Harmony, Balance, Dominance, Tension, Proportion
Harmony : The 'Rule' of Thirds, the Golden Section, The Golden Ratio
These ideas, relating to geometrical harmony, are explored fully in the links below:
In simple terms, the 'rule of thirds' (of course, it's merely a guide) is a broad concept (a simplification of the concept of the golden section) helping the photographer achieve a composition that is pleasing to the eye and more dynamic than the common misconception that the centre of interest should be placed in the middle of the frame. Imagining the rectangular image (for example, a 3:2 ratio, length to height) to be divided into thirds vertically and horizontally, a useful guideline is that the point (or points) of interest should be placed roughly at an intersection of these lines.
One of the internet authors linked above, puts it this way:
Too often, photographs have their subject placed smack in the middle, making the image look dull and uninteresting. A simple shift in composition can change all that. The Rule of Thirds is probably one of the cardinal rules of composition. Mentally divide your viewfinder or LCD screen into thirds, using two vertical and two horizontal lines to create nine smaller rectangles and four points where the lines intersect. It has been repeatedly shown that by placing objects over these intersections, a pleasing and balanced arrangement often results, whether the composition is horizontal or vertical. When an image's centre of interest is placed at one of these intersections, balance in the picture can often be achieved by placing a secondary object (known as a 'counterpoint') at the opposing intersection.’
The pairs of images below illustrate the point.
This principle has clear implications for landscape photography, for example, advising that the horizon should not be across the middle of the frame but either one third or two-thirds up the frame (of course a more extreme version – say with the sky forming five-sixths – or one sixth – could produce a dramatic and visually interesting image). If the sky lacks interest, then it should be minimized.
In order to understand harmony, we also need to look at related concepts of dominance, balance and visual tension. I rely greatly on Freeman Patterson (Photographing the World Around Us’) in the following outline.
Dominance or Centre of Interest
As Freeman Patterson (Photographing the World Around Us’, p57) points out, dominance usually means that some aspect of a composition influences the entire composition more strongly than all other aspects – often called the ‘centre of interest’ . It may, Freeman explains, be dominant because of its size, colour, location, symbolic value – or any combination of these – and ‘it acts as a point of visual emphasis or rest, giving a sense of order and stability to the composition’. Obvious examples would be portraits that are very tight in and fill the frame.
While a dominant element has clear advantages – for example, it is very clear what the subject is – it may well mean that the image is static and to create a sense of dynamism or movement, an element of visual tension – a secondary object or shape - can be introduced to (mildly) compete for attention.
Not all images benefit from a centre of interest – and Freeman points out that some can be spoiled by having one – particularly if all parts of the subject matter, when viewed as a whole, form a pattern or texture that is – taken as a whole – more interesting than the individual parts of the image.
Visual Weight, Balance and Tension
Freeman Patterson clearly describes these concepts.
‘Every visible object [in an image] attracts attention by its tone [how light or dark it is], colour, shape, size, location …………….. The degree to which it attracts attention is known as it’s visual importance or weight. Competion for attention between objects of similar or differing weights, called tension, keeps our eyes constantly moving so our visual experience is dynamic. Photographers ….. control tension by the way they balance objects and spaces (shapes and lines) within a picture space. Good balance usually means taking advantage of tension without letting the visual pull of any one object get out of control’ ( Photographing the World Around Us’, p62).
‘At the heart of composition lies the concept of balance. Balance is the resolution of tension, opposing [visual] forces that are matched to provide equilibrium and a sense of harmony. It is a fundamental principle of visual perception that the eye seeks to balance one force against another. Balance is harmony, resolution, a condition that intuitively seems aesthetically pleasing’. (The Photographer’s Eye’, p40)
Freeman uses analogy based on the physical world – gravity, fulcrum, levers, weights. Starting with a blank sheet of paper, adding one thing (object, shape, line, colour, tone etc) to one side will create an imbalance – the aim (in composition) is to find the visual centre of gravity.
Balance can be achieved through symmetry. In a symmetrical image everything is organized around the central axis, either vertical or horizontal. Each side of the image has an identical visual structure and visual weight. Symmetrical images tend to be static and orderly and are suitable for many architectural and interior detail images.
Most images are not symmetrical and several factors come into play in helping to create balance. On scales, a larger object can be balanced by a smaller one if the smaller one is far enough away – so a smaller object need the edge of an image can balance a larger one near the centre.
‘Balance’ of course is not just a matter of left/right balance in regard to a centre-line when viewed horizontally; it also relates to foreground/background vertically and an image may be divided unevenly horizontally or vertically by strong lines in an image (windows, doorways, columns). Various factors are relevant – dark tones have more weight; large shapes have more weight; objects in focus have more weight than ones that are soft; objects near the edges of the frame have more pull; some colours have more weight than others (for example warm colours more than cool ones and saturated ones more than desaturated ones).
An element of balance is perhaps generally desirable – and the photographer should certainly know how to recognize it and achieve it – but there are no simple rules, and a well-balanced photograph can be very dull and static. Freeman says that ‘eccentricity’ is the opposite pole to symmetry and while the brain may search for balance it doesn’t like it handed on a plate – interest in an image is in direct proportion to the work a viewer has to put in to make sense of it.
‘Dynamic tension’ is where there is a deliberate attempt to create movement of the eye rather than creating a ‘restful’ image – one way is to have lines and/or diagonals moving outwards from the centre.
Proportion is closely related to balance – being concerned with the relative size of objects to picture space – and Freeman Patterson suggests that it has an enormous capacity to influence our understanding and to generate feelings about an entire composition and its component parts. For example, depicting a tree, or church, on the top of a hill with much of the image taken up by a big sky, will produce a sense of isolation – or depicting a small single figure ploughing in a vast landscape may convey much about the struggle for existence in the face of nature.