One thing the new photographer hardly thinks about and even advanced photographers often miss, is the sense of balance in a photograph. I probably don’t need to define “balance” for the term is (or should be) easily understood by the novice. Simply put, balance in a picture means just as the dictionary means the word to mean. The lack of balance results in awkward leaning or lopsided effect. I won’t go into the nuances but will keep to the fundamentals.
Consider two kids on a playground see-saw. Up and down, up and down. As long as both kids are of similar weight, they balance. If one is significantly different in weight, the sew-saw is unbalanced and one kid will be on the ground while the other will be hopelessly stuck up in the air. Not fun for either kid.
So we can have pictures where it looks like if we hung the picture on the wall, even if in a proper frame, it would seem to us like the picture should of its own, be constantly tilted off centre. We could straighten it but as soon as we left off touching it, it would fall to one side. Now of course the physical print and frame won’t do that, but visually it would seem cock-eyed or off kilter. Visually it would just seem wrong.
Sometimes we can look at a picture and there is something we just can’t put our finger on but it just has that “not quite right” look. It may be a pretty scene or a portrait of a loved one, or a wildlife or whatever and of itself it may be attractive but something is just not right. Very often the element which is off is balance.
The tendency of many photographers, especially beginners, is to carefully place the subject safely in the centre of the frame. No adventure, and no risk of getting it wrong. Place it with equal background or supporting scenery all around it. And, I agree that for many subjects that may be the best place to place the subject. Smack dab in the middle.
That creates a static image. There is no sense of movement nor “tension”. The picture is very balanced, but it may also be a little boring. It’s safe and as the old saying goes, “you can’t go wrong”. If you want to create a little “interest” in your composition, it’s a good thing to move the subject around and see what happens.
The following picture illustrates how balance can be achieved without using the default practice of putting the subject right in the middle.
The natural inclination was to place the bird right in the centre of the frame. When I did that, with the crook of the branch above the bird off the frame, it did look off kilter. Even though the bird was centred, it did not give me that impression. It looked like it was falling off the left side. Not the bird specifically but the bird does not stand alone within the image. The stick is part of the subject. Obviously had I cropped differently, I could have ended up with an entirely different situation to deal with. I wanted the bend in the branch to remain in the picture because it adds a little more “natural interest”. So I moved the subject a little more to the right and now the picture looked balanced. Equally divided, so to speak.
Now I have another element visible. The little twig coming into the frame from the lower left. A “rule” we generally like to follow is to remove objects from a picture which may either prove to be a distraction, or which is not important to the subject composition. Under other circumstances I would have cloned out the little twig. Actually, knowing that I really wanted it in the picture, I experimented with removing it. Wrong move. It somewhat spoiled the balance I had created.
What helps justify the presence of that twig, and perhaps if you will spend a little time studying and thinking about the composition of the picture, you will see it. Look at the line created by the twig and the line created by the short branch of the fork the bird is perched on. Both of these lines are parallel and the mind will continue the incomplete visual line right up the the upper right of the picture. In fact the twig coming into the frame from the left creates a line which though invisible, creates an impression of a continuous line running up the upper right which will exit the frame about equally on the right side to the exit of the visible branch on the upper left.
So putting your subject smack dab in the middle of your frame is not always the best thing to do if you want your pictures to have a sense of action and not be static or dull.