How to Use Visual Weight to Improve Your Photography Compositions

How to improve your photos with visual weight

Composition is one of the toughest topics for beginner photographers to grasp. Not only is it unintuitive, but it comes with all sorts of jargon, such as “dynamicism,” “negative space,” and “visual weight.”

In my experience, however, composition isn’t as difficult as it initially seems. There is an array of handy guidelines to help you compose compelling photos – such as the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, and the rule of space – plus, once you understand a few core concepts, you’ll start to move past these compositional “rules” and create well-structured images out of, well, nothing.

Today, I want to tackle one of these core concepts: visual weight, also known as visual mass. It sounds technical, but as I’ll show you below, it’s a surprisingly easy concept to understand. And if you put in the effort, you’ll find that visual weight can dramatically improve your compositions.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at what visual weight is all about, and how it can help you structure your photos effectively:

What is visual weight?

Visual weight (or visual mass) is the principle that some elements of a composition pull the eye more than others. Certain parts of each photo have more visual weight – that is, they draw the viewer’s attention more strongly – whereas other parts have less visual weight because they attract less attention.

Take a look at the portrait below. Where do your eyes go? Mine go straight to the subject’s eyes, because eyes have a lot of visual weight. In the example image, I’d say the eyes have more visual weight than anything else. They are the element exerting the greatest pull.

Visual weight and composition
When you look at a photo, where do your eyes go? That’s the portion of the composition that has the most visual weight. In this case, you’ll likely look to the subject’s eyes.

Notice that the subject’s eyes are not positioned on the traditional intersection points created by the rule of thirds gridlines. That doesn’t stop the eyes from drawing the viewer’s attention, although it could be argued that the eyes’ visual weight would be strengthened by placing them on a rule of thirds intersection point.

Which brings me to another key idea about visual weight:

The weight that an element has will change depending both on the scene and how it’s photographed. Positioning the subject differently can impact its visual weight. Photographing in specific light, or shooting from a different angle, or moving closer will all impact the visual weight of the elements constituting the final image.

The essential principles of visual weight

Now I’d like to explore the key principles of visual weight (or visual mass) that you can use to improve the compositions of your photos.

1. Light tones are heavier than dark tones

Whether an area of your image is lighter or darker affects its visual weight.

Specifically, light tones and highlights pull the eye more than dark tones and highlights. As a result, bright parts of the frame are more eye-catching, while dark parts of the frame fade into the background.

Take a look at my example image from the previous section. Can you see the strong contrast between the model’s skin and hair (lighter) and the background of the image (darker)?

It’s easier to see in a black-and-white version of the same photo:

Visual weight and composition

As you view the image, note how your eye moves toward the lighter portions of the shot and skims past the darker portions.

2. People are heavier than everything else

Curiosity about other people is part of the human condition. As a result, human figures have more visual weight than objects and non-human figures.

In other words, our eyes go straight to any human figure that is present in a photo. Faces exert a stronger pull than human bodies more generally, while the eyes (the window to the soul!) have the strongest visual weight of all.

The people in this next photo are small, yet our eyes are drawn straight to them:

Visual weight and composition
Do you feel the pull of the people at the bottom of the frame? That’s the power of visual weight!

This explains why you can use people, small in the frame, to give scale and context. It works because our eyes go straight to those figures as long as they stand out from the background (this is Gestalt theory in action!).

In my example photo, you can see how the inclusion of the human figures helps give the scene scale and emphasizes the size of the mountain behind them – without ever losing the emphasis on the people. The figures are small, but they are (visually) mighty!

3. Bigger elements are heavier than smaller elements

This principle of visual weight is pretty intuitive:

The larger the element in a photo, the heavier it is. Trees that stretch toward the sky are heavier than small twigs and bushes at their base. A figure that looms large in the foreground of the frame is heavier than a tiny human silhouette in the distance.

Note that this principle works alongside the others discussed in this section. A small human figure, for example, can have much more pull than a large, inanimate object – because the second principle of visual mass, that humans are heavier than everything else, comes into play. A small bright spot can also pull the eye very strongly, whereas a larger dark area will often feel relatively unimportant.

But for objects of similar types, textures, tones, and colors, the larger one has the stronger pull.

For example, the dials in this next photo are virtually identical in terms of shape and design. But the one on the right is larger than the one on the left, giving it more visual weight.

Visual weight and composition

4. Sharp and recognizable elements are heavier than blurry and unrecognizable elements

Objects that are sharp (i.e., in focus and crisp), as well as objects that are easy to recognize, are heavier than objects that aren’t. According to Gestalt theory, the mind looks for patterns and shapes that help it make sense of chaotic scenes. Once something is identified, it gains significance in the frame compared to unidentified things.

The most obvious example of this principle in action is a portrait taken against a strongly blurred background. The visual weight of the background is reduced because it is no longer in focus and no longer recognizable, while the sharp face instantly draws the eye:

Visual weight and composition

Again, this principle works alongside other principles of visual mass. A blurry face might draw the eye more than a sharp-but-unrecognizable texture, and a small-but-sharp object might draw the eye more than a huge, blurry object.

5. High-contrast objects are heavier than low-contrast objects

High-contrast subjects have more visual weight than low-contrast objects. This is a good principle to keep in mind when post-processing your photos, and it’s also good to remember when composing in the field.

(When editing, instead of increasing contrast universally across the image, try increasing it more in the areas where you want the viewer’s eye to travel. Lightroom’s Clarity slider is an excellent tool for this.)

In this next example, I used the Clarity slider to emphasize the texture of the old car and help draw the eye to it:

Visual weight and composition

6. Some colors are heavier than other colors

Color does affect visual weight, but this is where things get a little complex.

Bright, saturated colors draw the eye compared to dark and/or dull colors. But not all color hues are equal. Warm hues have more visual weight than cool ones, and red is the strongest color of all.

Simplifying the composition makes the relationship between the colors in the photo easier to see. If your subject is brightly colored, you can try positioning it against a background comprised of subdued, less powerful hues like gray, green, and brown. That way, it’ll stand out more clearly!

The red figurine in the center of the photo below has a lot of visual weight. This is for a few reasons: It’s recognizable, it’s brighter than the surrounding elements, and it’s sharper than the surrounding elements. (I emphasized the latter two features in post-processing by using the Clarity slider to increase its contrast and adding a vignette to darken the background.)

However, what really makes the red figurine stand out is its color!

Visual weight and composition
Bright, saturated colors are heavier than dark, subdued colors. And red is uniquely heavy – so when your subject is red, it’ll immediately draw the eye!

How can you improve your compositions with visual weight?

We’ve explored the different ways an element can have visual weight and how you can expect the eye to be drawn around the frame – but what’s the best way to put these principles into practice?

A few thoughts:

First, you can use visual weight to emphasize your main subject. Some of this is fairly intuitive; if you want the viewer to focus on a certain part of the image, you can make sure it’s relatively large in the frame, that it’s well-lit, and that it’s in focus.

But you can also increase its visual weight by boosting its contrast and saturation selectively in post-processing. And you can adjust your perspective, camera settings, and focal length to position your main subject against a softer, darker, and less-saturated background.

Second, you can use the principles of visual weight to choose different subjects. If you want to capture an impactful photo, it often helps to keep things simple: one interesting main subject against a less interesting background. If you deliberately choose subjects with a lot of visual mass and you make sure the background has less visual mass, you can ensure that your subject stands out.

Third, as you become more experienced, you can play with different arrangements of visual weight. For instance, you can balance the scene by including equal amounts of visual weight on both sides of the frame – or you can deliberately create a sense of imbalance by keeping one side of the frame heavier than the other. You can include multiple elements with a lot of visual weight, and you can use them to draw the viewer’s eye around the frame.

Finally, simplifying works for all aspects of visual weight. Eliminate everything that isn’t necessary. Keep the background as simple as you can. Once you’ve done this, look at the remaining elements and think about how the eye will move around between them according to the principles of visual weight. The relationships between them will become clearer as the composition is simplified.

At the end of the day, by always keeping visual weight in mind, you can create more deliberate – and more sophisticated – compositions!

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