How to Understand and Use Visual Weight in Composition

Visual weight is the term given to compositional elements within an image and how much visual impact they have. Some things will feel heavier or more present within the image in comparison to other elements. As a photographer, it is your role to understand this and use it to your advantage when setting up your composition.

How can visual weight affect an image?

  • Light colored elements = a light feel
  • Dark colored elements = a heavy feel
  • Eyes/faces = heavy
  • Text = heavy
  • Negative space = light
  • Focus = can be heavy or light depending on what you are focusing on
  • Image placement within the frame = can choose to make something heavier or lighter
  • Scale = can affect the weight of an element
  • Balance = can affect the weight of an element or the feel of the overall image
  • Color = a pop of unexpected color is heavier than its surroundings

Light or even toned images and feel

This macro shot of red clover is tonally quite similar over the entire image, with a shallow depth of field and a soft focus. The color tones are also soft so the overall feeling to this image visually is quite light – there isn’t really anywhere for the eye to settle and engage with the image.

Image with large dark areas

In the case of dark moody shots with a lot of black background showing, you would think that the black would overpower the whole image. However, When the subject is well lit and positioned in a sculptural shape like the gerbera below, the subject carries the visual weight of the image and the black recedes into the background to support it.

The landscape below is deliberately underexposed to add drama to the sky and show off the subtle light beams through the clouds. This meant the dark rocks are particularly underexposed and so they carry the visual weight of the image, almost slightly too heavy towards the bottom as a result.

Balance and scale

Balance and scale are also important factors. In the lighthouse image below, the bright white of the lighthouse holds the eye and the attention, but the horizon line of the sky against the sea gives the necessary scale to balance the overall compostion of the image.

Color and balance

Use of colour within an image can have significant impact. In the image of a sunset below, with the rich red clouds and the dark silhouetted tree line at the bottom, you might thing the dark trees carry the visual weight, but they instead balance out the large red cloud area nicely. The darkest or brightest element is not always the visually heaviest.