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Patterns and symmetry

Valuable tools that can improve your composition


Patterns abound in nature, and can especially be seen in flowers.
Patterns abound in nature, and can especially be seen in flowers.

A pattern is a design composed of a number of elements arranged in a regular or orderly manner. Some graphics instructors use the term "repetition" to refer to patterns.

Many photographs contain patterns, whether the photographer intended them to or didn’t. Some photographs have prominent patterns in them that were captured intentionally to convey the photographer’s message. Others may contain subtle patterns that the viewer may not at first be aware of, but that may influence how he or she perceives the picture. The viewer's eye may be led through a picture, or may be brought to an abrupt halt, by a pattern.

In certain cases, especially with some forms of abstract photography, the pattern itself is the subject of the photograph.


Nature contains numerous forms of patterns, from the structure of a fern to the organization of a mountain range. The works of man frequently incorporate patterns, from an automobile’s grille to a picket fence.

By capturing on film or your digital camera's sensor some small segment of an object that shows only its patterning, the photographer is often able to clearly identify the object, even though the whole cannot be seen. In other cases, a pattern alone may be insufficient to reveal the identity of the entire object, but the image may nonetheless remain valuable and viable as a photograph for its design merits. Having said that, many pictures of patterns by themselves can be dull subjects. It takes an imaginative, creative photographer to come up with a new twist for a good picture based on a pattern alone.

This image, although sharp and properly-framed, is rather dull and uninteresting. Someone is looking at a classic car. Big deal.
This image, although sharp and properly-framed, is rather dull and uninteresting. Someone is looking at a classic car. Big deal.

A wide-angle close-up showing design symmetry in a classic car yields a more-interesting picture. The fence's pattern is broken and relieved by the man leaning on it.
A wide-angle close-up showing design symmetry in a classic car yields a more-interesting picture. The fence's pattern is broken and relieved by the man leaning on it.

Patterns on patterns can be effective, particularly since one pattern superimposed on another breaks the other pattern, providing variation and a degree of interest for the viewer. In fact, most images of patterns that show a natural break in the pattern are more attractive to the viewer since the monotony of the pattern becomes halted.

Here are some suggestions for including patterns in your photographs:

  • Seek patterns when you need to bring order into a complicated or confusing scene of random elements
  • Use patterns to emphasize a single recurring theme in your subject
  • Use soft, even lighting when patterns are complicated, to prevent confusion and instill a sense of order
  • Select a viewpoint and long focal length for your lens to create patterns from near and distant objects
  • Show a break in a pattern, either by interrupting the pattern by superimposing an object over it, or (better) by featuring a natural break in the pattern when it occurs
  • Provide the viewer with relief from the pattern by inserting an object that is clearly not part of the pattern, but that is part of the image, that naturally belongs in it and that contributes to its cohesiveness, and
  • Overlay a bright pattern on a dark pattern, or vice-versa, to allow the viewer’s eye to dance between the two


SYMMETRY

Symmetrical objects fall under the category of patterns because their components are replicated in a regular, orderly manner. This occurs when both sides, or the top and bottom, of a scene being photographed contain similar (especially mirror-image like) objects or graphic elements. A good example of symmetry in nature can be found in a butterfly's wings when they are spread open.

There are also numerous man-made symmetrical objects that we come across in everyday life, from buildings to sunglasses to the very computer monitor you are viewing right now. Check it out - one side is almost the mirror-image of the other. There is in fact so much man-made symmetry around us that we have to be careful not to bore our viewers by taking too many pictures that emphasize a scene's symmetrical components. Symmetry is an element of composition that must be tastefully and judiciously employed to improve a picture.

This dramatic image contains two distinct patterns - one in the stylized face and the other in the symmetrical positioning of the participants' arms. Photo by Karen Meeks.
This dramatic image contains two distinct patterns - one in the stylized face and the other in the symmetrical positioning of the participants' arms. Photo by Karen Meeks.

This bird's-eye view of a fish illustrates symmetry found in nature.
This bird's-eye view of a fish illustrates symmetry found in nature.

HOW DO YOU EMPLOY SYMMETRY FOR GOOD COMPOSITION?

There are many ways. Symmetry can be used to lead the viewer's eye into or through a composition. By way of example, think of a roadway or railroad track with repetition of the elements on both sides. The viewer's eye tends to travel in the middle of the symmetrical elements towards the destination you choose as the photographer. How do you choose such a destination? By composing your image so that the symmetrical elements lead the eye to it. It might be a mountain located where the railway tracks meet the horizon, or a waterfall where the stream is pointing.

When you are faced with a highly-symmetrical subject in which both sides are virtually identical, consider using its sameness as a backdrop or setting for a smaller object in order to make that object break up the symmetry and become the center of attention. For example, imagine a close-up of an ant walking on a comb. The tines of the comb provide the symmetry; the ant breaks up the symmetry and therefore immediately draws the viewer's attention.

Symmetry is often most effective where it is least expected. Think of a desert scene where you come across a cactus that has a mirror-like shape when compared with another nearby cactus. Photographed together like identical salt and pepper shakers, they might make an interesting picture. Look for symmetry in tree branches, ocean waves, clouds and anywhere where the sameness of two or more elements can result in a good composition.


When using symmetry to deliver your photographic message, be sure:

  • to select a viewpoint (generally a square, frontal view) that emphasizes the symmetry of subjects that have extraordinarily symmetrical properties;
  • to include an element or use a viewpoint that avoids the boredom of complete and total symmetry in a subject that otherwise has no symmetrical relief;
  • that the subject is interesting in and of itself, not just because it happens to be symmetrical;
  • that you don't overlook the need for drama and artistry in your pictures. Symmetry by itself does not guarantee these important factors.

Near-symmetry, as in a leaf where the fronds are almost matched-up or in a fish skeleton where one side is similar but not exactly like the other, is also an effective compositional tool. Perhaps the most common example of near-symmetry for most of us is found in the human face, where one side is almost, but not quite, identical to the other. Near-symmetry tends to be less boring to the eye than the mirror-imaging effect of true symmetry.

Almost the same on each side, this statue is an example of near-symmetry.
Almost the same on each side, this statue is an example of near-symmetry.
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