The concept of ‘visual weight’

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Heavy, but with light inside bits. Translation: transparency

We acknowledge that every medium of expression has its strengths and limitations relative to others. Yet our basis for discussion and understanding of concepts and ideas is very much a written/spoken language-based one, this remains our benchmark – more so when the concepts become more complex and less intuitive – or the opposite, so simple and basic they’re entirely intuitive and not at all logical. There are of course severe limitations of language when it comes to describing the visual properties of expression and composition, yet it’s usually easy for us to see when something isn’t quite right. Why, how, and what do proportions, weight, balance, composition and aesthetics have to do with each other? Is there a somewhat more objective way to handle these concepts? I’m not certain, but today were going to try.

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Dark, impenetrable shadows: overall, heavy. That degree of contrast outdoors requires a lot of sun, which we expect to be bright, and light.

Ideas to do with luminance are easy to express: bright and dark refer respectively to the presence or absence of light. We in turn make other conceptual and emotional associations with those quantitative properties: there’s a sense of clarity, intensity, purity, simplicity, happiness etc. associated with light scenes. Dark scenes can translate anywhere from mysterious to elegant to oppressive to dangerous. Where, exactly, an image lies on this continuum depends very much on other properties: color, subject matter, spatial arrangement and composition. When an image is fairly uniform in luminance across the entire frame, we do not really perceive one particular area as being more prominent than anywhere else – however, since this is almost never the case in reality, there always remains one or more isolated areas that attract view attention – they break pattern, are different in luminance, and thus higher in contrast. It’s the contrast that attracts our eyes, more than anything else – but I am at risk of digressing into the physiological nature of vision.

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Dark, but we can see through it: light.

But when this distribution of luminance is particularly uneven across the frame, then we have a very strong attraction to one particular portion of the composition. If the area we are being lead to contains the intended subject of the image, then the photographer has done his job well and the audience is looking where they are meant to. Of course, if this is not intentional, then something isn’t right: we now have a balance problem because there is more in one part of the composition attracting us than another. That strong attractor is the beginning of the concept: the stronger the attraction, the heavier the visual weight. The less attraction we feel, the lighter the visual weight.

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Neutral; but the people are dark/heavy against the light wave. Resulting attention concentrates here.

Visual weight in itself isn’t quite as simple as a direct translation of luminance, unfortunately. It’s also heavily affected by color, contrast, and to a degree, subject matter and perceived spatial position. Something colourful is far more attractive to us than something monochromatic, but that’s not to say it’s ‘heavier’, or ‘lighter’. A red dot on a white background would be heavier than the same sized red dot on a black background, but the red is still lighter than the black. Shadows aren’t necessarily heavy, either – if there’s a little fill in the shadows from an ambient reflection and the shadow itself is not totally black, we think of it as having some air or some lightness to it. One isn’t better than the other – we can be attracted in both directions – to the heavy, and to the light. I believe it depends very much on background and context.

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Light, because of the cloud and twilight implied by the artificial lights. But not that light because the cloud is intensely pink: it’s the very end of the day.

To complicate things further, there’s also spatial frequency. I really don’t think there are any hard and fast rules here, either: a solid color can be either heavy (think big black shadows) or light (think blue sky). In this way, an image that’s of one dominant tone or color can itself be heavy or light, but specific areas within that image may well vary. But so can something a bit more detailed: the fine filigree of a distant wrought iron fence would probably be light; repeating bands of a skyscraper may be heavy. Here, I think what creates the differentiation is expectation: if we think something should be dark, and it appears brighter than expected, we think of it as being light. If it’s darker than we expect, then it’s heavy – and some process of averaging comes into play when we are dealing with objects of high spatial frequency.

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Dark, but the flame is very bright and spills across – so it’s still a neutral (but not light) image.

Confused yet? Don’t be. I do believe that instinctively we tend to have a feel for both balance and weight in an image – and if not, try to look at a photograph without bias or intent as much as that is physiologically possible – just see where your eyes end up, and then only take note of the subject matter. Is it what was intended? is it something of interest? Or does it not possibly look as though the isolated area could have been intentional? The images in this post have been selected deliberately because they’re examples of where we’ve got a decisive heavy or light overall image, or specific areas within that carry weight despite the average of the image being mostly neutral. They’re examples of where overall visual weight can be used to create a particular impression, but also where one can control local weight to create the desired underlying structure to the composition, and thus dictate to some extent what order in which the image is intended to be read or interpreted by the audience.

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Light, because there aren’t any shadow anchors

In one’s own photography, it’s possible to sort out balance issues by simply moving the camera away from the area that’s unintentionally attracting attention; you stop when the opposite side has enough area and visual weight to counterbalance the previous distraction. These areas in the image then simply cancel out, leaving your attention directed back to the centre of the frame. Sometimes, this may not be possible for any number of possible reasons; perhaps there’s an element that you need to include for completeness of the story, or perhaps you can’t pull out any wider. In those cases, we may need to resort to post processing to change the local contrast and brightness of just part of the frame to reduce its visual weight (to make something less prominent, generally by reducing contrast and/or saturation) or increase it (generally by increasing contrast and brightness).

I’ve always thought of a frame this way: it’s a flat sheet balanced on one point, which is your subject; in order for the eyes of your audience not to exit the frame – the sheet imbalances itself falls off the subject – all of the other objects must be distributed about the frame just so to be balanced; however, there’s more than one way of creating balance depending on the weight of the masses at your disposal. It also helps to perceive these elements as abstractly a possible: how prominent are they? Don’t consider what they actually are/represent, providing they’re pertinent to your story (or at least not distracting). Time to balance the scales…MT


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  1. Great article, as always. Minor point: typo (I think) in first line: should be “every” vs “even”.

  2. “It’s a flat sheet balanced on one point, which is your subject”
    This has really made me think about composition in my images…thank you so much for your blog which inspires and challenges and the same time. I am also really appreciative of all of the commenters who continue the discussion….I am trying to get my head around all these different aspects!

    Peter Nutkins

  3. I meant light or heavy.

  4. I think the mood of the picture comes into play when I classify it as light or dark. So a Rembrandt self-portrait from his younger days, when he was something of a dandy, is lighter than one done in his later years, when time and tragedy had taken their toll – even though the palette and style of the two paintings are nearly the same.

  5. I’ve found your method of abstracting a scene at time of capture to be one of the most effective methods for improving my composition. E.g., step 1) disengage emotion from the scene, step 2) observe the weight of the scene (highlights, shadows, color, the gravity these elements create and their respective balance), 3) reflect on scene by re-engaging ones emotional sense from step 1, step 4) capture. This process, however, reduces my ability to focus on the decisive moment (see folder kids > expressions > memorable). There seems to be no better option than to simply carry a camera at all times in hopes of getting what I wants : P

    • Thanks – oddly though, I discovered it by taking off my spectacles. But – it’s now become pretty much reflexive, so I still focus on the the details and the gestures/ timing etc…do something enough, and eventually it becomes a background habit that you don’t need to consciously think about.

  6. Hi Ming
    I am not sure that weight is a worthwhile separate attribute for reviewing composition including balance, the trouble is I can not explain why. My guess is that I just see it all as balance and not a separate visual attribute, it is just one way to describe balance for some images.

    Regardless, if something looks right for an image, there always seems to be several way to rationalise composition/balance/weight simply because it feels right. For me, I have seen too many rationalisations for compositions (in particular for balance) that try to come up with new Newtonian like laws. I just give up on analysis, and go with gut feel whenever I start thinking in literal analogies it feels like I am testing for ‘the rules’.

  7. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Thanks for yet another great posting, Ming. You know my friends in France (Pascal, Philippe etc) and you may know their views on “harsh lighting”. Living in Australia, I’ve had to live with “harsh lighting” most of my life and have developed a fairly intuitive approach to handling it. Actually, to USING it. All based, I imagine, on trial and error – too late to go back and analyse it all now.

    But for the first time, thanks to your article, I can see there are clear guiding principles as to why it can work – for example, why you can make it work when others seemingly can’t – and what to take into account to make it work.

    • I like harsh lighting – shadows are necessary all the time, I think. It’s just a case of how to make them look natural or at least transition smoothly at either end – really no different to any other scene. Mostly it’s a case of always ETTR, but compose for your final intended exposure (since composition and exposure cannot be independent as different exposures change what’s visible).

  8. Enjoy your blogs Ming….I read all of them and forward them to a couple of friends. They are very good photographers.
    Have you ever used the Fujifilm x100t. Thanks Ming….Best to you and family. John


  1. […] in pure spatial balance; I didn’t see window or roof or wall so much as shapes of a certain visual weight that needed to be offset by other spatially opposed shapes of equal prominence. I felt them best […]

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