There’s a term photographers use when discussing the finer points of framing and composition. For many, it’s absolutely critical to making your photos interesting and well-designed. That term is “visual weight,” and it’s everywhere you can find it once you notice it’s there. For example, the red jelly bean on the right carries more visual weight because it stands in stark contrast to its surroundings. Let’s figure out what it is and how you can use it to improve your composition skills.
A strange sensation
How can the things we see have any kind of weight when they aren’t actually present? Psychologists have another special term for this. They call it synesthesia. It’s what happens when one sensory system triggers another. In this case, your visual system is giving you a distinctly kinesthetic feeling. It is as if you can feel the elements in the scene.
Our visual weight system works by assigning a psychological form of “heaviness” to different things we see. There are few general rules that determine how much weight gets assigned to any particular element in a scene.
- Large = Heavier. Bigger things tend to be heavier and more attention getting. They get a bigger heaviness score by default.
- Dark = Heavier. Darker objects seem heavier, especially when the rest of the scene is relatively light.
- High Contrast = Heavier. This is similar to the above rule. A high contrast subject will draw attention to itself. It has more visual weight. Like the jelly bean above.
- Complex = Heavier. You can give something more weight by turning it into a large aggregate of smaller things. Your brain naturally groups them together.
- Light Colored = Lighter. The less saturated a color (like sky blue), the less visual weight it has. You need a lot of it to balance out the heavier elements in a scene.
- Actually Heavy = Heavier. I know it seems like such an obvious thing to say, but if something actually weighs a lot, it gets more visual weight too. A barbell can sometimes command more attention than the arm that is lifting it.
- Interesting placement = Heavier. Objects placed in the corners or about 1/3 into the frame automatically have more visual weight due to the rule of thirds.
I know that seems like a lot to memorize right now, so just don’t. Here’s the beautiful thing about visual weight. You know it when you see it. Sit back, observe a photo, and let your senses guide you. What part of the following image has the most visual weight?
So, is it the red rock on the left? Is it the pile of rocks on the right? If you know me, you know it’s a trick question. Neither element has more visual weight. If any of them did, it wouldn’t be a very good photo. This brings me to my next point.
It’s all about balance
Just like the above image is a balancing act, so is your job as a photographer. Different parts of a scene will have more or less visual weight depending all of the above factors. In this image, the bright red contrasting pebble has the exact same visual weight as all of the big black rocks on the right side combined. Put everything together, and the image balances out.
By “balance,” I mean a very specific thing. Visual balance has to do with what your eye does when you look at a photo. If your eye is too attracted to one part of the image, it tends to get stuck there, resulting in an uneasy feeling. The image won’t seem interesting because you will literally feel constrained by the lack of balance. Take a look at the following image, and think about what’s wrong with it.
There are a number of issues. First, the house is the biggest object in the scene. It gets +1 heaviness for that. Second, it’s a totally different color from everything else. Another +1 heaviness for the high contrast. Third, it’s actually pretty heavy. It’s literally bulging forward. Let’s add +1 to its heaviness score again.
Making things worse, the foreground is too bright and overexposed. Remember, lightness takes away from visual weight. So the foreground is basically at -1 right now.
Put it all together, and you’ve got a difference of 4 visual weight units (totally arbitrary, I know). That’s pretty substantial. In fact, it’s the reason why your eye brushes right past the people walking down the street. You hardly even notice they are there because you just can’t take your eyes off that big house.
It almost makes me wonder if Michael did that intentionally, just to truly convey the sense of heaviness. If so, then job well done!
Balance and composition
You can create all kinds of interesting images just by playing with visual weight. Simply remember that every “heavy” element needs to be balanced out by something with the same amount of visual weight. Where you place things matters too. The same element, when placed about 1/3 into the frame, has a little more visual weight than an element placed directly in the center of the frame. Don’t ask me why. It’s just the way our brains work.
Are there exceptions to this? Yes there certainly are. If you follow the rule of thirds and place your most visually heavy element somewhere about 1/3 into the scene, you can almost never go wrong. That’s because it creates an automatic visual balance. As long as the rest of the scene doesn’t have too much visual weight, you can get away with whatever you want. It’s not an exact science, but it works most of the time. It’s the reason why the rule of thirds is so effective.
I'll leave you with a question. Do you think the below image is balanced? If not, what has the most weight and why. If so, what makes it balanced? Write your answer in the comments below.
Visual weight is a hidden and very powerful composition tool. Once you know it exists, you can’t stop seeing every image in its light. I strongly recommend a little extra reflection the next time you frame your shot. Ask yourself, “does it balance?” If it does, you’ve probably got a winner.
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