Balancing Elements – A Study of Locomotive Parts

Do you recall the sketches from your childhood? Recently, my parents shared with me some of the sketches that I had drawn as a kid. The most common sketch was a landscape done with crayons. It seems I was quite fond of it. There was a row of mountains, a river flowing down from the mountains dividing the foreground into two parts. One of these had a simple house and the other part had a tree growing. Behind the hills, on one side was the sun and on the other side were birds flying. I am sure many of you created similar sketches. Now even my daughter creates similar sketches.


Following up on those days, this is how I have started to balance out my compositions. Now I am learning to let the creative side of my mind, loose. The results seem more pleasing to me now.

Pressure Meter

(Pressure Meter & Valves – The overall frame is balanced by these three elements and the vertical pipe.)


Balance of Elements in Composition

The above story was also repeated in a book I read sometime back. The author went on to say that those sketches represented the creative side of our brain. With schooling, the instructions in our painting classes, the scoldings from art teachers – this creative creative side of the brain gets suppressed by our analytical brains…. the aware part of our consciousness. As kids our compositions were balanced. An empty sky was brought to life by sun and the birds, the birds balanced the part of the frame which was opposite to the sun. Similarly, the house and trees balanced each other. The flowing river and the stretch of mountains helped in dividing the frame in separate sub-frames, while connecting everything together…. This is the balance of elements in a composition.

When composing photographs now, try thinking like a child. Let your creative side of brain overcome the analytical part. This is what this article is all about.

Referring to an old article of mine – Learning to Visualize, there are various ways to strengthen visualization. Balance of elements in a composition is an integral part of composition.


My Subject – Old Steam Locomotive

For this study on balance of elements, I chose an old steam locomotive that was undergoing restoration. Why go out an choose a locomotive of all things? Well, it sometimes needs a change of place or subject to inspire creativity. For me, this was something new.

To force myself to see the elements in composition, I opted to use a medium telephoto lens. This helped me avoid the usual cliche shot of the whole locomotive. Pictures of the steam-engine were captured by everyone there and were also on sale in the souvenir shop nearby. By not using a wide-angle or normal lens, I was able to focus on parts of the engine.


Red Engine

(The golden joint is balanced by the two red pipes below and the silver band on the right. This was on the outside of the engine being restored. See the description below for more details. Nikon Df with Zeiss 135mm at f/8 and 1/160 sec shutter speed.)

Forms in Red EngineThe black and white image is of the same composition after applying posterization and Gaussian blur. By getting out the color and textures away from the image, this now gives a gross representation of the main elements in the image and how they are balanced with each other. The white and grey lines are the main elements. Notice how the big joint on the left top and the pipe below is balanced by the curved band on the right. The pair of slanting pipes in the lower part of the frame balance the prominence of the elements above.

Since the elements in this particular case were the parts of a locomotive, it was difficult to move them around. However moving the camera around was not difficult. By properly finding a location to stand, the main elements in the above composition acquired perfect unison and the image looks interesting.


Engine Pipes

(Another image of some pipes. The curved piped in the top and bottom of the frame balance out the prominent joints in the center. In fact, they also provide a rough frame around the main elements. A tight crop, combined with softening of the lower pipe increases the overall tension in the image and forces the mind to seek out comfort in the center of the frame.)


Apart from the locomotive, there were some old railway coaches too in the yard. One of them was all rusted and falling apart. This one attracted my attention too.

Abandoned Railway Coach

(The windows with their frames and coach body can grossly be seen as a grid of nine squares. All of these seem balanced out due to rust and texture which itself is a supporting element. The yellow handle adds another focal point.)


Adding Balance to Your Compositions

Let loose your creative side of mind. Here are some tricks to teach yourself to see the balance in compositions –

  • Try to see the main lines or shapes in the image. Imagine how the image would look without colors, without textures and without any subtle gradations. A trick to do this is to imagine what main lines would you draw from the scene in front of you if you were allowed to draw just five straight lines (or less).
  • Try to look at the composition from the corner of your eye and see how elements balance out. (this is tricky but can be learnt)
  • Try to defocus your eyes (either by excessive squinting or consciously defocusing (yes, even this can be learnt) and then observe the composition.
  • Learn to see in monochrome. One good exercise is to set your camera to black and white and click jpeg. Do this for few days and you will start seeing forms, interplay of lights & shadows etc. This will also help in bringing out balance in compositions.
  • Use a view camera if you can afford it. The upside down image on the ground-glass improves the overall composition skills.


Two Valves

(Two Valves – The composition is balanced out by both the valves and their pipes. The blurred background in top right further balances  out the pipes from lower right corner. This photograph is an exception to the rule of three’s (Composition Rules – Part II))


Just a word of caution – balancing compositions is about adding elements that add something to the overall effect. As a famous photographer has repeatedly said – anything extra that does not add anything to the photograph takes away something from it !


Further Reading :
Learning to Visualize
Stand out from the crowd

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