Composition, Balance and Visual Mass

Black and white photo

In previous articles I wrote about the concept of balance in relation to the colours orange and blue, and in relation to composition in the square format. Today I think it will be interesting to explore the concept of balance in relation to photographic composition in more depth.

Central composition

Black and white photo

This is a portrait that I created with a central composition. There are a couple of interesting things going on here. One is that the composition is virtually symmetrical. One half of the image is a mirror image of the other, with a few variations. In this case, that reinforces the sense of balance created by the central composition.

What happens if we crop the image to move the girl’s face off-centre, closer to a third? Let’s take a look. Here I’ve cropped it to the 4:3 aspect ratio:

Black and white photo

Do you see the difference? In this example the eye is encouraged to move around the frame more by the off-centre composition. Placing the girl’s face off-centre has created a more dynamic composition.

The first version is about balance, the second is about being off balance and adding a kind of tension to the image. The subject is the same, but one simple variation in composition creates two different effects.

Tonal contrast

The portrait is also an interesting study in tonal contrast. The light tones of the face and scarf contrast with each other. Roughly one-third of the image is made up of light tones, and the rest dark tones. What we’re looking at here is an example of what some photographers refer to as visual mass. Light tones pull the eye more than dark tones. Therefore, to create a balanced image, there needs to be more dark tones than light tones. If the ratio was around equal, the image wouldn’t feel so balanced.

This is what happens if we crop the portrait to a square. The ratio of light to dark tones is about even. But the sense of balance between dark and light tones in the original has been lost:

Black and white photo

Here’s another example of balancing the visual mass between light and dark tones:

Black and white photo

Now, here’s another example to illustrate the same concept:

Black and white photo

The photo is split into three bands. The strips of dark tones at the top and the bottom are balanced by the band of light tone in the middle.

There are other ways this image is balanced too. The mountains occupy the bottom part of the frame, and are balanced by a large expanse of stormy sky. The mountains have more visual mass than the sky, therefore the photo benefits from having more sky in it.

The telegraph pole in the bottom right third is the focal point of the image. It has a lot of visual mass, assisted by its placement on the thirds. The visual mass of the telegraph pole is so strong that even at this small size it is balanced by the rest of the image.

Finally, an image with a composition that at first glance seems to be at odds with what I said earlier about tonal balance:

Black and white photo

In this image, the light tones of the salt flats are balanced by the brooding dark tones of the mountains and sky in the distance.

The thing about visual mass and balance is that they are difficult concepts to condense down into rules like the rule-of-thirds. Every scene is different and the best composition may depend as much upon your intent (ie. would you like a balanced image, or a less balanced one with more dynamic tension?) as it does upon the subject.

One of the best ways to improve the composition of your images is to read as much about these concepts as you can, absorb them, and then compose according to ‘feel’. Does the image feel right when you look through the viewfinder? As your understanding of composition improves, so will your photos.

Mastering Photography

Black and white photo

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

Composition, Balance and Visual Mass

It’s Not Always Sunsets and Kittens: Photographing the Tougher things in Life

Not every shoot I’ve done is full of lollipop promises, cute matching (but not too matching) outfits, and happy families throwing their kids up into a perfect blue sky with puffy cloud dreams. In fact, typically the ones that didn’t, are among the most important pictures I have ever taken. The ones that there are no road maps for, no instructions, and no cheat sheets. Several years ago I photographed a beautiful wedding of a young couple deeply in love on a perfect July day. I shot the wedding, went home, and put those images at the bottom of my “waiting to be edited” stack. Which is where they stayed until I got a random call that the groom, a police officer, had gone missing in an attempt to save a young girl who had almost drowned in a fast moving river. For three days rescue teams searched for him, until they found his body a day shy of his and his new bride’s first month anniversary.

I Googled everything I could think of in an attempt to edit the images, perfectly and quickly with poise and professionalism, as I knew that they would now would hold a gravity beyond what I could have ever imagined when I shot them. I found nothing-no road map, no instructions, no guide for this massive task I had ahead of me. Instead I holed up in my office for a weekend with a bottle of scotch and a case of tissues, emerging in time for them to be delivered to his bride at his memorial service. Those images are now locked in a vault of sorts for me professionally, and I can only hope that by now they perhaps bring an amazing and strong woman great comfort and lovely memories of a beautiful day in her life.

Photography is a very powerful thing. And having the ability to do it is an incredible gift. Not all tough to photograph events will be dire, but do photography even just as a hobby for long enough and you will find yourself in situation beautiful in it’s complexity and the images you take poignant beyond words.

This is a picture of my dear friend, her son, and her son’s birth mom. It’s out of focus and isn’t properly exposed. The kid is wearing a Captain America costume and was feeling especially “spirited” on this day. It is all of the makings of disaster. Yet it is one of my favorite images and incredibly important to both myself and the people in it. A picture doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be amazing. Sometimes it’s just you being in the right place at the right time, hauling a camera in tow. Sometimes it’s a matter of you being invited to something very special because you have been trusted to document it. What a beautiful responsibility that is. Sometimes it’s not about the where and the how you do it; it’s about that you showed up and did it. The pictures you take may turn out perfect. They may not. Either way, they will be treasured as great gifts.


Every once in a while I get asked to photograph someone (or a pet) who is gravely ill, or a funeral or memorial service. I have never been in a situation personally to want a photographer at something like this, but I am always honored when asked to do something so significant. This is one of those situations where if you have any reservations at all, you should politely decline. It’s a heavy task, one that can only be done with complete focus and presence. The first thing I do if I’ve been asked to photograph something like this is make absolutely certain that the immediate family members are all in agreement in wanting my services and what exactly that means to them. While I have personal guidelines, I want to be sure that what they are wanting works with these, and also something I will be able to do with great compassion. Each time I’ve photographed this type of situation I have come across someone that didn’t feel I should be there or was confused by my presence and camera. My best advice is to reply very simply and quietly: “I was asked to be here today” and move on. Not everyone will understand why a photographer was requested. Often I don’t understand myself. But I know that I am doing something important as part of a healing process for another and that’s reason enough.



Sometimes the occasion is joyful and wonderful and still requiring of great tact and compassion. Homecomings, be them military or adoption or just long awaited, fall into this category. If you have been invited to something like this, take a moment to be a bit proud of yourself. Go on-I’ll wait. This means that you have been asked to be part of a moment so delicate and special that your abilities are obvious and you are trustworthy beyond measure. Your camera may have been your golden ticket in the door, but your skills is what will get the job done. This is one of the few times I stay completely out of the way and ask nothing of anyone. I am there only to document, not set-up moments or force poses and smiles. The event will happen so naturally and beautifully on it’s own that you need only to trust in yourself, stay alert and in the moment, and know that the most intense moments will happen very, very quickly.



In my humble opinion, there is no greater honor than being trusted to photograph someone. Making the honor of being asked to photograph a human coming into this world the highest of the high. If you ever get the chance the witness life start, I highly recommend it. Most of this is going to be common sense, but in this case, don’t shoot for the moon. You are documenting something so special, so amazing, there is no need to force a specific shot. In a perfect world, you’ll be allowed to stand near the mother, at the top of the bed (or similar), lessening the chances of angles that no one will want pictures of, and increasing the chances of being able to stay out of the way. Photographing a birth is one of the only times I truly have to use everything I have to hold it together and do my job. But it turns out you can focus (literally and figuratively) through a layer of tears pretty easily if you need to. Much like birth itself, this is pure adrenaline; nothing to plan, no way of knowing what shots you are going to get. I do like to always ask if there is something special that is hoped for-perhaps the first bath or a picture of the baby getting weighed. Things like that are usually possible and of importance for some. Photographing births is a game of hurry up and wait and only a couple of things are certain: good glass, a high ISO (no one wants a flash here and the room is often dark), and impeccable manners.



These type of images may not end up being part of your portfolio, they may not be technically perfect in any way, but likely to someone they will mean everything.

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

It’s Not Always Sunsets and Kittens: Photographing the Tougher things in Life

Water Landscapes: Weekly Photography Challenge

Last week’s sunset/sunrise landscapes challenge was really popular with some beautiful images being submitted so we’re going to continue the ‘landscape’ theme going (to coincide with the launch of our Living Landscapes eBook) and this week are issuing the challenge of photographing a landscape image with ‘water’ in the scene.

So this week we’d love to see some shots with rivers, lakes, oceans, streams and waterfalls (or anything else you can imagine up).

The first page of our 'photographing water' section of the Living Landscapes eBook.

The first page of our ‘photographing water’ section of the Living Landscapes eBook.

Todd has a section on shooting water in the eBook but whether you’ve read it or not we’d LOVE to see your shot!

Once you’ve taken your ‘Water Landscapes’ photos upload your best ones to your favourite photo sharing site either share a link to them even better – embed them in the comments using the our new tool to do so.

If you tag your photos on Flickr, Instagram, Twitter or other sites with Tagging tag them as #DPSWATER to help others find them. Linking back to this page might also help others know what you’re doing so that they can share in the fun.

Also – don’t forget to check out some of the great shots posted in last weeks Sunrises and Sunsets challenge – there were some great shots submitted.

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

Water Landscapes: Weekly Photography Challenge

Long Exposure Photography and the Square Format

Square format black and white photograph

The rise in popularity of digital cameras over the past decade has coincided with the emergence of a new genre of photography – long exposure photography. Long exposure photography involves using shutter speeds of anything from one second to five minutes or more while using a tripod to keep the camera still. The result is a landscape or architectural study characterised by still elements, such as rocks or a building, contrasting with moving elements, such as water or clouds in the sky. Most long exposure photographers use neutral density filters to obtain long shutter speeds and would probably aim to use a shutter speed of at least thirty seconds to obtain their effects.

Digital cameras greatly assist with long exposure photography because there is no reciprocity failure with digital and the instant feedback provided by the LCD screen lets photographers see right away how effective the composition is.

Square format black and white photograph

If you are familiar with the work of some of the more well-known long exposure photographers then you would no doubt have noticed that many of them choose to work in both black and white and the square format. Why is this?

Let’s start with black and white. Monochrome is the medium of choice for many fine art photographers. It’s moody, timeless, evocative and expressive. Removing colour from the composition concentrates attention on texture, contrast, line and light – the visual building blocks of powerful imagery.

The square format is different from other aspect ratios because of its balanced shape. The four sides of a square are equal in length and encourage the viewer’s eye to move around the frame in a circle, rather than side-to-side or up and down. The square frame lends itself to compositions that contain strong shapes, lines or other graphic elements. The strong shape of the square frame seems to emphasise other shapes that appear within it.

Not all long exposure photographers work exclusively in black and white or the square format, but many of them do. The heavy emphasis on simplicity led composition in the long exposure photography genre marries well with the compositional strengths of the square format.

Square format black and white photograph

Long exposure photographers

Looking at the work of other photographers is an excellent way to learn more about the creative side of photography. The following is a list of some of my favourite long exposure photographers. Each photographer in this list works predominantly in black and white and the square format. You will learn a lot from their work.

I have interviewed many of these photographers on my website. You can work your way through the interviews here.

Photographer Nathan Wirth has also interviewed some of these photographers on his blog Slices of Silence.

  • Joel Tjintjelaar
  • Moises Levy
  • Keith Aggett
  • Julia-Anna Gospodarou
  • Hengki Koentjoro
  • Spencer Brown
  • Didier Demaret
  • Thomas Leong
  • Andy Brown
  • Will Le
  • Maria Str mvik
  • Nathan Wirth
  • Steve Landeros
  • Paul Wheeler
  • Gavin Dunbar
  • H kan Strand
  • Josef Hoflehner
  • Michael Kenna
  • Jeff Gaydash
  • Michael Diblicek
  • Xavi Fuentes


I hope you enjoyed looking through the work of the photographers listed above. If you’d like to find out more about long exposure photography, then Joel Tjintjelaar’s website BWVision is an excellent place to start. The tutorials page has plenty of information to get you started.

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

Long Exposure Photography and the Square Format

Soft Flattering Color Portraits in Lightroom 4 and Lightroom 5


The Following is an excerpt from the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System v5, a preset system designed to take you from Ordinary to Extraordinary photos in just a few seconds and clicks.

We have just launched the new Lightroom Preset System v5, and in this first tutorial we want to create a soft and flattering look for color portraits. We want to maintain good overall contrast, while flattening out highlights and smoothing out the details a bit for a more flattering look. Each one of you will probably have different preferences in regards to overall contrast and color temperature, but this Base preset and modification are pretty much our foundation for all of our color portraits within the Lin and Jirsa Photography studio. Here is what the photo looked like before and after the effect is applied.


Lightroom Preset System v5 Mixology Recipe

For those that own the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System v5, you can follow this two click recipe. If you like, you can save it as a new custom Mixology, however, since it is only a 1-click modification on our existing Base Preset, we will not be adding this to a new custom Mixology Preset.

Develop Mixology
1) 01-10 Base-Soft 11a. Extra Soft-Skin Desat
2) 03-40 Adjust Shadows Blacks 42. Darken-Medium -15, -30

Adjust Exposure, Temperature and Tint to taste.

Local Adjustments
We used the Graduated Filter and used the “04 Dodge (Brighten) +.5 stop” to brighten up the bottom left of the photo. To see exactly how it was applied, watch the video tutorial below.

Watch the Video Tutorial

If you would like to follow along with the Video Tutorial, watch the video blow.

Complete Written Tutorial

This written tutorial is meant for those who don’t have the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System v5. If you follow along you’ll be able to edit your photos with the same settings we used to edit this one. For any photo we edit we like to check the EXIF data by pressing “i”. This will show us exactly what camera the photo was taken one, what lens, and the settings. You can customize what EXIF data you want to see by pressing “CMD + J” or “CTRL + J”. This photo was taken on a 5D Mark II at 1/800 sec at f/2.0 ISO 100 with a 50mm lens.

The first thing we did was go into our “01-10 Base – Soft” preset folder and applied the “11a. Extra Soft – Skin Desat preset”. This preset does most of our work for us, adjusting our exposure, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks the way we would want them for a portrait like this. The clarity, vibrance, and saturation have all been dropped, giving us a nice soft portrait look. Here’s what our settings look like on the right side panel.


Our “1) 01-10 Base-Soft 11a. Extra Soft-Skin Desat” preset lowered our Red and Orange levels, desaturating the skin and taking out the red and orange highlighting that can appear in shadows and highlight areas of our subjects skin.

  • Red: -20
  • Orange: -10

In the Tone Curve we have a standard “S” curve, giving us a subtle contrast boost by raising the highlights and dropping the shadows.


We add a bit of Noise Reduction Luminance in our portraits because it does a great job smoothing out the pores and making skin look great. We had to raise the sharpening a bit on this photo because it was shot at such a wide aperture, making the depth of field very shallow. Here are what our “Sharpening” and “Noise Reduction” settings look like.


The vignetting in this photo underexposed her skin slightly in the corners of the photo. This is a great opportunity to use a graduated filer. You can simply go to the Graduated Filter and raise your exposure to “0.50 . Then raise the graduated filter from the bottom left of the photo and come up to the strap of her dress. Watch the video tutorial to see exactly where we put it. After the graduated filter we’re left with our final image, here’s a before and after.





Conclusion and Learn More

We hope you all enjoyed this tutorial. If you are interested in learning more or purchasing the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System v5

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

Soft Flattering Color Portraits in Lightroom 4 and Lightroom 5

Is that a Workshop, Tour or Seminar [Part I]

There is a modern day aphorism: Those that can – do. Those that can’t – teach. I believe, however, the later part of the phrase should be amended to read “Those who can’t – shouldn’t.”

A majority of photographers working today as professionals ply their trade in the commercial, wedding and portrait disciplines. There are also countless photographers who have historically made images of landscape and nature pictures – the kind of stuff we all love to do. These image makers would typically place their material with a stock photo agency to license their work on their behalf. Unfortunately this business model has been collapsing over the past five, or so, years and will likely continue.

The by-product of this collapse in landscape and nature picture sales has translated to a deluge of photography workshops, tours and seminars. Many of these instructor-photographers bring impeccable skills and talents to the table; unfortunately an even greater number bring little more than platitudes and promises.

The novice photographer will have to do some research to learn what firm offers something worthy of your hard earned cash. You will have to sift through a lot of chafe to find the nice gems, fortunately they do exist.

Is the intensity of a workshop what you seek, or perhaps the enjoyment of a tour or the diversity of a seminar? Hopefully this little primer will help steer you in the right direction by explaining the differences and offering some suggestions to ensure you get the right fit for what you are seeking, and at the right skill level.

The workshop offers the opportunity to try out all the gear you might own with good critique from the instructor.

The workshop offers the opportunity to try out all the gear you might own with good critique from the instructor.

A workshop is first and foremost a teaching venue. It will in all likelihood be based from a single location where you will eat, live and breathe photography. A secondary consideration is the actual location, the physical presence to facilitate the theme of the workshop.

The better workshops usually come with a systematic structure: early morning shoot, late morning lecture, early afternoon lecture or critique session and late evening shoot. The shooting sessions will usually always concentrate on the topic presented at the day’s lecture session(s). By the end of the workshop you should have received sufficient lectures, personal evaluation of your efforts, and an overdose of encouragement to meet the objectives outlined. The course syllabus should be available for your study in advance of enrolment.

Before you do enrol, research to see who the lead instructor will be as well as the supporting teachers, and whether that lead is on site or just loaning their name. Does that leader come with a pedigree that includes accomplishment in their chosen field through innovative techniques, or writing of their findings in books or magazine articles? Are they continuously exploring their own vision, and what is their reputation from previous students? Contact those testimonial writers personally – they could be just friends of the workshop leader.

One of the very first clues you might have whether the workshop is for you is by asking the question: “Will the instructor be making photographs during the workshop?” If the answer is yes, you might want to consider moving to another workshop that interests you. The logic being, how is it possible for the instructor to teach and offer guidance if they are concentrating on looking through their own viewfinder? You, the student, should have their attention; the instructor can take pictures on their time – you have already bought and paid for that time.

Most importantly, is the lead instructor an instructor or a teacher? As ridiculous as this might sound, almost anyone can stand in front of a small audience and regurgitate from a prepared lesson plan. A teacher, on the other hand, has that inner quality of being able to instil a desire to learn, of generating an excitement enabling students to be part of a process, promoting confidence and self-esteem all while offering constructive criticism without the student ever knowing. A teacher has a true passion in their chosen art, the art of sharing. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

Next up: What is the photo tour?

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

Is that a Workshop, Tour or Seminar [Part I]

Find the Perfect Photography Location Using Google Maps

No matter if you’re planning your next photo road trip or you’re scouring the city streets looking for the perfect viewpoint, Google Maps and Google Earth are the most valuable tools to add to your arsenal for finding the perfect photography location.

Planning to Shoot

I usually travel for work, or with family, so I don’t have the luxury of as much time as I might want to search for the perfect vantage point in person. Nor to scout an area to compare locations that I want to dedicate to the one sunset that I’ll have time to shoot. Google Maps to the rescue!

While planning a trip from home, you have much more time to explore the area in a virtual capacity instead of being out there with boots on the ground. Nothing can compare with actually being there, but the tools available to you are getting better every day and the ability to nearly frame your shot is a realistic time saver. Time to turn the volume on your pre-visualization up to 11.

If I’m planning a trip or have an idea for a shot, I’ll start with Google Maps and zero in on the area that I want to shoot. You probably already do this, too, but let’s just take it a step further. Click the icon in the lower left corner labeled “Earth” to start the Google Earth browser plugin. This has replaced the satellite or aerial view for much of the world’s map, but instead of only offering a flat, two dimensional view of the map directly overhead, you can now tilt the map and see an approximation of topography, texture, and elevation.

Default Earth View

Normal mouse controls on the map let you pan in all directions, and zoom in or out with the mouse wheel. In order to adjust to a view that will help you get a better idea of the terrain, hold down the shift key, click and drag upward. That will rotate your point of view (POV) so that you now have an aerial view looking toward the horizon instead of straight down. Dragging left or right while holding shift will rotate your point of view instead of panning.

Rotated Earth View

But, you don’t have to be tied down to your desk to do this. Just two weeks ago, I was out with a friend exploring San Francisco and searching for a specific vantage point of the 101/280 freeway interchange. We knew the general area that we wanted to shoot from, but with so many streets winding around, using Google Earth on my mobile phone helped to eliminate some of the trial and error of driving around without a clue how to find what we wanted.

101 280 Framing the Shot Mobile

101 280 Framing the Shot

Desktop interface Google Earth view looking south

Joe Ercoli Land of Confusion 600

Finished image from location scouted using Google Maps/Earth

The example images from this article show the area that we shot in, including a screenshot taken from the mobile interface, and the completed image. Of course the view that you can get from the map interface is never as good as what you’ll see in person, but it’s an excellent way to help you hit the ground running when you get on-site with your camera in hand.

NOTE: The camera is facing South in the final composition, not North as in the initial Google Earth Point of View.

Have you used Google Maps to find any cool locations? What other tips or tricks have you tried? Please share in the comments below.

The post Find the Perfect Photography Location Using Google Maps by Joe Ercoli appeared first on Digital Photography School.