Basic Composition - Clouds for Balance

Beautiful on their own, clouds add much more to a scene than first meets the eye. Take a look at the image above that was shot in Everglades National Park and the next one below shot in Door County, Wisconsin In each, the sky dominates, but without the fluffy cumulus clouds the scene would be much less interesting. Now choose the one you like best. If you chose the top image, it may be for the same reason I chose it; it is a more balanced scene than the second image. In the top image, the clouds visually counterbalance the trees and frame them quite nicely. While the image below appears lop-sided because most of the visual weight falls to the right leaving a large blank space on the left.

Balance is a basic principle of composition and refers to how elements within the frame relate to each other regarding visual weight. It implies that these elements create equilibrium - in other words, one part of the scene does not appear visually heavier than the other. A balanced composition creates harmony while an unbalanced scene creates tension. Because of this, nature photographers often rely on balanced compositions, particularly in waterscape or landscape images. A balanced composition brings the viewer into the entire scene and not just a small portion of it. The image below from Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida is a good example of this idea. Here, the beach flora has the most visual mass on the right side of the frame, but the cloud formations on the left help counterbalance the flora which allows the viewer to take in the entire beach scene and not only focus on the grasses.

While balance can be achieved through pure symmetry, this is most often not achievable in nature. Instead, balanced elements differ in various ways including size, shape, color and texture. What matters is that they appear equal in visual weight. Clouds can be significant through their shapes, textures, and tonal and color contrasts. It is for these reasons that clouds should be placed within the frame with the intention of counterbalancing a visually dominant element such as trees or rocks. Take a look at the image below from Big Cypress National Preserve where color in the clouds serves to counterbalance the trees. Without the color, this image would not have the same impact visually. Likewise, if I had moved to the right placing the red clouds directly above the trees, the image would less balanced.

In the next image below from northern Michigan, I came upon this lake scene when there were no clouds in the sky. I thought the lake was beautiful, but with a blank sky, it was flat. Within minutes, clouds moved in to add visual weight to the sky, counterbalancing the foreground lily pads. The clouds also added a nice symmetry and depth to the scene.

For the image below taken near St Augustine, Florida, I placed the main subject in the bottom left portion of the frame and balanced the scene with the bright light from the rising sun in the top right corner. The two main elements (rocks and sunlight) are counterbalanced using the rule of thirds. This not only provides balance, but also a more visually dynamic scene.

Clouds do not have to be powerful visual elements to add balance. In the image below, the beach grasses are placed in the bottom third of the scene, while the sky comprises the remainder. The wisps of clouds add just enough visual weight to balance the scene and add some depth.

What happens when the sky is completely covered in clouds? In such a case, clouds can have strong textures and tonal contrasts, like with the next two images below from the Ten Thousand Islands. In the first one, the dark portion at the top of the frame is shaped like the foreground driftwood. And in the image below that, the sunlight behind the clouds created a visual point of interest to counterbalance the water movement.

Opposite of a sky full of clouds is one that is mostly void of clouds, thus providing lots of negative space. Negative space gives small or subtle clouds more visual weight, such as in this next image where I used a cloud to counterbalance the boat on the water. Note the rule of thirds.

Nature does not always cooperate when it comes to balancing elements within a frame. Look at the two images below, the top one is the original. This is another example where I have lots of negative space to work with. The original image did not achieve good balance. Now look at the second image where I flipped the trees horizontally, placing the bulkier trees on the right, giving more visual weight to the bottom ride side to counterbalance the two larger clouds on the left side. It’s a subtle difference in composition, but in my eye the second one is more balanced.

Now that you have several examples of using clouds to create balance, here are some tips on how you can use them as well.

  • Any cloud will do so long as it provides tonal, textural or color contrast. It all depends on where it is placed relative to your main subject(s).
  • Early morning and late evening sunlight works best and will illuminate clouds in interesting ways. This works with the uncovered sun behind you and clouds in front of you. When the sky is completely cloud covered, having the sun in front of you means portions of the clouds can be back lit dramatically.
  • At midday, a polarizer filter will make those fluffy clouds pop and add greater visual weight to balance a strong foreground element.
  • When there are more than one cloud of similar type (cumulus), try to keep separation between the clouds and the main elements.
  • Use the rule of thirds for placing your clouds and main elements. Try to balance the top with the bottom and the left with the right.
  • When clouds cover the entire sky, look for tonal contrasts and illuminated portions that stand out.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY, move around and change your perspective to find the best composition. If you are using a tripod, take the camera off the tripod and move around with it in hand before you set up the tripod and settle on a composition.
  • Look through the viewfinder to compose your scene and do this as you change your perspective. The viewfinder helps you to place your elements within the frame.

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