Understand Visual Balance
What I talked of early, a little bit about the physicality of light, trying to imagine and projecting in your imagination, where that light shape is, where the edges of it are, how we can position the subject in that shape of light, I really do think, when I look at my photos, I think about the physical weight of it. I'm like, "Is this leaning left? "Does this feel too heavy on the right?" And I'm really thinking in terms of the actual, physical weight of something. I know I'm speaking in a metaphor, but I really try to internalize which area is drawing my eye, and I almost feel like that's how I make my decisions about what to get tighter on or what to allow more room around. Like a lot of things in photography, it feels like mathematical, geometric, a little geometry equation that I'm trying to work out with every frame I take. Or for frames that end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because I can't find a way to balance them. If there's just way too much weight on one side ...
of the image, I'll either completely crop it out or look for a different frame that has a little bit better sense of balance. And, it's funny, a couple of millimeters in a crop can make a difference. And it's funny, one of the things I really try to do is minimize the amount of distractions in my images. Let's say that I took a street photograph and there's a traffic cone on the far right edge, you just bring that crop in a little bit more and you'd be so surprised at what a few inches can do. Just by cutting out that one distracting element, it completely changes the way that your eye moves around the image. I've included in this presentation some of my all-time favorite shots I've got. Mostly candid New York City street photography, but also I'm going to tie it back in to portraiture, like we did in the lighting workshop this morning. This was, to me, a tough one to balance, because this is a candid shot. They have no idea that this picture was taken, but there's such a story there for me. And, ideally, I wanted them right dead center in the middle of the bridge, but then the light wouldn't be right behind them. When I was deciding to crop this in, I just made these little micro-adjustments, so the bridge isn't exactly in the center, but neither is the subject and those push and pull against each other. As a sum total, I find this image to be a well-balanced image, if that makes sense. I think there's some easy pitfalls to avoid. I've had some great advice from mentors and people I've looked up to as I was learning photography, and they told me a few things that really stuck with me. One of the things that I think is a common mistake is not understanding overlaps. Let's say you were taking a picture in the forest of somebody. Be conscious of what's in the background, right? It's better to put them in a gap between two trees, as opposed to have a branch coming out the side of their neck, because when you go to look at that image later, it's going to be very distracting to your audience if there's some interruptive lines happening. And you'll see that lines are one of the main elements of composition, that the eye just naturally traces lines. We're just designed to see the world that way. If you have a lamp post or a sign coming out of someone's head, that's going to be very distracting. And I'll just show you an example of what a difference that can make. In the image on the top left, is my friend Madeline. I had her in front of this light post and then I didn't even realize that light post was so close to her and it's really distracting. So then I had her move a little bit over to the right and that, to me, is a much better composition. One of the reasons is because when we have this interruptive thing, first of all, it's very close to the color of what she's wearing. It's hard to tell where one thing ends and the other begins. But also, it interrupts this beautiful shape that we have here. When we're thinking about composition and continuity of your lines, having this interruptive thing right there, this makes a huge difference to have her nicely tucked into this little visual frame. Not only are we looking at our subjects, also looking past your subject and understanding and in front of your subject, too, and this works with foregrounds, too, as you'll see, but I'm balancing her in that frame behind her, so I'm very aware of what's in the background and very aware of what's in the foreground and where the subject lies in that layering. It's probably a matter of personal opinion, but I prefer the bottom right composition. Not that I hate the top one, but I think the bottom one is the one I'd choose out of these two very similar images. Another thing that is just another little trick that just seems to work is, be very aware of where the edges of your frame are. And I'm going to actually add to what I said here. Generally, you want somebody looking into the frame and not out of the frame. So when we do our live demonstration, I'll show you the difference between those. But, basically, whoever is observing your work is, people are curious, right? If you're looking off the side of a frame and there's all this room on the left, the viewer has a story in their head and they're like, "Well, what's going on over there?" But if you're looking into the frame, it's a more composed and whole scene. People follow other people's lines of sight. When I'm in New York and I'm taking a picture of something, people will get behind me and be like, "What is he looking at?" We follow other people's lines of sight so people are going to follow the line of sight of your subject. They should follow it into the frame and not to the edge of the frame that's right there. I'm just going to show you a really simple example of that. This is the same exact image, I just cropped it two different ways to illustrate a point. The point here is that, I think on the top left, that's a very distracting composition. And on the bottom right, it's a much more complete image. There's this circle that is self-contained and, here, it just doesn't do it for me. It doesn't contain itself in the frame. That just is an innate tip, that these two are much better, much more balanced image, I think, if you have this circular gaze. This is another pet peeve of mine when I see photographers that don't do this, unless it's very intentional. When we observe the world around us, we have certain expectations. One is that there's true horizon lines, that there's a level and that we have true verticals. So there's a lot of 90 degree angles in our world, and that's something that we're comfortable with. Your brain automatically levels everything, right? Even if this floor is a couple degrees off, this is a horizontal plane to you. When you're forced into somebody else's perspective, which is basically what looking at a photograph is, your brain isn't making those same adjustments. So if you post a photo and it's a tilted horizon line, you're forcing somebody to see the world like this, right? Because your brain doesn't automatically make that correction like it does in the real world, which is an interesting phenomenon. I'm very hyper-conscious of making sure that there's strong, 90 degree angles. For example, it works great with water. Because if you have a picture of the ocean or a body of water, a lake or something like that, and it's tilted like this, your expectation is that all the water is moving this way. It really happens in your head where you're like, "Something's not right about this." So I'm very hyper-aware of my horizon lines. I try to make them as flat as possible, as level as possible and then I look at my vertical lines right here, because if all the buildings are shooting up to the right, that's just a very distracting way to present an image to somebody, because they don't have the benefit of being able to make that readjustment in their head. Be very aware of how you're presenting the world to somebody. If something's properly aligned, I think it's more like looking into a world than if you're looking through something skewed. That's like looking at someone's photograph. I don't know if that makes too much sense, but that's just how I feel. I'm very careful about all that. As an example, this shot up on the left, and then the same shot, but just with a perspective correction on it, and that to me is a terrible photo, only because it's rotated. And then this one to me is a whole scene, where you can explore and let your eyes move around the entire frame. And I know that might seem obvious, but even a slight off-axis photo can be very distracting and take away from the actual purpose of the picture.