Kirk Marshall Photography Kirk Marshall Photography


Tension Modes

September 10th, 2019

We can introduce tension into our images using a number of mechanisms or modes. 

In my last post I talked about creating tension through the placement of our subject or focal point. The closer the subject or focal point is to the center of the image the less tension will be present in the image. Moving the subject or focal point away from the center creates increasing levels of tension.  

Part of the tension that’s introduced when we decenter the subject is due to the imbalance that’s created. Consider this image from the Reichstag Building in Berlin, Germany. 


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-70 @ 60mm, 1/200s, f/11, ISO 1250)

The people in the image have been placed on the right side of the image which induces tension through their placement (placement tension); like the marble hovering up the side of the bowl (see blog post from Sep 3). Additional tension is also present due to the comparatively dark tonal values on the right side of the image (tonal tension). These dark values are visually heavier and induce feelings in the viewer that the weight should drag down that side of the frame. 

While the horizontal placement of elements seems to have the greatest effect on balance and tension, vertical placement has an effect as well, though it may be more subtle. In this image of the Carillon in Berlin, Germany there are several modes of tension acting on the viewer. 


(Carillon, Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 105mm, 1/160s, f/11, ISO 100)

The most noticeable tension is the placement of the Carillon itself, left of center. But there are also elements of tension through the vertical location of elements, or rather the division between elements. The division between the trees and the sky is about a third up from the bottom and the top of the Carillon placed about a third down from the top. The placement of these divisions adds tension that wouldn’t be there if they were placed centrally. There is also a strong tonal and textural imbalance between the light, smooth sky and the darker, leafy trees. 

As a photographer understanding tension and being able to architect the right amount of tension to convey your vision is key to composing an image you’ll be proud of.