Basic Composition - Clouds for Balance

Beautiful on their own, clouds add much more to a scene than first meets the eye. In the two images below, the sky comprises much of the scene but without the fluffy cumulus clouds it would be much less interesting. Now choose the image 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 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 elements by way of 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. In the image below, 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 be less balanced.

 I came upon this lake scene below 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.

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 offer strong texture, tonal and color contrasts, like with the next image. The pinks at the top of the frame add interest and balance to the entire scene.

In this next image, the clouds add a mood to the scene. With some dodging and burning, I placed greater emphasis on the top portion of the sky which balanced the green landscape quite well. 

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 add interest.

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

  • Any cloud will do as 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, including color.
  • At midday, a polarizer filter will make fluffy clouds pop and add greater visual weight to balance a strong foreground element.
  • With 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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