October 25, 2021

What makes a photo composition successful? Part I: Symmetry & Balance

By Lars Gesing
What makes a photo composition successful? Part I: Symmetry & Balance

This is the first part in a six-part online photography tutorial and education series teaching you how to create great compositions with any camera and how to quickly start to improve your photography. Want more content like this? Click here to sign up for my free "Art of Seeing" newsletter.


If you’ve ever taken one of my in-the-field photography workshops in the American West and have sat through a series of what makes a good photograph image critique sessions, one thing you will have heard me talk about again and again and again is this: When it comes to producing impactful imagery, if you want to understand how to improve your photography compositions, you have to make sure that your compositions are balanced.

This is all about symmetry.

See, photography draws heavily on the concepts of design. And the human eye has always been drawn to symmetrical designs. Why do you think we love looking at mountains and trees so much? Because we subconsciously see triangular shapes, something our brain responds to positively.\

But simply knowing that we can find elements of symmetry everywhere in nature is not enough. Once you start photographing those scenes, you also have to understand the balance that lies within symmetry. Did you ever look at a tilted triangle where one of the two bottom corners was lower than the other? It just looks out of whack, the balance is off.

So next time you go out and photograph a mountain, I want you to pay close attention to checking the symmetrical and balanced arrangement of elements in the frame. 

A photograph of Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming to show the importance of triangles and symmetry in photography for a series of free online photography instruction and tutorials teaching you how to become a better photographer and how to create better compositions for landscapes.

Here are three practical tips to do that:

  1. Make sure that you get as level a triangular shape of the mountain as possible, meaning the entry/exit points of the mountainsides on both sides of the frame should be as level as possible (to illustrate this point, I’ve added the grid lines in Photoshop to the images in this post).
  2. Check your arrangement of elements in the frame. You want to make sure that the elements are evenly arranged. Don’t have most of your area of interest pushed against one far edge of the frame, or the eye will see this image as unbalanced and most likely look away.
  3. While the Rule of Thirds (placing your subject into the left or the right third of the image) can help you with achieving a balanced composition, don’t be afraid to break this rule, either. If you’ve gone out to photograph with me before, you know that I am not a big fan of “rules” in photography. There are certain guidelines, but especially when it comes to trying to create symmetry in an image, who is to say that placing a mountain and its reflection smack in the center of the frame can’t work?

Symmetry is defined as “the quality of being made up of exactly similar parts facing each other or around an axis.” When you look for compositions, look for that axis, and place your subjects around it accordingly. See how this image evolves around two axises?

A photograph of Mount Crested Butte in Colorado to illustrate for a free online photography tutorial instruction series of what makes a good photograph and what makes good compositions in photography, drawing on the concepts of symmetry rather than the Rule of Thirds.

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