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How Visual Weight Can Improve Your Photos

We’ve talked a lot about composition and the ways you can simply improve your composition, so today we’re going to continue that subject but we’re going to put a slightly different spin on things. Today we’re looking at visual weight.

Visual huh? (hmm, I’m talking about the image below…)

Visual weight is the term that photographers use when discussing the components and finer details of framing and composition. The term is given to the part of the composition that carries more “visual weight” and is sometimes the thing the eye is drawn to first given it takes up more space visually, but not always because it is the bigger element. Confused?

Dare to be different…
By Robert Silverwood


Let me explain that further; there is a term psychologist’s use for what happens when one sensory system triggers another, it’s called synaesthesia. We know that the elements in a photo are not actually present in front of us, but only visually present, so how can we attach a “weight” to elements if we can’t feel them physically? This is synaesthesia. Your eyes are giving your brain a message; in this case you can begin to sense the weight of the elements in the photograph based on how they look.

M&Ms – Opposite Way
By [ bku ]


The criteria for this message from the eyes to the brain changes based on what we see, and there are many factors that contribute to the criteria for instance size, shape, color, and placement within the composition.

Let’s take a look at how we interpret photographic elements visually:

  • Light colored elements = Light: generally lighter colored things are also lighter within the composition. For instance when looking at a rocky seascape the sky will naturally feel the lightest in terms of visual weight simply because it has a lighter color.
  • Dark elements = Heavy: as you would imagine given the last point, the darker the color the heavier the appearance, especially when contrasted with light objects.
  • High contrast = Heavy: also similar to the above, a dark element against a light element, for instance the silhouette of a bird against a backlit sky will naturally carry more weight as it is in high contrast. This works for colors too, bright red lips on a pale face will appear heavier given the contrast.
  • Large elements = Heavy: bigger elements naturally seem heavier mostly because they tend to get more attention in the composition making them seem more important by default.
  • Actually heavy = Heavy: much like large elements, actually heavy elements always appear heavier within the composition. Just imagine an elephant standing next to a beach ball – not only is the elephant larger, it is also much much heavier.
  • Interesting / unique placement = Heavy: generally elements placed on the cross-sections, rule-of-third lines, or the in the corners of the composition tend to carry more weight. This doesn’t always stand true given the many other possible elements in the photo but it is an element to consider.

Not One of Us
By Luc De Leeuw


It probably seems like there are a lot of “rules” here, but rest assured these are not hard and fast rules. And what’s better is that you don’t need to remember the above, the beauty of “visual weight” is that it comes very naturally to almost everyone. We are simply giving you these tools to help you understand WHY things appear heavier visually.

So with all of this in mind how can you implement visual weight into your photographic compositions?

The key thing to remember is balance. Creating a balanced image is a matter of giving different elements in your composition more or less visual weight through size, color, placement, and contrast. Remember that all heavy elements in your photo should be balanced out by something with a lighter weight to create a harmonious composition.

By © retales botijero


An unbalanced image will draw you into one heavy element, or several heavy elements, not taking the rest of the composition into consideration. If one element in your photo carries too much weight, it may be visually unappealing but it may not be obvious how or why. The viewer may simply feel uneasy as they look at the image. That is the power of visual weight.

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