Why your photos look bad (or good)? A composition tutorial on visual weight.

Why do certain photos seem more pleasing on the eye than others? It is a question that I am always asking myself. One of the illusive elements of photography is what makes something look good or indeed bad. 

I have been looking for a simple formula for improving my photography for years and alas I have concluded that one doesn’t exist. However, there is something that plays a huge part in the appearance of a photo and that is visual balance.

To understand visual balance we first need to look at a few different terms. Namely symmetry, asymmetry, visual weight and visual direction. How can a photo have weight I hear you ask? read on…


A simple way of creating balance is using symmetry.  It is obvious why the image balances and quickly the photo looks pleasing to the eye.


In this image there is obvious balance between the top and bottom of the image that is created between the horizontal line of symmetry. Similarly you can create balance through symmetry in a landscape orientation image with a vertical line of symmetry like the shot from Kirkjufell below.



A less obvious but actually fairly intuitive way is to use asymmetry where the images aren’t symmetric but are still in balance.  This can often look better in a photo as it is a more realistic approach to creating an image in most landscapes. 

You probably don’t realise it most of the time but you will use asymmetric balance in your photos to make them look good. Here is a simple example of a photo with asymmetric balance.


In this photo there is no line of symmetry but the rainbow and the cliff balance each other out to create a visual pleasing image. Each item in the photo has the same or similar visual weight. So what is visual weight and how do you measure it?

Visual weight

First of all you can’t measure it and to determine the visual weight of something isn’t really a science. It is intuition but understanding some basic principles can help you get going in the right direction.

Think of visual weight as how much you are attracted to that element in the image.  The more it attracts attention the more the visual weight of the object or area of the image.

Once you understand that every element on an image (object, space, person, tree, mountain, sky, colour, shadow, highlight) has a visual weight then it becomes easier to understand how to use this to guide the viewer and more importantly balance your image and improve your photography.

Let’s have a look at a few of the things that control visual weight. Here are the elements that I most often look at when composing an image.

Tonal value

The tonal value or brightness of a part of a photo is one of the more essential elements of visual weight. However, it is slightly counter intuitive and dark colours have a greater weighting than light colours.


The bottom hill with people on it in shadow has a strong visual weight as it has a low tonal value near black. It is balanced by a much larger lighter area at the top of the image.


In landscape photography colour plays a very important role in the balance of an image. You can easily see this when photographing a scene with a blue sky. The visual weight of the sky is large and often unbalances the scene. It is one reason that many photographers avoid shooting on blue sky days.


This image isn’t well balanced as the blue sky pulls your eye due to it’s visual weight being greater than the road below.


The red car in this image attracts your attention as red has a strong visual weight. However, the abundance of green helps to balance the image. The road also helps to connect the scene together.

Size and Position in the Frame

The apparent size of an object or element in a frame is really important in assessing it’s visual weight. But it isn’t quite as easy as just the size in the 2D space of the photo. Your mind is clever and it will give a small rock that is in the foreground of the image a larger visual weight that a larger rock further back in the image that is the same apparent size.


This rock in the foreground has a lot of visual weight as it is in the foreground and larger in size than the surrounding rocks. The dark sky starts to balance the image but there is a strong tension to this image.. However, sometimes having a slight imbalance can produce something special. What do you think about this image?


When shooing in low evening or morning light in landscape photography you often give objects more texture to portray the 3D shape in a 2D space. This then increases the visual weight of that element.


The balance of this image is helped by the low light on the path. This brings out the texture in the stone flags and combined with the strong pattern and powerful diagonal balances out the dark rock on the LHS of the image. Otherwise it will appear very unbalanced.

Shape Complexity

A small element with a more complex shape like a bike or person will have greater visual weight to something like a mountain.


Take this image of my looking out over the Langdale hills in the Lake District. There is no strong shapes apart from me and even though I am small the defined shape balances out the large sky and dark mountain. The corner area I am standing in helps to add to the balance as well.

There are many other things that impact on visual weight. Go and have a look at your photos and assign a visual weight to items and see if you can understand why the photos look great or not.

Although I tend not to use a lot of these things when I am composing an image as it is now more of an intuitive process over time I have found that using these to examine my images often helps me understand why they don’t work and improve next time.  I feel that ultimately this becomes second nature. Do remember though that not every image needs to be balanced - sometimes you want to create tension in an image.  However, I find that a balanced landscape photo tends to work better.

Let me know in the comments below what you think helps to balance an image and impact visual weight.

Good luck!

7 Awesome Landscape Photography YouTube vloggers You Should Follow

Do these questions sound familiar?

  • How did they take that photo?
  • What setting did they use?
  • What equipment did they use?
  • Where exactly was that photo taken?

If you are anything like me then you will have a thirst for knowledge to improve your landscape photography.  Whilst there is no substitute for getting out and shooting, failing, shooting some more, and more and more, reading or listening to how others shoot is inspiring.

I started vlogging earlier in the year (My VLOG > https://www.youtube.com/nigeldanson ) as I wanted to share my experiences and create a record of places I have visited.  Whilst researching this I came across a number of inspiring landscape photographers on YouTube and wanted to share their channels.

1)  Simon Baxter - Landscape Photographer in Yorkshire, England

Simon Baxter is fairly new to YouTube but his videos are stunning.  His knowledge of the ancient oak woodlands in Yorkshire makes for compelling viewing.  

Join Simon and his pet Labradoodle in his first woodland photography video below

2) Thomas Heaton - Landscape Photographer in North England

Thomas Heaton started vlogging about his adventures and photography shoots back in November 2014.  He has amassed over 100,000 subscribers through his engaging personality and wit.  His photography takes him all over the world to places like Iceland, Zion National Park and Yosemite in California.

Interesting fact - His image is used as the homepage to the Flickr App (the one with the tent)

3) Andrew Marr - Landscape Photography in Australia

Andrew Marr shoots amazing seascapes and landscapes in Australia.  He gives the viewer an insight into his exact setup and you always come away with some great tips and techniques to improve your photography.

Watch this great video on long exposures in landscape photography


4) Peter McKinnon - Photography and Cinematography

Peter McKinnon isn't a dedicated landscape photographer.  But his skills in editing photographs, composition and photography techniques are compelling.  The care and attention he puts into all his videos and stories make him one of my favorite vloggers.


5) Ted Forbes - General photography and in depth discussions

The Art of Photography is all about the passion of photography.  Ted's reflective anecdotes about his life taking photos, famous photographers and techniques is inspiring.  He also has a strong community of photographers that watch his 'show' and participate.  

Here is a video he produced about the work of Ansel Adams


6) Joshua Cripps - General photography tips - with many on landscape photograhy

Joshua Cripps produces the channel 'Professional Photography Tips' with many of his videos talking about landscape photography techniques.  His videos are mainly about techniques in photography and his humorous style make them enjoyable to watch.

Here is a great video about using the gradient filter in Lightroom


7) Ben HORNE - AMAZING Large format photography of Zion and Death Valley

Ben has been making videos about his trips to Zion Canyon and Death Valley for years and he has got a great catalogue of material (over 300 videos!!!).  His images are amazing and his vlogging style is delivered in mesmeric mellow tones.  Large format photography is not for the faint hearted and he makes it seem easy!.  It requires a great deal of patience and dedication which Ben has in abundance.  An awesome watch!

This is a great video from his fall trip to Zion on 2016

 8) Nick Page - Landscape Photographer focusing on seascapes << BOOM I ACTUALLY CAME UP WITH 8!

Nick's photography on seascapes is amazing!  He has spent a lot of time experimenting with light, exposure and timing to create stunning images.  His vlog about the journey to take these images is well work a look.

This video on chasing waves shows how important it is to have patience and perseverance in photography


My landscape photography vlog

I started vlogging about landscapes earlier this year.  Here are a couple of my videos that share my passion for seeking out new locations and 'golden light'

7 best locations to photograph Yosemite | tips, techniques and videos


Yosemite National Park is probably what kick started my interest in photography.  It was the location of the photographs by the amazing Ansel Adams that I admired when I was 14 and why I first started experimenting with photography.  I first travelled there around 15 years ago and like anybody that has been there will know I was amazed by the magic of the shear cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral.  The view as you come through the tunnel is straight from lord of the rings. I returned there once more and then got the opportunity to return more often as I moved to San Francisco, California in 2016.  I was also lucky enough to visit in the winter of 2016/17 which was incredible.

Following this winter trip I produced a 2 part vlog entitled "Landscape Photography - Yosemite in the Winter". This 2 part video has some great information about photographing Yosemite and follows me on location with a D800. Part 1 is below and part 2 is further down in this article.


I wanted to share in this blog some of the gear I used to take the photographs and talk about the locations I went to in a bit more detail.  When I first went to the area and search the web for information for landscape photographers and wanted to provide more useful information.

Yosemite has so many areas to shoot that are accessible from the valley road - and this blog aims to list my top 7.  Obviously there are other locations to the ones listed below but I feel that this is a fairly good summary of the places I found to be best.

I have pinpointed on the map below these 7 best locations to photograph Yosemite (descriptions and photos below...)

Best locations to photograph Yosemite
Best locations to photograph Yosemite

The 7 Yosemite photo spots you must Visit

1) Tunnel View

The obvious one is tunnel view – this is the classic Ansel Adams image and is best photographed at sunset to catch the light on El Capitan (although you can get some great light at sunrise).  It is difficult to get a unique shot from this location though and you really need clouds to get a great image.

Tunnel view, yosemite, sunset
Tunnel view, yosemite, sunset

Yosemite Valley Sunset, Tunnel View D800 - 0.5s - f/9 - 34mm ISO 50 (0.9 soft grad, polarizing filter)

Tunnel view gets very busy at sunset so make sure you arrive early.  It is a great place to watch the sunset and the mist form in the valley.  Also - why not be creative and take a timelapse (as you can see in the start of part 1 of my Yosemite vlog I did just that with my Yi 4K+ on a tripod).  Remember to stay after the sun has gone down though as the purple glow afterwards is sometimes incredible!  Take the image below - I was just packing up and ready to leave - luckily I had my Fuji X-T2 and took this image handheld!


Purple glow - Moments after sunset, Yosemite Valley Fujifilm X-T2 1/40s f/3.2 35mm ISO 320

2) El Capitan Meadow

The granite shear faces of El Capitan, Cathedral and the surrounding rocks makes a great backdrop to any photograph.   El Capitan meadow is situated just west of El Capitan bridge and it is best to park North of the river.  From there you can get amazing views of El Capitan and Cathedral.  It is also a great place to wonder around and just take in the majestic Yosemite Valley


Golden Oaks against Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan Meadow Nikon D800 - 1/125s f6.3 50mm ISO 64

It is an amazing place to photograph in the morning and evening ( as can be seen in part 2 of my vlog on Yosemite in the winter >> https://youtu.be/hATu3TMrhuw )


3) The Merced River at (secret location - see map)

The Merced river meanders through the valley and it is well worth hiking along it to find something different.  If you are at the east part of the valley you can get El Capitan in the background with the wonderful Merced river as a leading line.  I have marked on the map the exact location of this shot as it is a bit hidden away and not an obvious location.  You need to park south of the river and hike down to this location.


Morning Glow on Merced River and El Capitan Nikon D800 - 1/100s f/8 24mm ISO 100 (Lee 0.9 soft grad)

4) Hike up to Vernal falls

The hike up to Vernal falls is amazing and the falls themselves are worth photographing.  However, it is the vistas that you get whilst you are walking up that are really stunning.  And in fall the you get splashes of color from the aspens and other deciduous trees.


Splash of color, Yosemite Nikon D200 1/160s f/7 45mm ISO 100 (handheld)

5) Yosemite Falls from Swinging Bridge

A great place to photograph Yosemite falls is from is just off the swinging bridge carpark.  You can either shoot from the bridge itself or wonder down the river and get some unique shots.  This image was taken with my 70-200mm lens (a lens that is really useful to have in Yosemite!).  The trees in this shot still have a hoar frost from the cold clear night.


Yosemite Falls in the Winter Nikon D800 - 1/100s f/6 98mm ISO 64 (tripod)

6) Sentinel Dome at Sunset

Most people that head up the Glacier Point road go to Glacier Point at sunset.  But if you park 1 mile before you get to Glacier Point you can hike up to Sentinel Dome.  It is an amazing hike and the views when you get there are equally breathtaking.  There are compositions in many directions from here but I like shooting back towards the sun and getting El Capitan from above.  Remember to take a head torch as when you come down it will be dusk and it goes dark very quickly.


El Capitan from Sentinel Dome - Sunset Nikon D800 - 1/13s f/9 200mm ISO 80 Lee 0.9 hard grad (tripod)

7) Valley View at Sunrise (or sunset!)

The list wouldn't be complete without adding in the sunrise / sunset shoot at valley view.  This is another famous location and probably at its best after a snowfall in winter.  I have never managed to capture it as well as I have wanted but here is my best shot!  Ideally you need mist, snow and breaking sunlight (not too much to ask!)


Sunrise at Valley View - Yosemite Nikon D800 0.5s f/13 16mm ISO 64 (2 images blended in photoshop) (tripod)

Best times to photograph Yosemite - sunrise and sunset

The mornings are often the best time to take photos in the winter as the hoar frost lingers on the branches of the trees and creates a crystal coating on the ground fauna.  However, closer to sunset you often get fog setting in and this can lead to great images throughout the valley but mostly in the meadow areas at the east and west end of the valley.  I try to avoid shooting in the middle of the day as the harsh light is difficult to control.  However you can use El Capitan or other large granite faces to reflect the light and that reflected light is great for brining out detail in images.

If you are lucky you will get rays of sun through the evening mist like the shot I took below.  Good luck!


Pastel Winter Sun, Yosemite Fuji X-T2 1/550s f/4 35mm ISO 200 (handheld)

Fuji X-T2 vs Fuji X100T - Finally decided which one

You have a D800 - so why on earth buy a Fuji X-series camera? I hear you ask! This pretty much reflected my wife's thoughts.  I had purchased a Fuji X100s about 3 years ago and it was awesome.

I had been looking for a good fixed focus small camera that takes great photos and isn't the price of a Leica and when the x100s came out in Jan 2013 I got one.  I loved the camera so much and it provided awesome quality photos in a pocket sized camera.  However, it was stolen earlier this year in Yosemite.

I was going to replace it with the Fuji X100T but then the X-T2 came out and I had a decision to make.

My thoughts on the benefits of each in my X100T vs X-T2 battle (you can find lots of technical comparisons out there - this was my thought process for both)

Fuji X100T

  • Smaller, compact and portable (with small lens)
  • Looks better
  • Awesome case that makes it look even better
  • Integrated flash
  • Cheaper
  • Integrated ND filter
  • Loved the X100S

Fuji X-T2

  • Newer technology (better sensor, focusing, speed)
  • Flexibility - whole range of lenses (not restricted to 23mm)
  • Still small enough to carry in backpack
  • Better focus (X100S was very bad)
  • Tiltable screen
Golden Gate Bridge Pano - Fuji X-T2 (Acros film simulation)
Golden Gate Bridge crop from above image - Fuji X-T2 (Acros film simulation)

It came down to 2 things - the flexibility of the X-T2 vs the size of the X100T.  Ultimately I wanted it to take with me all the time so I could capture photos on commute and when I wouldn't normally have my Nikon D800.  However, I decided that I was willing to give up some size for the added flexibility of the interchangeable lenses.  Having had the X100S and worked with 23mm for over a year there had been a lot of occasions where I wanted something slightly bigger.  Mostly for when I was photographing my kids.

dscf0160Waiting for the moon - Fuji X-T2 (straight out of camera)

So a chose the Fuji X-T2.  Being a tech geek it was the a decision that was also heavily influenced by the latest technology and amazing reviews on sites like dpreview, fstoppers and luminous landspace - see below for a lis

Fstopper review of the Fuji X-T2 >>

DPREVIEW review of the Fuji X-T2 >>

Luminous Landscape review of the Fuji X-T2 >>


When I finally decided on the X-T2 I then struggled to find one in stock anywhere but I finally found one and I bought my camera from Samy's Camera in San Francisco.

Initial impressions are very positive.  I find myself wanted to shoot with the Fuji a lot more than my D800.  It is a camera that just wants to be used.  It is fun and the dials are so useful.  I will post some blogs over the next few weeks of the performance in more detail but here are some of the images I have taken in the last week.