There are two kinds of balance in photography: formal and informal. Understanding both and knowing how they are – is an important part of the composition. Let's dig in.
The balance has been part of the composition for a long time before photography came. It is an integral part of most Renaissance paintings. It is also a small content concept. It is based on an idea called "visual weight" which in itself is a metaphor. The idea is that different objects in a scene all have different views. People, colorful things, high contrast objects and unusual subjects, for example, all have a high vision. Other things like large spaces, sky, water or land have low visibility. The only way to take care of it is to see it in action and play.
Formal or symmetrical balance
Formal balance is symmetry. This is where the frame is divided into half, either vertically or horizontally, and both sides are given equal visual weight. Take a look at this portrait.
It is substantially perfectly symmetrical along the vertical axis.
Both sides of the image have the same view. There is nothing that draws your eyes to one side of the picture or the other.
Here is another portrait where again the model is central, so it is quite symmetrical.
And one more.
As you can see, formal balance can work well with portraits. It gives a sense of calm, seriousness and solidity. I deliberately used formal balance in the following shots of a Soviet statue in Transnistria because I wanted it to feel it had been standing for years – because it had.
Formal balance is quite easy to understand: the subject in the middle. Thus, we proceed to the trickier concept of informal balance.
Informal or asymmetric balance
Informal or symmetrical balance is where you balance the image by comparing objects with similar visual weights instead of just balancing everything symmetrically. Let's look at some examples.
In this photo I have enough vision to balance the mountains and the clouds nicely. You still get a sense of the scale, but the picture doesn't feel empty. People are visually very heavy so they can often balance a lot.
Here is another similar idea. Should the skier be even smaller in the frame but still balance the big mountain behind him.
Let's look at this in reverse. Here is an unbalanced shot. The castle is cool and interesting, but there is not much in the picture otherwise.
A few minutes later a boat went up the river. Now we are on something. The small moving boat is enough to balance the giant, old castle.
You can also balance a single object that has a great weight with many objects that have very little visibility. Here the stars in the sky balance the big Joshua trees. The smaller trees also balance the large tree.
Perhaps the best example of asymmetric balance is not from photography, but art. Michelangelo Adam's Creation is wonderfully balanced: Adam and Earth have the same vision as God and the angels.
Unbalanced or dynamic images
Remember that balance is just a tool in your composition toolbox. There are also other things like leading lines, limited color palettes and much more. This means that not all your images have to be balanced. Unbalanced images tend to have excitement, dynamism and a sense of activity.
Just look at this photo. Will jumps into a black abyss. This gives a sense of speed and drama to what he does.
Or take this shot of Santa Monica Pier. Will the sky and sea balance the bridge? Maybe, but I probably wouldn't say it. Instead, we get this dynamic sunset shot on the bridge that extends into the sea.
What I think is what I try to convey. If you want solidity and stability, go with a formal balanced image. If you are looking for something more dramatic that still has the balanced look, try some asymmetrically balanced compositions. Or if you want something tense and dynamic, go with an unbalanced image.
Play around: Which composition you go with may not work, but you can end up with something wonderful! And in any case you learn something on the road. There are very few rights or errors here.