed closer to the center of the frame can be counterbalanced by a smaller object placed near the side of the frame.
Similarly, an object placed in the upper side of the image will seem “heavier” than an object placed in the lower side of the frame. Likewise, elements on the right will seem “bulkier” than those on the left, just like vertical elements carry more weight than horizontal objects (due to the way our brain responds to implied linear perspective).
Also, because we read from left to right and tend to scan pages from top left to bottom right, diagonal lines that run from upper left to lower right are perceived as descending. Conversely, diagonal lines that run from lower left to upper right are perceived as ascending and express a sense of action.
Another types of element that grabs the eye is writing. In street photography, for example, signs and billboards can easily grab our attention and the meaning of the words can add a new level of interest. Even if the language is unfamiliar, the writing may still be interesting.
Ansel Adams claimed that “Inscriptions in a foreign language can have a direct aesthetic quality, unmodified by the imposition of meaning”, because they represented a particular sign language. Plus, different types of writing with more complex texture carry a heavier visual weight than texts with plain texture or no texture at all.
Balance Versus Tension
Now that you’ve learned so much about visual weight and composition, you should know that a photo doesn’t necessarily have to be balanced to be outstanding. When an image is out of balance, tension occurs – and that may be exactly what the author intended.
Here is an image that perfectly illustrates how a photo with tension can also be beautiful. You can almost feel the tension in the composition by the way the large curves dominate the smaller vertical lines – and win:
If you’re looking to add tension to your image, then you’ll realize that tension in itself acts as a means for unbalancing the composition. The problem is how much tension and balance do you want to create.
Asymmetry and the rule of thirds create more interesting compositions, as the mind dwells upon these images trying to uncover their attributes of balance and tension, rather than when symmetry is handed to us in an obvious way. Similar to a piece of music, a photo containing tension that subdues into harmony feels pleasing and complete.
There is also a sense of mystery about a photo that encapsulates both tension and balance, but you can’t exactly say why or how. The author might use such tension to shift the viewer’s attention to certain elements in the frame that might otherwise go unseen.
For example, a subject standing at the edge of a beach – the viewer might feel compelled to search for something to counterbalance the subject against the beach stretching across the frame. As long as the image doesn’t create too much tension, the viewer might be tempted to explore the patterns on the beach and the reasons for the atypical composition.
If everything was pleasant and balanced, that would be extremely boring. As in life, our mind appreciates balance in an image, but it also revels in a little tension, drama and randomness. The more you experiment with different types of composition, the better your photography will be, so it pays to contemplate about how you want to compose your shot before you press the Release button.
As much as many photographers would like a composition formula that tells them exactly where to place each element in the frame, successful photography ultimately comes down to feel. Every time you pick up your camera, think about the story you want to tell. It’s important to take the concept of visual weight into consideration, but don’t get too caught up on it. As you learn more about balance and composition, you’ll start to use them naturally in your work.
Visual weight is a very powerful tool and once you get more familiar with it, you won’t stop seeing every image in its light. A great way to experiment with this concept is to look through your archived photos. Pick some of your favorites and analyze the visual weight of each element. You will soon realize that some of your images fall flat because your subject was lacking visual weight relative to the other objects.
As you begin to experiment with your camera, keep the visual weight in mind. Pay attention to the visual weights of your objects before you take the shot and see if that changes or improves your compositions. Then come back here and share your results. We’d love to see your progress with visual weight and composition!