Balance is Essential in Both Life and Your Compositions!

Sunset at Matterhorn Rock, Garapatta State Park, Monterey County, Big Sur Coast, California, USA.

Sunset at Matterhorn Rock, Garapatta State Park, Monterey County, Big Sur Coast, California.
Sony a7RII, Sony/Zeiss 16-35mm, f/22, 1.3 seconds, ISO 100, Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer

One of the keys to living a healthy life is to have balance. My wife reminds me of this all the time!

Balance is also important to creating images that work. I’m not a huge rules guy when I’m out making images; however, I do trust my innate sense of balance and I am very much aware of compositional guidelines (notice that I didn’t say rules) when composing my images.

I started off the New Year with a trip over to the Big Sur coast. I have always wanted to photograph Matterhorn Rock, which I was first made aware of by the images of Monterey photographer Chris Axe. It is one of Big Sur’s hidden gems but Christopher kindly shared the location with me.

As always, I began by checking the local weather report. It was calling for broken clouds through sunset so for me and my friend Nick Lust, that was a green light.

The Adventure Begins

We arrived on location one hour prior to sunset and began our descent down a bit of a sketchy trail to Matterhorn. A quick check of my tide app told me that we were in between the second high and low tide of the day and that the tide was heading out. Nonetheless, this area is what I call a “trap zone,” so we had to be extremely vigilant for any sneaker waves – though I think we were lulled into a false sense of security; regardless, we did have a planned escape route.

My goal was to get Matterhorn offset with the sun if possible. At this time of year, the sun is just starting its northerly trek, so I knew it would be setting south of Matterhorn. This is where photographic balance came into play with my composition.

Matterhorn Rock is visually very heavy and I knew it would dominate the right side of my composition, thus, I needed something on the left side of the frame to counterbalance it.

I try to envision my frame sitting on a fulcrum point – if it feels weighted towards one side of center, then I look for an element or elements to balance it back. American painter Henry Rankin Poore called this the “The Steelyard Effect” in his book “Pictorial Composition in Art.” This illustration shows the visual mass that I am describing.

Sunset at Matterhorn Rock, Garapatta State Park, Monterey County, Big Sur Coast, California, USA.

Matterhorn Rock and foreground visually weighted the right side of the image.

Instead of thinking about Rule-of-Thirds, I thought about The Golden Mean as a compositional guide for this image. This guide is used to describe aesthetically pleasing proportioning within a piece by employing math ratios. It gets more involved than I care to think about, but visually I can see in my mind’s eye and I mentally overlaid it over my composition to help me guide the placement of elements.

Sunset at Matterhorn Rock, Garapatta State Park, Monterey County, Big Sur Coast, California, USA.

The Golden Mean

In all honesty, the key to the success of this image would depend on the sun hitting the hole in the clouds – what were the odds? I told Nick that it appeared that the sun may perfectly track into the small opening. If so, I was ready at f/22 to help produce a sun star. I knew if the sun did get into that opening, that would be the counterbalance “The Steelyard Effect” I was looking for to balance the visual weight of Matterhorn Rock.

Sunset at Matterhorn Rock, Garapatta State Park, Monterey County, Big Sur Coast, California, USA.

The sun star counterbalanced the visual weight of Matterhorn Rock and foreground; in turn., the image became visually balanced.

As the old saying goes, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” old Mr. Sol did indeed slip into the opening and I got the image I was envisioning!

Lastly, as I was waiting for the sun to lower into the opening, it dawned on me that I had an almost perfect Fibonacci Spiral. Webster defines this as: The golden ratio (spiral), also known as the divine proportion, golden mean, or golden section, is a number often encountered when taking the ratios of distances in simple geometric figures such as the pentagon, pentagram, decagon and dodecahedron. That’s a lot to think about, so I simply envision a nautilus shell. It’s all about creating a flow path for the eye to follow. Here is an overlay of what I am talking about:

THe Golden Spiral

The Golden Spiral Overlay

My study of art and what makes masterpieces time-bound helps me tremendously when I am in the field. I try not to overthink compositions; rather, I try to calm my mind and feel a sense of balance and harmony of elements. Now if I could just get a little more of it in my daily life…

Would Love to Hear Your Thoughts!

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10 Comments on “Balance is Essential in Both Life and Your Compositions!

  1. Don, I was checking the details of your shot and noticed the polarizer and its cost. Have you found spending the extra money makes a difference? Could I get good results with a less expensive polarizer, and if so, do you have any recos? Thanks in advance.

    • My thoughts on filters are this: If you buy cheap glass, go ahead and place a cheap filter over it. If you buy really good glass, then why would you cheapen it putting a cheap filter over it? There are no shortcuts if you want quality.

  2. just want to say thanks for sharing this stunning shot with us today, nice shot, view
    n the sea on the rocks, love it

  3. I’ve read about the golden mean in nature. Honey bees use the ratio when comb building & some natural beekeepers try to replicate it in their hive designs.
    Never thought about applying it to photography but it does make sense.
    I’m not sure though if my mind is able to compute it in the field like yours.
    Thank you for giving me something else to ponder!!

  4. What a great post, Don! Yeah, a little technical, but the way you put, easy enough to understand – – – – sort of. Thanks for sharing not only your wonderful images, but the mechanics of making it also. I know I will use it when I’m out in the field.

    Happy 2016 to you and yours! Looking forward to seeing sometime during the year.

    • Thanks Gail. It can get to be too technical and you know I like keeping things as simple as possible. That’s why I like to think of it as a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. Just try to imagine the fulcrum and trust your inner sense of balance when composing.