There are two types of balance in photography: formal and informal. Understanding both and knowing how to do it is an important part of the composition. Let's in.
Balance was part of the composition long before the photograph. It is an integral part of most Renaissance paintings. It is also a somewhat slippery concept. It is based on an idea called "visual weight" that is intrinsically a metaphor. The idea is that different objects in a scene all have a different visual weight. People, colorful objects, high-contrast objects and unusual motifs, for example, have a high visual weight. Other things like large areas, sky, water or ground have a low visual weight. The only way to get it under control is to see it in action and play around with it.
Formal or symmetric balance
Formal balance is symmetry. Here the frame is split vertically or horizontally in half, and both sides receive the same visual weight. Look at this portrait.
It is essentially perfectly symmetrical along the vertical axis.
Both sides of the picture have the same visual weight. There is nothing that draws our eyes to one side or the other of the picture.
Here's another portrait in which the model is again central, so it's pretty symmetrical.
And another one
As you can see, the formal balance can work well with portraits. There is a sense of serenity, sincerity and solidity. I deliberately used the formal balance in the following shot of a Soviet statue in Transnistria, because I wanted it to feel like it had stood for years – ever since.
The formal balance is pretty easy to grasp: set the topic in the middle. Let us come to the delicate concept of informal equilibrium.
Informal or asymmetric equilibrium
Informal or symmetrical equilibrium: Here, the image is aligned by juxtaposing objects with similar visual weights, rather than balancing everything symmetrically. Let's look at some examples.
In this photo I have enough visual weight to balance the mountains and clouds. You still have an idea of the scale, but the picture does not feel empty. People are visually very heavy so they can often balance a lot.
Here is a similar idea. Will, the skier, is even smaller in the frame, but still balancing the huge mountain behind him.
Let's take a look at the other way around. Here is an unbalanced shot. The castle is cool and interesting, but otherwise there is not much going on in the picture.
A few moments later a boat passed the river. Now we have something in mind. The small, mobile boat is enough to balance the gigantic, old castle.
You can also balance a single object of great visual weight with many objects of very little visual weight. Here the stars in the sky balance the big Joshua trees. The smaller trees also balance the big tree.
Perhaps the best example of asymmetric balance is not photography but art. Michelangelo's creation is wonderfully balanced: Adam and Earth have the same visual weight as God and the choir of angels.
Unbalanced or dynamic images
Remember, balance is just a tool of your compositional toolbox. There are also other materials such as guides, limited color palettes and much more. This means that not all images have to be balanced. Unbalanced images are prone to tension, dynamics and activity.
Take a look at this photo. Will jumps into a black abyss. This gives what he does a sense of speed and drama.
Or take this shot of the Santa Monica Pier. Sky and sea make the pier in line? Maybe, but I probably would not say that. Instead, we get this dynamic sunset shot of the pier poking into the ocean.
What matters to me is what you try to convey. If you want solidity and stability, choose a formally balanced image. If you're looking for something dramatic that still seems so balanced, try asymmetrically balanced compositions. Or, if you want something exciting and dynamic, choose an unbalanced image.
Play around: Whatever composition you use may not work, but you might end up with something wonderful! And at least you will learn something along the way. There are only a few rights or abuses here.