Why and How: Mastering Masses in Nature Photography

When you create a nature photograph, you must be very attentive to the balance of the masses, to prevent a poorly balanced photo.

This concept of mass is very important, it is essential because it improves and facilitates the reading of your photographs.

This photograph of a red deer stag during the bugle is balanced in masses. No area is swinging in one direction or the other.
This photograph of a red deer stag during the bugle is balanced in masses. No area is swinging in one direction or the other.

Definition of the Photographic Mass

A mass is not measured in kilograms or in pounds alone. In nature photography, the mass is an essential element to master when creating balanced photos that attract the eye of the viewer to the point of interest.

Unlike a physical mass, a photographic mass does not have a standardized unit that can be easily measured. Instead of being assessed in pounds or kilograms, photographic mass is quantified by the feelings it evokes through its visual aspect.

In a nature photograph, the large photographic elements weigh more heavily than smaller details.

Dark photographic elements have a heavier effect than clear photographic elements.

The Effects of Mass in a Composition

During my nature photography workshops, I often use the analogy of a Roman scale to analyze if a photograph is well balanced in its masses.

For example, if I see a dark mass in the left part of a photo and there is no mass reflected in the right part, I say that the photo is unbalanced. The photo seems to lean to the left. Aesthetically, it is not beautiful because the eye of the viewer will automatically be attracted to this mass and his or her eyes will avert downwards as if was attracted by gravity. The viewer will not look at the points of interest immediately. The ideal with this analogy of the Roman balance is to have two masses that counterbalance in a photo.

Of course, as usual, there are exceptions that can be applied to this general rule. A small photographic element will not necessarily cause a mass imbalance.

The arrangement of photographic elements in a composition is important as I have explained in this article.

Let us suppose that the center of the scene corresponds to a pressure point. If a photographic element with a heavy mass is located to the left of the pressure point, and if a lighter element is located to the right, then an imbalance seems to have occurred. This is an optical effect.

Role of Positive and Negative Space in Mass Management

In a photograph, the masses have a close relationship with negative and positive spaces. They do not just serve to judge an image as I have described in this article, but they play an essential role in the photo’s balance.

In a photograph, the positive space is where photographic elements exist with forms. Negative space which I described in this article, is the empty space around these forms. Just to remind you, the negative space is the space that surrounds the point of interest of a photograph.

For example, in the image of an animal’s silhouette, the negative space makes up the background of the photo.

Negative space has an essential function in a photograph: it ensures balance. It allows the eyes of the viewer to relax by preventing visual clutter.

Negative space can be a neutral or contrasting background. It allows you to direct your gaze towards the main point of interest, without any distraction.

The proper placement of shapes in relation to the surrounding negative space is essential to facilitate the reading of a photograph. This is how I ensure an excellent balance of the masses.

The absence of content through individual forms, and consequently of masses, does not mean the absence of interest. On the contrary, the negative space provides a completely different view if it is well chosen in the scene.

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It is for this reason that you must choose the photographic point of view for a nature scene. This choice ensures a good balance of mass. The remoteness of the centers of interest gently guides the viewer’s gaze towards the smaller masses.

Some Examples of Photos With Mass Imbalances

This photograph of a swan taking-off shows a mass imbalance with the dark area at the top.
This photograph of a swan taking-off shows a mass imbalance with the dark area at the top.
This photograph of a Little Egret presents several mass imbalances.
This photograph of a Little Egret presents several mass imbalances.

Some General Guidelines

The strongest interests in a scene are distinguished by having more mass than any other item present.

Regular shapes have more weight than irregular shapes.

In the western world, the elements on the right side of an asymmetric photograph have more weight than similarly sized elements on the left side.

In a photograph, you must be careful about the way in which you direct the gaze of living beings. For example, an animal moving in a certain direction, but with its gaze directed in the opposite direction, can cause an imbalance of the masses. This creates visual confusion. To avoid this, you as the photographer must always monitor the movements of certain shapes in a scene.


Mastering the masses in the composition of a photograph is essential to ensuring a defined balance throughout the entire scene. In artistic photography, this is a fundamental concept.

Mismanagement of the masses can lead to complete disinterest by a viewer because his eyes will not be attracted to the essential points of interests. Our hope for you, is that with practice, such mismanagement can be avoided, and the overall quality of your works will increase.


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