Balance is Essential in Both Life and Your Compositions!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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…