Balancing the Picture

Before you push the record button, you need to ask yourself, "How can I maximize the impact of this shot?"

Too many videographers in television never ask that question. Flipping on almost any newscast, you can see the results of "point-and-shoot" news photography. Shots are framed for a subject with no regard for the rest of the picture. A photographer's eye should be trained to look at the entire frame and all the visual elements within it, not just what initially attracts our attention while looking at a scene.

Too often balance is thought of in terms of being centered, or using symmetrical balance: having the same amount of space on all sides of the subject. Much of the time this is not the case. Balance is far more complex than that. Often, asymmetrical balance makes a better composed image: having objects of different sizes, contrast, and so on balance the image. Imagine two elephants balancing on a seesaw. They are symmetrically balanced; they have the same shape, mass, weight, color, contrast, line, and texture on both sides of the fulcrum. Now consider a balanced seesaw with an elephant on one side and a mosquito on the other. Obviously, the mosquito must be much, much farther away from the fulcrum to balance the elephant. The two sides of the image have different mass, weight, and so on; yet, the seesaw is balanced—asymmetrically.

As we learn in lighting, a little of something can go a long way. A very small but bright object can upset the balance of a picture quite easily, but can also be positioned to add balance to a picture. While there are some basic rules that can lead you to balance the composition of elements within a frame, there is no substitute for what your eye tells you as you look through the viewfinder. Some arrangements just feel better than others when you look at them.

Frame Dynamics A well-designed garden maze ensures that anyone seeking the center has to make several circuits before finding that center, and then search for an exit once there. A well-designed picture should do the same thing. It has one entrance for the eye, one main subject, and several points of departure away from it. There are three basic patterns to the movement of a viewer's eye:

  • Circle: The classic symbol of unity forms the simplest compositions, allowing the eye to circle the image
  • Pyramid: The eye starts at the bottom left, traverses up to the pinnacle, down to the right corner, and finally back to the left to complete a strong and unified composition.
  • Irregular shape: Allows the eye to move in a dynamic and asymmetrical flow, adding energy and tension to the image.

Western culture has programmed our eyes always to start from the left side of any scene. In theater, the left side of the stage is said to be the strong side for entrances. That does not mean that side of the frame is where the subject should go. The eye starts there, but your composition can take it to wherever the subject is in the frame. It is also possible to have the eye start in other places. The white foam of an ocean wave can catch the eye first and then send it to the surfer on that wave. (See Figure 1.) Frame16Fig 1, The white foam and large curvy wave catch the viewer's eye and then direct it to the vertical surfer on the wave.

Lines As we have seen with the vanishing point, where our attention is directed to the point of convergence, lines can play a very large role in leading our eyes. Diagonal lines create vitality with their implied movement. The eye is drawn to anywhere in the frame where two lines cross or one line suddenly changes direction (e.g., a corner). An isolated vertical line, such as a tree, pole, or even a standing person, is noticed first in the picture and takes precedence over Frame17Fig 2. A lone vertical element-the beachgoer-dominates the picture, intersecting with the horizontal element-the ocean's waves and horizon line.any horizontal or diagonal lines in the scene. (See Figure 2) To achieve a pleasing composition, a horizontal line must cross this vertical element at some point. When a vertical line is not interrupted, it simply splits the screen, creating two disconnected sections of the frame.

Color A very important tool in the design of a frame is the color of elements within it. This can be a difficult task for the videographer using a black-and-white viewfinder, though color viewfinders are found on most cameras today. A red rose may stand out as the dominant element in the frame when viewed in color, but in the viewfinder it may be next to impossible to pick it out in the field of grays. In the absence of a color viewfinder or screen, a shooter needs to use one eye to see color and one to look through the viewfinder, combining the two versions to realize the actual outcome of the video. Composition includes giving weight to brighter colors.

Videographers should also know the concept of complementary colors, or contrasting colors. A color stands out moreFrame18Fig 3. This simple color wheel can be created easily by writing the three primary colors of light, RGB (red, green, blue), in a triangle, and then writing the three secondary colors, YMC (yellow, magenta, cyan), in their respective places between the primary colors in an inverted triangle. vividly in relation to its opposite. Continuing the example of a red rose, this flower is seen most vividly when set against cyan elements in the shot because cyan (blue-green) is the opposite of red. A simple way to remember contrasting colors is to create a quick color wheel. (See Figure 3) When you shoot an object, such as a rose, note its dominant color, such as red, and then look for ways to set that object against elements with contrasting colors, in this case cyan leaves or flowers.

Frame19Fig 4. Use of the Rule of Thirds makes this sailboat and seascape a balanced picture. The sea is in the lower third of the frame, the boat is at B2, and the open sky is at A1Rule of Thirds This very important principle of image composition provides an easy way to frame objects by using a nine-square grid as an overlay to the picture. The concept, called the rule of thirds, divides the screen by thirds vertically and horizontally. (See Figure 4) It is based on the ancient Greek discovery called the golden rectangle, or as Da Vinci called it, the divine proportion. An accurate golden rectangle has an aspect ratio of 1.618:1 (the Greek letter pi, is used for the number 1.618). That ratio is found by dividing the longest side of the rectangle by the shortest side. A true golden rectangle is more like the aspect ratio of a movie screen. Today's high-definition television has a movielike aspect ratio of 16:9, or 1.778:1. This is wider than the old NTSC TV aspect ratio of 4:3 (1.333:1), allowing wider image composition.

As you look at any composition, fit the elements of the scene into the grid, positioning them on the four intersections of the lines. Try this idea with a sunset and a very flat horizon, such as the ocean or a large field. You'll find that long or tall objects, such as the horizon line and maybe a telephone pole, look better lined up along the lines of the grid and not centered in the spaces of the squares. You'll also find that smaller objects like the sun look better placed at the intersection of the lines.

Figure-Ground One way to organize the elements of the frame is to use the concept of figure-ground, figure being the main visual element or subject of the picture—the shape that you notice first—while ground gives it the context in which to exist. Figure can only exist with a ground on which to place it. You cannot see figure and ground at the same time. Photographers who point and shoot run afoul of this concept all the time. A figure is any element in the frame that achieves prominence over the rest. By concentrating on just the element you want to be the subject of the shot, you cannot see the entire frame—a version of not seeing the forest for the trees.

The best example of this is the infamous tree positioned so it comes perfectly out of the top of someone's head. In another version, a lamp or other object sits atop the subject's hair. (SeeFrame20Fig 5. The subject is composed well in relation to the leading lines (sides of the bridge), but the lamp is positioned so it becomes part of the figure instead of the ground, appearing to stand atop his head. Figure 5.) In these cases, sometimes called dimensional mergers because the foreground and background dimensions "merge" in an often humorous way, the photographer is so focused on the subject that the other aspects of the frame are literally not seen. But the viewers are not concentrating in the same way; they are just discovering the shot and see it first as simply figure and ground. The lamp and head appear to be one continuous form. Signs can work the same way. If they are too large or too overpowering in the shot, they become the figure and the person standing in front of them becomes the ground. This is not effective communication.

It is easy to control figure within ground just as you would any object you wish to highlight. Through lighting, color, focus, position, and so on, you determine which object will be figure and which will be ground, despite the complexity of the shot.

Balance A balanced shot is one in which the elements within the frame are at equilibrium with all the forces of the frame. And there are many. The frame is like a scale; elements and groups of elements have visual weight determined by size, shape, contrast, direction, or just plain interest. Large dominates small; a black bean dominates when seen in a group of all white beans; a regular shape such as a circle dominates within a group of irregular shapes; and certainly a snake sliding across the floor dominates any picture regardless of composition.

Balance is determined by two factors: the visual weight and the visual pattern's direction of movement. Position in the frame has a lot to do with an elements' relative weight. A large object near the center of the screen can be balanced by a small object close to the edge of the frame. Objects at the center or on the vertical centerline of the frame have less weight than the same object at the sides of the picture. A face in the left third of the screen can be balanced by look space or lead space in the right two-thirds of the screen (assuming the person is looking screen right). An element at the top of the frame is heavier than when it is at the bottom. Because of our left-right conditioning, an object on the left side of the frame has greater visual weight than one on the right side. A picture can be balanced by total symmetry, but these compositions rarely hold visual interest; they are boring. By using a more dynamic framing scheme, such as asymmetrical balance, the rule of thirds, and figure-ground, combined with the concepts of eye movement, you can design an image that holds the viewer's interest and therefore imparts more information.

The movement, or irt 5llermovement, within the frame is the other prof the balancing act. Converging lines create movement to the point of convergence. Your eye follows a curved line in a field of all straight lines. One of the most important movements with which you will deal in video is the movement created by the human face. The direction in which a person looks or walks creates a very strong movement in that direction; it is a force that needs to be neutralized in some form within the frame, usually with lead room—empty space in the two-thirds of the screen in front of the person.