Four Ways to Create Balance in Landscape Photography

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The path to a strong composition is not always clear in landscape photography, and at times can be the most challenging aspect of the craft. Since you can not physically alter the landscape to create your own vision, you as a photographer rely on your skills and creative techniques to control how the landscape appears through the lens. This will often push the limits of your abilities, which can simultaneously be the most rewarding for your creative development.

Below I discuss four versatile methods you can use to create a stronger composition, and all of them stem from one very important concept – balance.

A stormy sky breaks up over Pumpkin Island on a late autumn evening, as seen from the western coast of Little Deer Isle, Maine.

Finding Balance

By knowing how to adjust the balance – or weight – of an image, you can greatly improve the composition of your landscape photographs. The impact balance has is oftentimes subliminal –  a landscape image can be noted as being successful or powerful, but the “why” is not always obvious. Each focal point contributes to the overall composition of a photo, and when the weight is shifted between these points, it redirects the flow and harmony – which can produce an entirely different result.

lagoon

When I write of “weight”, I refer to more than the obvious strong focal points within your frame that are easily identifiable – for the above image, those would be the guard shack, fence and sunset sky. The ability to use the less-apparent negative space to counterbalance a strong subject is a powerful tool for composition, and one that can greatly improve the impact of your image.

Using negative space to counterbalance a strong focal point is a powerful way to create balance.

With no identifiable focal points other than the focused leaf, I used the foliage backdrop to serve as negative space, which helped to balance out my composition.

Many landscape “rules” of composition stem from your ability to create balance – foreground interest is a good example to illustrate. The idea of composing your landscape with a strong focal point in the foreground provides a point of reference against whatever backdrop that your image may possess, and can also act as a strong anchor point – something else to look at besides the mountain range, sunset sky, or other points of interest that draws attention from the eyes.

Foreground interest helps to balance the power of an imposing backdrop.

Foreground interest is a method landscape photographers use to redistribute the weight of an image – to place a focal point in the frame that can counterbalance the magnetism of another. It provides more interest, and encourages the viewer to look at other elements in your frame rather than just one – in other words, you’re creating a flow between the focal points for a more harmonious composition.

There are several ways to change the weight of your focal points. By utilizing the methods described below, you can learn how to alter the appearance of your landscape by shifting the weight and balance, which can improve the strength of your composition.

 

1. Focal Length

The focal length of your lens can contribute much to the overall impact of your image, and can greatly affect your balance. The ability to tighten your composition and focus on a small part of the landscape, or alternatively widen the borders of your frame and include more of your surroundings, can be a versatile tool for creating your composition. However, the focal length you choose can affect your balance in another way.

The weight of the focal points in your composition can be shifted by the apparent relation they have to one another. Your focal length can alter this relation substantially by compacting and exaggerating the distances between each point. Longer focal lengths can compact these distances, while wider focal lengths exaggerate them.

Focal length can affect the perspective and distance of your composition.

A longer focal length will compact the distance between focal points.

I captured these two sunsets on the same evening, and of the same location. For the top photo, I used a focal length of 24mm – which put much distance in between the foreground grass, the middle ground lighthouse, and the distant sun. However, when I switched to a focal length of 85mm for the bottom image, you can see how larger – or heavier- those focal points became by condensing the space between them.

If you want to change the balance of your image – that is, to lighten or increase the weight of a certain focal point – an adjustment of your focal length can help tremendously.

 

2. Perspective

While the focal length can alter the depth of your image from front to back – exaggerating or compacting the apparent distance between the foreground, middle ground, and background – your chosen perspective can also redistribute weight of your focal points. In particular, the height of your camera determines how much of a landscape you’re able to capture within one frame. Lower perspectives can increase the depth and drama – making foreground elements appear larger, and background focal points appear smaller. Additionally, a lower point of view can include more distant layers of interest in your composition that would have otherwise been excluded if you framed your focal point from a taller vantage point.

The perspective can change the weight and balance of a landscape photograph.

My vantage point here was quite low – only inches above ground level. This perspective allowed me to include the sky and sun within my frame, and also added more depth to the image.

 

3. Aperture

Your depth of field has much to do with the overall balance and weight of your image, and the aperture you choose can greatly change how light or heavy your focal points appear. In particular, you can selectively choose which focal points have more weight by bringing them into sharp focus, and reduce the weight of other elements by obscuring their appearance.

The Maine coastline has many wooded paths that lead to the Atlantic waters, and this snow-covered trail on Deer Isle opens up to the crashing waters of Eggemoggin Reach.

Click here to read more tips on how to use your aperture creatively in the landscape.

 

4. Shutter Speed

Your chosen shutter speed can drastically alter the appearance of moving subjects in your landscape, which in turn can redistribute the weight and overall balance. By purposefully lengthening your shutter speed, you can smooth the texture of otherwise heavy focal points – such as clouds, water, or wind-blown grass. This can create a harmonious relation between focal points for a more balanced composition.

Long exposure photo of the ocean at Reid State Park after Hurricane Earl - Georgetown, Maine.

Long exposures can quiet an otherwise busy image, and allow you to redistribute weight onto smaller focal points which would have been overwhelmed by a fast shutter speed. It’s minimalism being used as a way to create balance.

The photographer features below provide more examples of long exposures in the landscape – more specifically, how the weight of otherwise minor focal points were drastically increased:

Håkan Strand

Spencer Brown

Having a heightened awareness to the weight of your focal points will help you create a more balanced image for a stronger composition. When you analyze the focal points in your image critically, you can find ways to counterbalance strong, heavy subjects with other elements in your frame. Alternatively, you can adjust your composition to lighten the weight of those strong focal points, and redistribute the balance more evenly.

The landscape is a subject that we have to search for compositions rather than create them ourselves. By simply being aware of the weight of your focal points and how they interact with one another, you can begin to identify ways to shift the balance and create a stronger composition.

The methods above are simply outlines that can be the source of inspiration. They offer a boundary to work within – a starting point that can lead you down a path you haven’t traveled before, which can spark entirely new ideas of your own fruition.

Click here for more tips on composition in the landscape.

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  1. maria thereza de barros camargo

    O’Donell, you’re the best. Congratulations. As much as you want to see, yo’ll see, if you really want to.

    from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    • Reply
  2. Lorna Worrie

    I absolutely love your photos

    Jamaica, West Indies

    • Reply
  3. Pat davis

    Thanks for this artical, Chris, I find it very clear and will utilize your tips in my future landscape compositions !
    Cheers, Pat

    • Reply
  4. Pam Travellin Penguin

    Just continuing to learn photography tips preparing for buying this an SLR digital/manual camera. Enjoy your tips and especially enjoy when you post two photos to compare such as the light house. Really gets your points across. Hope to see more of this. cheers, Pam

    • Reply
  5. Jocelyne

    I always read your articles with great attention. Thank you for explaining all this, it’s very helpful ! I have bought 3 of your e-books and I can’t wait to start reading them. You are among my favourite photographers, I absolutely LOVE your photos !
    Have a great week-end :)

    • Reply

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