Photograph the same thing three times. Sounds tedious — or artistic? Pattern in photography can draw the eye, make us think and turn the simplest objects into artwork.
Most photography tip lists encourage budding photographers to try something new. This is not that kind of list — because I’m going to encourage you to try more of the same thing, all in a single photo.
Here’s why patterns in photography work, and a few tips to make repetition anything but boring.
The Role of Pattern in Photography
People are largely creatures of habit. I get my favourite caffeinated beverage from the same place. I take the same route to the grocery store. I go to the same grocery store every week. Habits are simply a preference for patterns.
While the idea of repeating something can seem boring, the human brain actually likes patterns. Painters and classical artists have been using patterns and composition guides like the golden spiral for hundreds of years because they understood how patterns draw the eye.
Even science agrees that the brain likes patterns. The law of entropy says the universe is disordered — so when we see order, our brains are suddenly alert. Sometimes, this even means people find patterns where there are none.
Patterns in photography create that same attention. Something that we’d normally overlook, when framed to highlight the pattern, suddenly becomes intriguing.
Maybe you pass by the same row of houses on your way to work. If you align the roofs just right, that familiar view suddenly looks different and artistic.
Recognizing patterns is a composition technique that creates a stronger image. Shapes and lines are composition techniques as well.
Patterns take them to a new level by repeating those shapes and lines. They can also give way to texture when tiny repeating patterns create a familiar, touchable surface.
You can use patterns in photography in nearly every type of genre in both obvious and subtle ways. You just have to learn how to recognize those patterns. This starts with finding repetition, then re-framing that in a way that draws the eye.
Recognizing patterns takes practice and an understanding of how they work. Here are a few tips and techniques for using patterns in photography to guide the way.
Tips for Finding Pattern in Photography
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.
Patterns are simply repetition. As you explore with your camera, a simpler way to find patterns is to start looking for objects or shapes that are repeated.
Once you start noticing when shapes in the scene occur more than once, you’ll be able to spot patterns that might work well in a photograph.
Patterns can be both expected and normal, or unusual. The first step is simply learning how to recognize them in order to use pattern as a composition tool.
Patterns Aren’t Always Perfect
A pattern in photography isn’t the same thing as a pattern in geometry class. Composition patterns don’t need to follow the same rigid rules as patterns in math.
Sure, that repeating object can be perfectly spaced out — but it can also be less rigidly spaced. Sometimes, a pattern in photography isn’t even about space at all, but perhaps a repeating color.
Don’t put the camera down because a pattern isn’t quite perfect — sometimes the imperfections create just as much pull.
Three is the Magic Number
Patterns can have an infinite number of repeating objects — except for one and two. While two may be repetition, it’s not quite a pattern yet. Despite the possibility of nearly endless number of repetitions, three is often a favorite in both artwork and photography.
Schoolhouse Rock may have been on to something with that Three is a Magic Number song, because while any number three or more can create a pattern, there’s something about threes that just works in art.
Think of the Rule of Thirds — three just works well. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, a simple pattern that leads the eye. Yes, sometimes, more pattern is better, but spotting a trio of anything should perk up your photography radar.
Use Composition and Angles
Recognizing the pattern is only the first step — to really use that pattern, you have to adjust the composition to maximize it. Start by finding the angle that makes the pattern the most obvious.
Is the pattern more striking when viewed straight on, from the side, or perhaps even from above with a drone or a ladder? Adjusting the angle can help you spot patterns that at first escaped you.
Once you’ve found the right angle, continue to use the pattern to guide the composition. If the pattern is evenly spaced, try highlighting that perfection and leave the same amount of space between the pattern and the edge of the photograph.
A symmetrical pattern is often a good reason to ditch the Rule of Thirds — centering perfect symmetry makes that likeness more apparent.
What you put in the photo is just as important as what’s not in the photo. In order to draw the most attention to the pattern, adjust your composition to eliminate any distractions. Filling the frame with a pattern is a great way to draw attention to that repetition while cropping out the distractions.
As you look for the composition that works best, watch the angle for ways to eliminate any distractions from the image. Try a different lens to get in closer, adjust your position or use the pattern objects themselves to block out the distractions in the background.
There’s no right or wrong way to avoid those distractions, but looking for an option to hide that electrical outlet disrupting the pattern will save you lots of time in Photoshop later.
Break The Pattern
So you’ve found the perfect pattern. Now break it.
As much as patterns draw the eye, when the pattern is broken, our eye is drawn to the piece that’s out of place or even missing. Whole, complete patterns create a feeling of calm — break that pattern and throw the image’s emotion into upheaval.
If the emotional goal of the image is calm, create a pattern as perfect as possible. If the emotional goal of the image is to get the viewer to stop and think or even make them feel a bit uncomfortable, break the pattern.
Patterns can be broken in any number of ways. A broken pattern is that missing canoe, the yellow bird in a line of Blue Jays, the dandelion seed that’s falling from the stem.
Another similar option is to not break the pattern, but to use the empty space to actually show where the pattern ends.
Patterns Are Everywhere
Once you start looking for patterns, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. Patterns in photography aren’t just limited to landscape artists.
Many of the best street photographers are adept at recognizing (and often breaking patterns). Getting up close to an object can reveal patterns you’ve never noticed before in macro photography.
Patterns can be both man-made and natural. Architectural photography is an excellent genre for finding geometrically perfect patterns — but you can find patterns in the ripple of the sand on the shore, the reflection off a lake, or the curl of flower petals.
Patterns don’t have to necessarily actually look like an object either. Pattern is an excellent method for creating an abstract image.
In an abstract photography, exactly what you are looking at isn’t always clear, but the art is always clear in the way the pattern draws the eye. Shooting a macro image of a small pattern can create a strong abstract image.
Don’t Forget About Light Pattern in Photography
Patterns don’t necessarily need to be things. Light can also create (or disrupt) a pattern. The slits of light coming in from window blinds is an excellent example of light that creates a pattern.
Photographing the shadows rather than the repeating objects themselves is another way to use light to create a pattern. Light can also disrupt a pattern.
Maybe you have a row of perfectly-spaced trees, but because of the clouds (or the buildings or whatever is blocking the light), the light only hits one of those trees.
Look for Both the Obvious and the Subtle
Some patterns stand out — while others are more subtle. Both types can work in photography.
A perfect row of evenly spaced flowers may be a more obvious pattern, but often the flower itself will have a pattern in the way the petals unfurl. Look for both the striking, obvious patterns and the subtle way nature repeats itself.
Pattern in photography is likely a manifestation of the human preference for order or habits — which is why repetition appears so striking. A pattern can create a sense of calm, while a broken pattern can create a sense of unrest.
Learning how to spot a pattern in a scene can serve as a composition tool for visually powerful images. Simply spotting a pattern is just the start, but by highlighting that pattern with the right angle and no distractions, repetition becomes artwork.
Interested in finding some more great photography project ideas? Check our article on how to transfer a photo to wood for more photography inspiration!
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