When we speak of balance in composition, it’s not always an easy concept to grasp. Some elements pull more weight than other elements, and depending on how they are placed within the image, the perception of balance can change. It’s a pretty abstract concept to discuss, especially when it comes to balancing concepts that are as equally abstract: Like Color. The balance in a photo like Oyster Cove (also available via Flickr), which was created by Dante Fratto, isn’t always obvious. So I’d like to take a few moments to explain why this photo works so well compositionally.
The photo is a landscape photo of a oceanic bay, essentially a saltwater marsh. The scene not only features the colorful flowers, but also the colors of the setting sun. The simplest aspect of this composition is the horizon, which is set a little above the center line to give focus on the flowers in the foreground. While the sky is beautiful and it contributes greatly to the composition as a whole, it is not the primary focus of the photograph. The horizon’s position within the photograph is the first clue to the viewer as to what they should be observing: The flowers have the lead role here. Now things get a little tricky. It’s very easy to think of things in terms of masses based on how we – or more accurately, our left brain – would classify them. If we were to follow that line of thinking, the “elements” within this photograph would be things like land, sky, flowers, water. Our brain may even try to lump the land/water and flowers into one large mass. But we can’t let that happen. Likewise, we can’t think of each flower as a single component either. So let’s think of things in terms of tonal qualities or color groups. If you have trouble thinking in that way, try flipping the photo over, or squinting with one eye or hold a piece of wax paper over it (a trick from the old days). We have the yellows/oranges, the grays/purples and cooler greens. Thinking in those terms only, how does the shot balance?
There is a swath of grays and pale purples that cut laterally through the frame which includes the wispy flowers and the narrow band of sky along the horizon. Above it you generally have the warmer yellow and orange tones that gets paler as you o upwards. Below, you generally have cooler greenish tones. If you can image each as an abstract stroke of the paint brush, you would see that there is already balance in the shot. That simple composition is interesting. But Dante’s composition also features the contrast of a warm yellow tone – a bright splotch of yellow flowers – roughly a third of the distance from the bottom and left side of the page. Based on color alone, there is balance because the weight of the warm sky is balanced by this patch of yellow. The contrast of the mid-tone swath of grayish purple both separates and holds these elements together.
Balance is important in any photographic composition. But balance can be achieved in many ways and a photo does not need to balance through all possible methods. In the case of Dante’s photograph, the physical elements within the shot may not balance in and of themselves, but the colors and tonal qualities of the photo do balance, so balance is therefore achieved overall. As an observer, your brain probably picks up on this even if you’re not consciously interpreting it the same way. You may simply like the composition but not fully understand why. And that’s okay because your brain is wired to know what it likes whether or not the reason is known. But as a creator of art, it’s important to know that you can appease the brain through other compositional methods. Dante’s tonal and color balance is just one option.
Dante Fratto is a photographer from southern New Jersey and spends much of his time shooting in the greater Philadelphia area. It’s really difficult to pin Dante down to any single genre as he excels at so many, including portraiture, photojournalism, landscape, architectural and street photography. In addition to his Google+ presence, which is where we found Oyster Cove, you can find him on Flickr. He also has a personal website for his work.