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Emerald Pool Falls, Zion NP, Utah

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 9 April 2011 in Landscape & Rural.


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I'm sure you have all heard the term visual weight - right? Any study of art (from any period) cannot be complete without at least a rudimentary discussion of elemental weighting within the borders of a frame.

I like to think about building a composition. Generally speaking, our eye is drawn to a subject and light. That is what the composition needs to be about - at least as a starting point. Problems generally begin when we start adding more and more elements to the scene - an easy formula for allowing too much clutter. Usually this is not intended (kind of like walking into a candy store - how do you stop at just one piece)?

But if we can keep our compositions simple, our resulting images will have more impact. However, within this simple composition, one must be mindful that all elements carry visual weight and this weight must be balanced or our image will seem, well, out-of-balance.

I like to think of a composition as a rectangle sitting atop a balancing scale. If I add something to the left side of the frame, I must counter it with something on the right side. Generally speaking, dark tones (elements) carry more visual weight than lighter tones (elements). An exception to this is a crescent moon, which my teaching partner and friend Gary Hart points out (and I agree) carries significant visual weight for such a small element.

In today's image of these two small falls emanating from Zion National Park's lower Emerald Pools, I needed to balance the heavy (darker toned) sandstone alcove with the brighter (lighter toned) falls. As you can see, the falls received more space in the frame. How did I determine this? Intuition and feel. That's right, there is no magic calculator out there for balancing elemental weight within our frame. I believe each of us has our own built-in balancing calculator. What we need to do as photographers/artists is trust that feel for balance.

Go back and look at some of your less-than-successful images. Chances are you may not have paid attention to visual weighting. Don't confuse visual weighting with symmetry (these are two completely different terms). A successful asymmetric image still must be visually weighted to succeed. Also, don't confuse physical weight with visual weight - it doesn't translate when discussing art, if it did, this sandstone cliff would outweigh the water by at least a 1,000,000:1!

Next time you are in the field, think about every item in your image as a separate element. As you add an element, find a complimentary element to balance it. Build your image slowly and thoughtfully. It may seem unnatural at first, but learn to trust your inner sense of balance and soon it will become a very intuitive process.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/60 second F/16.0 ISO 100 42 mm

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