Most of the rules we use for composing good photographs come from classical art. The tricks that the masters used to make their paintings centuries ago are still as applicable today to your photography as they were then. The basics of putting the real world down on a two-dimensional canvas never change.
One of those fundamental principles is symmetry. Using symmetry and patterns in photography are great ways to make your images more appealing and more impactful.
What is the Meaning of Symmetry?
Symmetry occurs when parts of your composition mirror other parts. If you think about the human body, it has vertical symmetry. The left half mirrors the right half.
Imagine taking a picture, and folding it down the middle. If both halves are identical, then the image is symmetrical.
Symmetry is found everywhere in nature once you start looking for it. And most human-made objects have symmetry too. Cars, airplanes, boats, ships, houses, buildings, and many of the products we use every day have symmetry. Why? Because the human brain is hardwired to like symmetrical objects. We associate symmetry very closely with beauty.
Harnessing this almost automatic and beautiful composition technique isn't hard, and that's why many artists use it. From painters and sculptors to architects and photographers, symmetry is universal too in art and it’s everywhere.
In photography, some prominent examples come to mind in wedding photography. Why are those photos with the wedding party lined up next to the bride and groom so popular? Symmetry. What about the rows of pews in the church, or shots of the aisle and decorations? That's symmetry again.
Three Types of Symmetry in Photography
Three types of symmetry can be used in a photographic composition. They depend on where the axis of symmetry occurs–horizontally, vertically, or radially.
Horizontal symmetry occurs when the image is divided between the top and bottom. The classic example is a landscape with mountains in the background, which are reflected in a foreground lake.
Vertical symmetry is likely the most common type found in photography. Human and animal faces are vertically symmetrical; they mirror one another from left to right.
Some images are symmetrical around a central point, like the ripples radiating away from a water splash. This type of symmetry is harder to find, but when you see it, it will immediately make sense. Radial symmetry pops up in architecture from time to time.
Flowers and some plants have radial symmetry, as do the spokes on a wheel or propellers on boats and planes. The fashionable "tiny planet" effect is an excellent example of radial symmetry. In buildings and architecture, staircases are often radially symmetrical, as are round features like capitol domes. Real-world examples include the Pentagon building in Washington, or the famous circular stained glass rose windows on Notre Dame in Paris.
Camera Equipment and Settings
There's no specific type of camera or equipment you need for symmetry photography. Symmetry is all in the composition, and composition is an element of every photograph. You can apply composition techniques to everything from a webcam to a professional medium or large-format camera. Here is our article on photography composition tips and techniques, to help you understand the basics of how to compose a photograph.
The only piece of equipment that might be considered helpful, if not required, is a tripod. The slightest wobble or imbalance in the photo while taking it can skew the line of symmetry. To avoid that from happening, mounting the camera on a tripod and carefully framing your image can help. Tripods have the added benefit of forcing you to slow down and be more thoughtful in your composition. For symmetry and patterns photography, that's a good thing because it makes you step back and view the image several times while getting the alignment and framing just right.
Some of your camera's built-in features might make this sort of photography easier, too. For example, many cameras have a built-in bubble level feature. Even if your camera doesn't have a digital one, your tripod probably has a real one. It's a helpful tool to ensure the camera is sitting level, which makes getting the axis of symmetry aligned correctly that much easier.
You also might want to try framing your image with the live-view feature on your camera. Most digital cameras have this function now. Your camera might require some setup to use the LCD instead of the viewfinder, but having that big screen on the back of the camera can be a great help. There's something strangely different about looking at the LCD from viewing through the eyepiece. The LCD feels more like a complete photo, so you're more critical of the little details. On a tripod, it makes a great way to frame images. Do read our article on 16 Must-have Camera Accessories, that you should carry along to begin your travel photography career like a pro.
Tips to Use Symmetry Photography
They say that rules are made to be broken. It's undoubtedly true with symmetrical compositions. One of the best symmetry photography ideas is to break the symmetry by including an object that exists on only one side. Imagine a mansion with a symmetrical staircase, and rows of stairs going left and right. It's a beautiful scene, but it can be made better by including a figure climbing one set of stairs.
The figure only appears on one side, so the perfect symmetry is broken. But by including the figure on one side, the viewer's eyes are drawn more to the symmetry than they would've otherwise been. That's a pretty neat trick, don't you think?
Another way to break the symmetry rule is to only use symmetry in part of the photo. For example, you could use symmetrical elements on one side of your composition to draw attention to them, or perhaps to draw the eye to the blandness of the opposite side.
Don’t Get Hung Up On Rules
Since we're breaking the rules, try not to get too hung up on the specifics of symmetry and patterns in photography. Many aesthetically beautiful pictures have strong symmetry, but the two halves are not identical. Bride and groom wedding shots are a great example–you can make these images feel symmetrical even though the bride looks very different from the groom.
Reflections are more common than we realize. They're in lakes, oceans, and puddles. Architects include reflecting pools and ponds to add the effect. Water is everywhere, and it can be used to create even just partial reflections in your photos.
But then there are other types of reflections that can be used creatively. Reflections in mirrors, windows, shiny cars, or sunglasses could be used. The great advantage of these is that they provide an opportunity to move the symmetry axis around in the photo.
In Architecture and Street Photography
Architecture and symmetry go hand-in-hand. If you're photographing buildings, chances are you can find some excellent symmetry photography ideas. If you are keen on reading more, here is our Guide to Architecture Photography.
Even if your primary target isn't the buildings, if there are human-made objects and buildings around, including them in your photos is the perfect opportunity to capitalize on a little symmetry. Street shots can easily be made symmetrical, as can sidewalk.
Symmetry is tied to a lot of photographic tips and tricks. Yet another example is leading lines photography. Leading lines are powerful tools to help the viewer scan the image–they help direct the viewer's eyes. Leading lines can be pretty much anything, from obvious things like roads or pathways to less obvious things like the light of sight of a model. In the last example, everyone wants to know where they're looking, so they look too.
Symmetry can help setup leading lines. Image the lines of a building that come closer together as the building climbs away from the viewer. The viewer's eyes go up and up, giving the photographer a perfect chance to make a statement.
There's plenty of symmetry found in nature, but it's pretty easy to create it artificially too. If you like playing with smartphone photography, dozens of apps let you create an artificially symmetrical image from any starting point. They digitally mirror a portion of the photograph to make it appear as if it was symmetrical, which makes for some fresh and abstract effects.
Of course, you don't need smartphone apps to do it for you. All major editing programs, like Adobe Photoshop and Affinity Photo, have mirroring tools that allow you to create symmetry in the same way.
Symmetry and Patterns in Photography
While closely related, symmetry and patterns in photography vary slightly. Knowing what exactly you are trying to do will help you compose your images.
Patterns are repeating elements in an image. They are not necessarily identical, and they don't have to be arranged symmetrically. Patterns are the bricks on the road, while symmetry is how the same trees have been planted on each side. Patterns make symmetry more interesting, and they lend themselves to symmetrical compositions of their own.
Importance of Symmetry in Photo Composition
It might sound like a fun tool to play around with; just one more blade on your photography Swiss Army knife to use when needed. But symmetry is a fundamental principle of art. Classic painters and other fine artists have used symmetry for hundreds of years.
The biggest thing to remember about symmetry is that it is one of the fundamental ways to bring balance to a picture. Balance is the idea that the objects presented in two dimensions have weight, and they affect one another visually on the page.
Balance is an interesting concept because it depends on so many factors. Believe it or not, symmetry is the easiest way to create balance in an image. With two sides matching, the image will be visually balanced.
But there are other ways too. And of course, nothing stands alone. Many symmetrical images have other elements, like figures or subjects, that are not symmetrical. When that happens, the other rules of balance apply.
The first step is to assign a weight to an object. Size is the most obvious defining characteristic. Two objects of the same size will balance one another when presented in roughly the same place in a composition. But what if one of the objects is smaller? In that case, it can still create balance with the more massive object, but it must be placed farther from the focal center. Visual balance relative to size functions much like a teeter-totter in a schoolyard. A heavy object can balance a smaller one, but you need to place the smaller one farther away.
Another characteristic that affects balance is the color of an object. Dark objects have more apparent weight than heavy ones. In that way, if the objects are the same size, the darker one will have more visual weight. Like the smaller and lighter object above, the light-colored object can still balance the darker as long as the spacing is moved. Alternatively, a smaller dark object can balance a more massive light-colored object.
A final example of balance in action is working with multiple objects. Several small objects can be combined to balance one larger object.
If you haven't figured it out by now, balance in art is a bit of a trial and error game. You need to work with balance and symmetry in photography a little bit before it becomes second nature. But once you see it in practice, the concepts can help improve anyone's photography.
Balance and symmetry in photography are tools that can be used when composing your pictures. Like the Rule of Thirds, they aren't rigid and inflexible guides. But understanding the basics of what they are and why they exist is an important step to including them in your work.
The truth is that many photographers gravitate towards symmetry naturally. They admire it in other photographer's works, and they automatically recognize the appeal. But knowing a little bit more about what it is and why it's beautiful can help you dream up concepts and create innovative and engaging compositions.
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