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.
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.
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.