The Forgotten Force Behind Your Photography

Visual weight is an often overlooked but essential element of your photographs. It influences how your images are seen and is what drives your compositions.

It is the force that grabs your attention in an image but is often overlooked by photographers. Each element of a photo has a different visual weight. Therefore, the different components of an image work against each other. Everyone competes for attention. In other words, we notice some things before others. This is why we compose shots in a particular way and decide which elements we include in the frame to ensure balance, fluidity, rhythm and hierarchy. If we want compelling images, we can use our knowledge of visual weight to dictate how the viewer reads them.

It is unclear precisely why we perceive certain elements as having more visual weight and catching our attention more easily than others. Nevertheless, different factors vary in their power to attract attention.

Color hues have different visual weights. Yellow is considered the lightest weight and red is the heaviest. Orange, green, blue and purple fall between those in this order of increasing weight.

There’s more to tint, though. Increased saturation also gives greater visual weight. Thus, if we place a brightly colored object on a paler background, this bold object will exert greater force and our eyes will gravitate towards it. Likewise, brightness also changes the visual weight. Darker tones are heavier and present more power to grab our attention.

Although we usually think of objects with more visual weight catching our eye, that’s not necessarily the case. Contrast can come into play. A light tone can stand out against a dark background, and that’s what we notice first.

The proportion also affects the visual weight. Our mind believes that a large object has more weight than a smaller one. However, considering the above factors, a larger, slightly tinted object may have less visual weight than a smaller, dark object. Similarly, a group of compact objects has more weight than if the components were more widely scattered, just as denser objects are heavier than loose, airy objects.

We often consider the necessary simplicity in a photograph. Our gaze is diverted from negative space to more complex elements. Therefore, more complex areas of an image carry more visual weight. This is because the mind takes longer to process its information.

There is also the visual weight that we apply because of our psychology. We are drawn, perhaps more strongly than any other factor, to the people within an image. In the portraits, it is their eyes that attract us. Similarly, animals are more likely to attract our attention than inanimate objects.

As I mentioned earlier, visual weight is what we consider when trying to balance a photo. Balance is achieved with equal weight on each side of an axis. In its simplest form, symmetry achieves this, with one side of one axis mirroring the other. If you remember the set of scales you used in elementary school, a heavier weight near the fulcrum can be balanced by a lighter weight farther away on the other side. Similarly, different visual weights can be compensated by their relative proximities to the axis.

One important thing to remember is that we don’t have to balance a photo with elements that are weighted equally. For example, a complex subject might balance a single dark red, a single human might balance a multitude of birds, or a giant white hot air balloon might balance a small dark basket suspended below.

We are used to seeing the world around us affected by gravity. Heavier objects are on the ground while the clearer sky is above. In photography, there is a usual preference for the same. But a heavier object above moving into a lighter area below can also work.

Flow is how easily our eyes move around the photo. We use the visual weight of the elements to dictate the order in which we view the image and where we stop.

We first see the essential information in an image, then we move on to other less important elements in order of importance. This is called the hierarchy within the image.

Rhythm is widely used in photography. We are looking for repeating patterns of shapes, colors, textures, tones, etc. Sometimes we are happy with it. Then the pattern has equal weight on the image. However, we can also interrupt it. Therefore, this interruption has a greater visual weight.

This abstract idea of ​​weight is not just limited to vision. We think leather has a deep or heavy smell, while we consider light lemony. High-pitched musical notes are considered to be lighter than low-pitched ones. We intuitively know that the color red, the scent of soy sauce, the taste of Merlot and the deep notes of a Beethoven symphony have something intangible in common.

Additionally, emotions can range from light, such as joy and surprise, to heavy, such as anger and depression.

This notion of weight applied to different sensory experiences is not limited to English-speaking cultures. I talked about it with friends with various mother tongues. Many, but not all, have similar abstract concepts. Sometimes they use a word that can be translated more closely as depth, strength, or intensity, but others haven’t recognized the concept of sensory weight at all. Is visual weight part of the human psyche? Or is it cultural and language related? Some other aesthetic aspects of photography and art are cultural, so it will be interesting to explore this further.


Of course, this short article only scratches the surface of this fascinating topic. Plus, there’s a lot to consider when taking a photo. It is worth investigating the visual weight more deeply and analyzing how the elements work in your own photographs and those of others. It trains your eye. Applying these techniques and harnessing visual weight will eventually happen automatically.

It would be fantastic to hear your thoughts on this topic. Especially if your first language is not English and you come from a completely different culture than mine. Is the weighting of the different colours, smells, tastes and sounds consistent with those described above? Or do you not have this concept at all.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to you joining the discussion below.

If you enjoyed this, please read my previous articles on emotion in photography and my exploration of the type of photographer you are.

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