Suffering from Fish Tank Effect?

Disclaimer: Please note, that I write these articles to stimulate some thought. I will sometimes generalise a point or simplify an argument  in an attempt to convey a message. Ultimately,  it is just my point of view and of course is not the definitive word on the matter (as much as I'd love to think so!) ;-)

Over the years I've been running workshops, I've noticed that many photographers tend to put a lot of sky in their photos, pushing fore & mid-ground interesting subjects towards the bottom of the frame (see Picture 1).

If I were to look at Picture 1 from the point of view of balance, I would be tempted to suggest that everything is sinking towards the bottom of the frame. My eye spends most of the time hovering in the lower area of the photo. If I had to use an analogy, it would be that of a fish tank, where everything that is placed inside the tank sinks to the very bottom.  In the case of Picture 1, I would go further and suggest that everything is not only sinking to the bottom of the fish tank, but it is also falling through the floor and beyond!

Picture 1. Classic bad composition (Sinking)

Picture 1.
Classic bad composition (Sinking)

Picture 2. What many photographers would consider balanced, but in my view, is still sinking towards the bottom of the frame

Picture 2.
What many photographers would consider balanced, but in my view, is still sinking towards the bottom of the frame

Picture 3. In my view, this is balanced (not sinking). The composition appears central, even though everything is higher up in the frame

Picture 3.
In my view, this is balanced (not sinking). The composition appears central, even though everything is higher up in the frame

Overall, Picture 1 has a very 'low' feeling to it, caused by my eye being pulled downwards. 

I've seen this kind of composition repeatedly on my workshops over the years and I've often wondered why many photographers employ this approach? I think the reason may be that the photographer is simply trying to 'put everything in the same shot'. Or perhaps it's because they find composition difficult. But I suspect it's because, like most of us, they interpret the world as being made up of half landscape and half sky. So why would you put less or more sky in a photograph would be their reasoning.

A good framer will always add a little extra space to the bottom border of a matt, so the picture feels more central.

A good framer will always add a little extra space to the bottom border of a matt, so the picture feels more central.

Photographs are fixed perpendicular frames. They only have so much area in which to lay out a scene. We can't get all of what we see into the same frame (although I feel many of us try!), Photographs are not real. They are interpretations of reality. A photograph is a 2D representation of something, framed within a rectangle or square. Rectangles don't exist in nature - the world is not a rectangular thing, so we should understand that when framing the world through a frame, we have to use some kind of notion of balance in our compositions.

Simply composing your images like Picture 1 because you like a lot of sky, does not help the composition, and as explained, creates an imbalanced bottom-heavy composition that suggests everything is sinking to the bottom of the frame and beyond.

In Picture 2, I have corrected the imbalance by pushing the camera south (towards the ground), and therefore moving the mountain and tree towards the middle of the image. But although this is a huge improvement on Picture 1, it still feels imbalanced to my eye. And here's why. a good framer will never place images right in the centre of the frame, they will leave a little extra room at the bottom of the frame so the picture sits higher up in the frame. They know that when you do this, the eye perceives it as being central. They also know that when you put something in the middle of a frame, it is perceived as being lower than central. So even in Picture 2, the overall balance still has the suggestion of sinking.

In Picture 3, I've moved the horizon further up the frame and as a result, I've also heightened the distance between the branches and the mountain to give them more 'breathing space'. By placing the horizon a little further up the frame, I feel I've given the image a more 'uplifting' feeling and it also feels more centred. As discussed in the framing example above, images tend to feel more centred when they are placed higher in the frame. So too is the same thing evident in photographic composition: by placing the key elements of a composition higher in the rectangle, the image is given a more centred feel.

Before I close on this post today, I would like to show how I feel the viewer interprets the above three images by the diagrams below. The black circles indicate where the eye tends to be drawn to, and consequently, illustrates the 'weight' of the image. 

Picture 1. The mind interprets the balance of picture as sinking

Picture 1. The mind interprets the balance of picture as sinking

Picture 2. The mind interprets the balance of picture as more central but still sinking towards the bottom

Picture 2. The mind interprets the balance of picture as more central but still sinking towards the bottom

Picture 3. The mind interprets the balance of picture as central, even though the main elements of the composition are higher in the frame than the mid point

Picture 3. The mind interprets the balance of picture as central, even though the main elements of the composition are higher in the frame than the mid point

This subject is covered in my Simplifying Composition e-Book which is available in the store section of this website. I also cover this subject and many other aspects of composition on my Scottish based workshops.