Visual balance

Olmsted Point is one of my favorite easily accessible locations in Yosemite. I enjoy it for the different (from the more common Yosemite Valley angles) view of Half Dome, the range of wide to tight composition possibilities, and for its many foreground options. I visit Olmsted Point a lot, both on my own and with workshop groups. It’s where we shoot the final sunset of my Eastern Sierra workshop, which is how I ended up there two weeks ago.

Before arriving I knew the waxing crescent moon would be quite high that evening, but standing there on Olmsted Point’s granite I saw a wide vertical composition that would form a triangle connecting the moon, Half Dome, and Cloud’s Rest. Going that wide meant that the moon would be quite small in an otherwise empty sky, but I know from experience that even a very small moon carries enough “visual weight” to support a significant portion of the frame.

In my previous post I talked about distilling a scene to its essence through the use of color, shape, light, and line. Usually these essential qualities define or in some significant way affect physical objects such as a tree, a rock, an iconic landmark, or the moon. The (subjective) difference separating a snapshot from effective artistic expression is coherent assembly of these compositional elements. Among other things.

Also important is avoiding distractions and balancing the frame. Which brings me back to this tiny crescent. Volumes have been written on artistic composition. While I won’t deny their validity or function, my experience has been that many aspiring photographers get so bogged down trying to follow photographic canons like the rule of thirds and leading lines, that they fail to trust the instincts that are the true source of creativity. For that reason my training avoids prescriptive instruction in favor of intuitive concepts.

As much as many aspiring photographers would like a composition formula that dictates where to locate each element in their frame, successful composition ultimately comes down to feel. The last thing I check before clicking my shutter–after I’ve identified the general composition, determined depth of field, eliminated distractions–is the sense of balance in the frame. To explain photographic balance I use a  term I call “visual weight,” which I define as any object’s ability to pull the viewer’s eye–think of it as gravity for the eye.

If you’re looking for a formula, you’ve come to the wrong place because an object’s visual weight is subjective and determined by the viewer. Visual weight can be a function of the object’s size (or not), brightness (or not), color (or not), shape (or not), or position in the frame (or not). Imagine a rectangular plane perfectly balanced horizontally on a fulcrum–to maintain its equilibrium, any added weight must be counterbalanced by a corresponding weight elsewhere on the plane. Visual weight is the virtual equivalent: Imagine your frame (or print) balanced on a fulcrum; any visible element that pulls the eye tips the frame from horizontal (makes it out of balance) and must be counterbalanced by an element with corresponding visual weight.

So what does all this have to do with a tiny moon’s ability to balance a frame? I thought you’d never ask. Visual weight defies quantification because it’s mostly a function of each viewer’s perception: The largest component of visual weight is an object’s emotional tug. Years of photographing the moon whenever possible and in any phase, has caused me to realize that to most people few things in nature have a stronger emotional tug than the moon.

I was once told by a magazine that moon images don’t work because they’re too small (a misconception they’ve since corrected)–if I’d have stuck with “conventional wisdom,” I’d have never followed my instinct to shrink the moon with wide compositions, and in the process discovered that they do indeed work. And if I hadn’t tried to understand why I’m able to get away with a tiny moon, I’d have never attempted to comprehend and define visual weight. I suppose the most significant message here is more than the concept of visual weight, it’s to never let conventional wisdom trump your instincts.

That evening on Olmsted Point I was already pretty pleased with my results when Mother Nature punctuated Cloud’s Rest and Half Dome with pink-fringed clouds, just as the setting sun bathed the scene with its last light. It’s these little gifts that make memorable moments feel like magic.

4 Comments on “Visual balance

  1. Hi Gary, I am sure that others may have told you this same thing, but there is a luminosity here that is amazing….And I really think that that tone, that colour, if you will, also adds to the balanced weight of the image. The tone is spread throughout …each element has a bit of that tone. Everything is “balanced” partly, i think, because of that luinoous glow seen throughout, and what that does to the mind and imagination…. Not sure if I am making sense here, but the scene is as bouyant and captivating as anything I have ever seen! Finally, I think that intuition really plays a huge part in developing balance in a composition…and man, you have the intuition!!….I’m still working on it 🙂 This is beautiful Gary, Just beautful !!
    And your written text is masterful so very valuable, as always. All the best sir! Denny

  2. Pingback: (More) Tunnel View magic | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  3. Pingback: There’s no whining in photography | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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