Georges Seurat was an incredibly talented Post-Impressionist painter, one of the great masters of the art. His famous quote, “Art is harmony,” contains an important truth: the goal of any composition is to create balance and harmony. But let’s step back for a moment of definition: by balance I don’t mean pure symmetry or an even spacing of elements within the image frame. Rather, the artist is looking for something that creates dynamic balance, a harmonious union of energetic visual elements. So to paraphrase Seurat, “Art is dynamic harmony.”
What do I mean exactly by dynamic balance? Well, dynamic balance is achieved when a composition succeeds in keeping the eye engaged in an image, getting the eye moving around and visually interested in the photograph, but at the same time not leaving the viewer feeling awkward, uncanny, or otherwise confused by the composition.
With few exceptions, good compositions will almost always exhibit dynamic balance. Even compositions with huge amounts of visual energy will not work if the overall result does not seem balanced, harmonious, and natural. The trick is to learn to use spatial arrangements to create an unforced balance of visual elements which nonetheless still maintains a sense of vibrancy and energy. Combining visual power with artistic harmony can sometimes feel like balancing an elephant against a feather. How to do this, of course, is a complex subject discussed in great detail in my eBook Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition. Today I’d like to focus on one important element of this overall puzzle: dynamic spacing.
Although it is often important to make sure that elements aren’t unduly “bunched up” together, the flip side of this—an even spacing of elements—can often lead to static, boring compositions. Why is this so? One way to think of it is as follows: even spacing can lead to too much symmetry, which can create a balanced composition but one that lacks energy. Although symmetry is not necessarily a bad thing (it can sometimes be very pleasing), as a general matter is makes sense to find ways to break symmetry in order to introduce energy into a composition. Remember, our goal with every composition is to create dynamic balance—harmony combined with energy.
There are several ways to approach this problem of spacing of visual elements, three of which I will discuss here with examples from my recent trip to Namibia. All three seek to strike a balance between energy and harmony—although each strike that balance in a different place.
1. Stagger the spacing of elements
One simple way of solving this problem is to simply stagger the spacing of visual elements. So, instead of even spacing, you have spacing which is somewhat uneven. This is a technique I used in the image below. I choose a position which staggered the spacing of these dead trees in order to create a more dynamic composition. Notice, however, that there is an overall symmetrical spacing of the most prominent trees. The staggering comes from some of the secondary background trees, especially the tree placed in between the V-shaped branches in the right half of the composition. Just a few asymmetries help add energy to this composition.
“Dance of the Dead”—Dead Vlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Zoom Lens for Canon, ISO 100, f/18, 0.5 seconds.
2. Make some objects bigger than others
For the composition below, I used a more or less symmetrical spacing of elements (although the spacing is not entirely even, as the distance between the center bird and the birds immediately to the left and right is slightly greater than the distance between the background birds on either side). One way of breaking this symmetry was to make the middle bird larger than the other birds—here, this was accomplished by the middle bird being closer to the camera than the background birds. By making the middle bird more prominent, I was able to break up the balance and symmetry that might have resulted had all five birds been rendered at an equal size. This compositional anomaly automatically attracts the viewer’s attention, making the central bird the focus of the composition.
3. Break symmetry some other way
For the photograph below, I used an even spacing of elements, and each element is also roughly the same size. The result is less dynamic than the two images above. Still, I managed to incorporate some energy in this composition by the asymmetrical postures of the three ostriches. So, although I created a composition with balanced instead of dynamic spacing, the different poses help keep the image from being static.
P.S. The three locations where I took the images above—Namib-Naukluft National Park, Dorob National Park, and Etosha National Park—are among the many stunning places we will visit on my 2014 Wild Namibia Photo Tour (which I co-lead with Richard Bernabe). Hope to see you there!