Composition Principles: Symmetry and Balance

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Symmetry is from the Greek symmetria, meaning, “…agreement in dimensions, due proportion, arrangement“.

 Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci. “The length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown.” ( from Vitruvius’ De architectura 3.1.2-3, on which DaVinci’s Vitruvian man is based) (Wikimedia Commons, provided by Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be)

So while the original intent seems to be more about proportion–how a part relates to the whole– today many have come to think of it more in terms of its mathematical meaning, which is exact mirroring.

Symmetry
Symmetrical balance is when an image is divided midway (horizontally or vertically) and both halves are identical.

Symmetry by mirroring. (Attributed to Alfred Stieglitz)

Symmetry by mirroring, which is achieved in the darkroom or with software. (Image attributed to Alfred Stieglitz, source unknown)

Mirror symmetry occurs rarely in nature and is more likely to be found in manmade objects.

Symmetry and balance implying stability in all things. Is that not what a church should project? (Photo by Arwen Thysse, used without permission)

Horizontal symmetry is less common and usually achieved through reflections in water. However, if you examine the image closely, you can see that the reflection is not truly symmetrical (see the hill behind church) due to the angle of view of the camera.

Image by Ivana Vasilj, Flickr. CC 2.0

Image by Ivana Vasilj, Flickr. CC 2.0

 

Radial symmetry
Simple and effective–and although ideally in a round frame–practically, radial symmetry works best in a square frame. Radial symmetry requires  “…the condition of having similar parts regularly arranged around a central axis”. Because we are talking about image composition, not the symmetry of the subject, the following two images are not strictly ‘radially symmetrical’, it is the extension of the subject that is near-radially symmetrical.

Near Symmetry
Most artists and photographers are not mathematicians, and will still describe items that are not exactly mirrored as symmetrical. To allow for a descriptive transition zone between symmetry and asymmetry, some use the term ‘near symmetry’ — symmetrical balance but with imperfections.

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Pretty-close-to Symmetrical (from Pyramid Building without Apparatus by William J. Cromie, 1901)

A face photographed directly from the front is described as asymmetrical, but I think most photographers and artists would see it as near symmetrical…

Woman's face. Color plate, screen (Autochrome) process by Dr. L. Silberstein cc 1915 (George Eastman House Collection)

Woman’s face. Color plate, screen (Autochrome) process by Dr. L. Silberstein cc 1915 (George Eastman House Collection)

Composition

Although this face has not been photographed absolutely paraleI to the camera plate, mirroring the left side of her face shows the lack of symmetry of the original, a lack of bilateral symmetry which all faces share.

 

Asymmetry
Asymmetry means ‘without symmetry’, but it has come to mean “informal balance” or “asymmetrical balance”.

Near symmetry or assymetry? Lotus aft, ca. 1937. gelatin silver print by Bob Wallace. (George Eastman House Collection)

Near symmetry or asymetry? Lotus aft, ca. 1937. gelatin silver print by Bob Wallace. (George Eastman House Collection)

 

Asymmetrical Balance
You can balance without symmetry, but you can’t be symmetrical without balance. Asymmetrical balance can be understood as giving the impression of equal weight on either side, ‘weight’ that can be measured–for example–in quantity, area, colour, mass, shape, texture and/or contrast. This is sometimes difficult to gauge because the ‘weight’ often relies on the perception of visual interest, on how some parts of the image draw our eye more than others.

Woman in blue dress sitting near fireplace. Color plate, screen (Autochrome) process by Dr. L. Silberstein cc 1915 (George Eastman House Collection)

Woman in blue dress sitting near fireplace. Color plate, screen (Autochrome) process by Dr. L. Silberstein cc 1915 (George Eastman House Collection)

Balance can also be achieved when we perceive the center of interest to be a fulcrum around which balance takes place. The center of interest need not be centered and placing the focal point at an (unfortunately named) ‘rule of thirds’ point can act as the visual fulcrum to create balance. In the photo above you are drawn first to the bright side of the image, to the woman and her face, but then the eye begins to explore the darker side to see the details in the shadows. The light side takes up about one-third of the image that balances with the dark. If there were no details in the shadow, if there was nothing for the eye to seek, this autochrome would simply be asymmetrical and unbalanced.

Man with book. Color plate, screen (Autochrome) Listed as "no known maker", but probably another Dr. L. Silberstein work, 1915 (George Eastman House Collection)

Man with book. Color plate, screen (Autochrome) Listed as “no known maker”, but probably another Dr. L. Silberstein work, 1915 (George Eastman House Collection)

This autochrome (above) is asymmetrically balanced, however, if the book were removed, the image would look distinctly unbalanced .

from A'Chu and other stories by : Anderson, Emma Maria (Thompson), Mrs. 1920. (Library of Congress)

From A’Chu and other stories by : Anderson, Emma Maria (Thompson), Mrs. 1920. (Library of Congress)

Above, both  asymmetrical and balanced, but so unbalanced …

And to liven things up a bit,  the following completely discordant image, which also is asymmetrically balanced.

Terror of the small near balances with the ferocity of the pursuing Albertosaur

Terror of the small near dino balances with the ferocity of the pursuing Albertosaur.

Unbalanced
Asymmetry means “without symmetry”. As shown above, you can achieve balance without symmetry, but there are times when deliberately avoiding symmetry and balance can add visual direction as well as tension, mystery or drama.

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Woman and child in chair. Color plate, screen (Autochrome) process by Dr. L. Silberstein cc 1915 (George Eastman House Collection).

Subtly unbalanced. Above, the boy’s direct stare into the camera and the position of the chair balance the image, but the woman’s weight on the right and her distant, disconnected gaze, makes this image unbalanced and somewhat uncomfortable.

Curragh on Innisheer

Curragh on Innisheer. This is unbalanced, with so much weight on the right. The combined gaze of the dog and the angled shoreline, all lead to the unknown left.

 

Diving at the Valley Baths, Brisbane, Queensland, 1938

Unbalanced and dynamic. Diving at the Valley Baths, Brisbane, Queensland, 1938. Photographer unknown. (State Library of Queensland)

Finding symmetry and creating balance are natural and comfortable for us when we create compositions, however, deliberately creating imbalance and asymmetrical images can contribute a sense of tension, dynamism and even an enigmatic touch to an image.

Next post: Composition Principles: Dominance/Emphasis

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  1. By Principles of Composition on 24 October, 2016 at 12:15 pm

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