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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

10 ingredients of great landscape photos part 8 - ensure balance

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Welcome to the latest installment of my new series where I introduce you to my guide to 'The ten ingredients of great landscape photos'. I hope that over this series I will be able to bring you some insight on how you can learn from my experiences and take some practical steps to improve your landscape photography.

Did you miss the previous editions of this series? If so, you can find them here:

The chart below summarises what I believe to be the ten main ingredients that go into making a great landscape photo. In this edition, we look at the power of balance in creating a compelling landscape photo.

A model for taking great landscape photos, by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Ten ingredients of great landscape photos

So, what is balance?

Balance in a photo is a hard concept to explain, but experience of showing students photos and asking them if they are balanced, suggests that most people can intuitively recognise whether a photo is well balanced even if they can’t explain what balance means! To be honest, taking balanced photos is something that I've developed as an instinct over the years, and developed the skills to recognise it even before I had heard of the term!

Balance is all about organising the key elements in your photo so that they have equal visual weight, with none of them being too dominant, and is strongly correlated with how other composition techniques have been used within the image. But it’s more than just the arrangement of the elements in your photo, as it can also define the feeling that your photo conveys to the viewer.

In a balanced image, all of the elements in the frame are cohesive and work together to give the image a sense of harmony, calm and peace. This is usually what we are trying to achieve with landscape photography. However, an unbalanced image can evoke feelings of uncertainty or tension; so, creating an unbalanced image can therefore be used intentionally if this is the story that you want your photo to tell.

An example

As an example, consider the three different versions of the photo below. This is a photo of the Kennick reservoir on a stormy summer’s day. In it I have used the bank of flowers as foreground interest and to add a foreground layer to the image (without which the photo could have looked a little ‘flat’). But how much foreground to include to create a balanced image? To decide, let’s consider the ‘visual weight’ of the foreground element, I.e., the visual dominance of the foreground element, compared to other elements in the photo (the foreground flowers, the lake, the headland and the sky).

Image 1: This is the original image. With hindsight I feel like the foreground is a little too dominant compared to the other key elements (the lake, the headland and the sky). Partly this is the area of foreground that I’ve chosen, and partly because the pops of white of the flowers make the foreground more dominant. As a result, I don’t feel this image is well balanced.

A landscape photo of a stormy summer day on a Dartmoor lake by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Image 1

Image 2: In this version, I have significantly reduced the size of the foreground element. In this version I feel that the foreground is now not dominant enough, and other elements now dominate too much, especially the sky. Again, this image does not feel well balanced.

A landscape photo of a stormy summer day on a Dartmoor lake by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Image 2

Image 3: Here I have chosen an amount of foreground somewhere between image 1 and image 2. In this version, the visual weight of the foreground element is similar to the other elements (a similar area to the lake and headland, and although it’s smaller overall in area than the sky element, the greater dominance of the pops of white in the foreground means that the visual weight is similar). It’s interesting to note that the diagonal of the top of the foreground element now approximately goes through the bottom right intersection of the rule of thirds grid; demonstrating how the composition rules can be used to help you achieve balance. To my eye, this is the most balanced image of the three images. What do you think? Balance can be rather subjective, so do you agree with my analysis? Let me know your thoughts!

A landscape photo of a stormy summer day on a Dartmoor lake by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Image 3

Other aspects that affect balance

So, let’s look at some of the aspects of an image that can affect the balance (other than the relative weights of the main elements, covered above):

Symmetrical balance: Symmetrical balance is the easiest way to ensure the balance of an image (and the easiest to understand!). By placing an mirrored object in the entre of the frame, both sides of the image have equal visual weight and the image is therefore balanced. Symmetrical balance is a great way to emphasise the main subject and produce images with a calm and peaceful vibe.

A landscape photo of reflections on a Dartmoor lake by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Symmetrical balance

Asymmetrical balance: This uses different elements on opposite sides of the frame to balance one another. In the image below, the rule of thirds has been used to place the two elements (the tree and the church) on different sides of the frame, their visual weight balancing one another. Although the church is smaller than the tree, it’s visual weight is enhanced by it being brighter, and having the hill beneath it. Asymmetrical images are harder to achieve than symmetrical ones, but can produce beautiful and pleasing images.

A sunny spring evening at Burrow Mump, Somerset by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Asymmetrical balance

Colour balance (asymmetrical): For colour balance, you need to have areas of neutral colour and bright colour in balance. As bright colours have more visual weight, less of the bright colour is needed to balance with the neutrals. So, imagine the light brown tones of a dry summer moorland landscape and adding a red barn roof to the middle distance; the addition of a pop of bright colour would add a focal point, but could also produce colour balance within the scene.

Tonal balance (asymmetrical): Tonal balance is all about the balance between the light and dark tones within an image. It can best be seen in black and white images but applies to colour ones too. Darker tones and colours have more visual weight than lighter tones and colours, and therefore less of them are needed in an image to achieve tonal balance.

Conceptual balance: This is all about idea and meaning, rather than the actual physical elements in a photo. An example might be an urban subject on one side of the frame, with nature on the other side, so that conceptual balance is achieved through the contrast between man-made and natural world.

Want a learn more about my ten ingredients?

I now use this model of landscape photography to shape my photography training, and my training courses consistently get fabulous reviews on Google. So if you're a beginner photographer who is local to East Devon and looking for training in photography, check out my range of 1-2-1 training courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my weekend photography courses -either my beginners landscape photography workshops for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography workshops for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.

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