Project: Dividing the frame – Balance

Exercise 6: Balance

“Balance is the resolution of tension, opposing forces that are matched

to provide equilibrium and a sense of harmony”

M. Freeman, 2007, p. 40

This links with the gestalt Law of Simplicity – the mind prefers symmetry and balance.  However, Freeman makes the point that providing equilibrium isn’t necessarily the job of art or photography (p. 41). The challenge is to show how much tension or harmony to create. Another comment he makes is that symmetry is not necessarily satisfying,  is not particularly common in views that a photographer is likely to come across and, therefore, it can be appealing if used occasionally (and I would add – creatively).

Another aspect to consider is that symmetry has to be absolutely precise otherwise the balance of the photograph is upset. On the other hand, an unbalanced composition creates visual tension and is more dynamic and, therefore, can be more interesting.  It makes the eye and brain work harder.  The challenge is to provide just enough tension and, to me as a viewer, that depends whether I find the subject interesting or perhaps unusual enough to work at it.  Oddly enough, and I don’t really know why, as I’m writing this I keep thinking of how we arrange objects on windowsills or tables.  My husband and I have occasional skirmishes where I make one arrangement, which he then changes slightly to another.  We also disagree at times on how a photograph should be cropped if that seems necessary.  This is where individual process comes in.

At first, when contemplating this exercise, I was tempted to look for photographs which would meet the balance of two unequal objects; maximum symmetry or symmetry about one axis.  I decided not to do this but to choose photographs where I hadn’t thought they were ‘good enough’ to put on Flickr for whatever reason.  I thought there would be more learning in this for me, at the risk of feeling even more de-skilled. I drew the lines on the photographs and then scanned them in which has changed the colour somewhat.

No. 1

To me this is a grouping of unequal objects where they are balanced because the larger set on the right is closer to the centre and the smaller set is nearer the edge of the frame on the left.  As a photograph it would have worked much better if the post had not been there because it intrudes into the eye and, now I see, looks as it it’s getting in the way of the boat in the foreground.

No. 2

Lines are radiating here (but to slightly left of centre) and I see triangles.  There is also a contrast between tones – the darker tones of the rocks and paving; green grass, green foliage on trees and pale roof, and then slight colour in the people on the top left, with lighter foliage.    I’d be interested to see what effect moving the axis to the centre would create – less heavy rock but I don’t know what is on the left.  I’m going back there next week and will try to remember to have a look and take a different photograph.

No. 3

I see a division into unequal thirds.  The swans and ducks take up a larger portion of the image.  The prow of the boat intrudes rather than balances.

No. 4

There are triangles here radiating from the top of the arch. The wings; head; breastplate, and knees of the bird woman also form triangles. The breasts of the other two statues and the orb between them balance these. However, the birdwoman is the dominant shape because her wings give more width, as do her pigtails.

This photograph is pleasing to my eyes, as was the sculpture which is over the doors of one of the large buildings in the City.  I think it’s to do with the androgynous aspect of the birdwoman, (who looks more like a squaw bird), with a plump-lipped pout and  the flattened cones on her breastplate simulating breasts, against bony knees (and the orb between her legs?), which look masculine. Contrasting with this are the two classical, and definitely female sculptures on either side.   When I think of it that way it’s like an almost asymmetrical balance between male and female. I wish I could remember now what the building was so that I can find out more about the sculpture. *

No. 5

There are more elements in this photograph, which make it more complicated. I think the gangway and the cruiser are more dominant and extend beyond the centre of the frame , backed by the distant form of the Houses of Parliament. They are balanced by the  landing stage with the height of the millennium wheel in the distance.

No. 6

Here there are two blocks of unequal objects.  The trees on the right, with spreading branches, take up most  (around two-thirds) of the frame. Their dominance is softened by the light shrubs in the right foreground; the more feathery aspect of the branches of the lower tree, and also the downwards slope of the treetops.

I then looked at the photographs on page 38 of the Workbook.  To my eyes, in  ‘On Sussex Downs’, Frederick Evans has achieved balance through the tones between the sky and the path which breaks up the heaviness of the land mass.  In ‘Farmyard, Thuman, Colorado, 1969’, Robert Adams has composed the photograph so that  the lines of the telegraph pole lead the eye both down  and along.  The telegraph pole provides a point just left of centre which links the tree and outbuilding together. The eye can wander between all the elements without tension – at least mine can – and it looks restful.  Cecil Beaton’s photograph of ‘Quintin Hogg, QC’ (and what a character he was!) is simple in composition and achieves balance between the two unequal elements of man at desk and bowler.  The door handles and catch also provide a balancing aspect.  I have a sense that if they weren’t there this photograph would be less visually pleasing.


There are many different aspects of composition, which contribute towards balance or asymmetry.  Sometimes I can look at a photograph and know it isn’t quite right somehow and completing this exercise has helped me to distinguish some of the reasons why.

4th March 2011

* ps – Re Image 4 and the sculptures. Corinna of Hairy Goat Ltd informed me that  the sculpture is in Lombard Street and the building used to house an insurance company.  The statues represent the risks from fire and sea so that the statues on each side actually hold symbols such as a flaming torch and a caduceus- common symbols on buildings housing insurance companies.  Corinna described the middle statue as a harpy (winged woman).   This helped me to do a bit more searching.  It’s at 2, Lombard Street which used to be the Royal Insurance Building and the sculptor was Francis W. Doyle-Jones. The statue in the middle has also been described as a semi sphinx, with wings, representing the uncertainty of the future.  I lean more towards ‘harpy’ because they were said to appear out of nowhere and grasp you with their talons.

I know this is nothing really to do with the exercise but It gives me a sense of completion – the Gestalt law of Closure.

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