Essential Composition: Visual Patterns

Essential Composition: Visual Patterns

General How-To

Essential Composition: Visual Patterns

Visual Patterns

“Stripes” Zebra fur patterns, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

The human eye and brain are instinctively drawn to visual patterns. We are a pattern-seeking species after all so we’re always searching for patterns in random data to help extract order from the chaos in the world around us. As a general matter, we love patterns so much that we have a peculiar inclination to create patterns even where none exist. The old axiom “bad news events come in threes” is but one example that immediately comes to mind. There’s even a word for this curious human tendency to create phantom patterns: apophenia.

Therefore, it should come as little surprise that we seek out visual patterns and repetitions in the observable space around us in the same way we seek patterns in every other way. That’s great news for us photographers and artists since we know our audience is already biologically predisposed to like our images if we use them. Visual patterns can be natural or manmade, regular or irregular, the primary subject or a complimentary part of a larger image concept.

Visual Patterns

“Vermiculations” Patterns of foam and autumn leaves in a back eddy of Duck Brook, Acadia National Park, Maine USA.

Visual Patterns

Patterns are combinations of elements or shapes repeated in regular and reoccurring arrangements. “Discernable regularity” is how Wikipedia describes pattern succinctly. Shapes, lines, and areas of contrast have powerful visual impact when arranged in repeated or corresponding parts either in regular or irregular form. Repetition is a good example of regular patterns and they tend to be manmade. The veins in a leaf or a spider web would be examples of the irregular variety and these are more than plentiful in nature.

What exactly constitutes “good” or “bad” visual patterns is purely subjective. Aesthetically, it’s an indeterminate entity. A forest of tall trees, leaf litter scattered over the ground, a grouping of flowers, a row of buildings, stacked mountain ridges, ocean waves, and flocks of birds are just some examples of literal objects that can be defined as patterns. These are subjects you can encounter on any given day with no need to travel very far to find them. Look no further than your house or backyard if you wish.

Repetitions

Repetition refers to objects, shapes, forms, figures, or lines repeated in regular, consistent intervals. Think of it as the visual equivalent to the beat in music. Gestalt theory suggests that a repetition of visual forms in a composition is pleasing to the eye in much the same way rhythm is pleasing to the ear in music. In addition, the eye tends to follow successive repetitions creating visual movement through the image frame.

Visual Patterns

“Last Sigh” Stacked ridges and sunset at Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina USA.

Tips For Finding Visual Patterns and Repetitions

  • Look Around! Patterns are everywhere. They can easily be found inside or just outside your home if you don’t care to travel very far. Search for strong graphic elements, shapes, lines, areas of contrast, or colors. Remember, you’re biologically pre-programed to be awesome pattern hunters!
  • One successful strategy is to Fill the Image Frame with repeating elements or patterns for powerful emphasis and the greatest possible visual impact – from corner to corner, edge to edge. If the pattern or repeating visual elements are dominated by lines, try rotating the camera and viewfinder so that the lines create diagonals instead of a vertical or horizontal orientation.
  • Break it! Often a pattern or repetition can indeed be the order that you seek in the visual chaos but it’s too monotonous or boring. How about a break in the order? A visual anomaly within the pattern can create a powerful focal point.
  • Perspective Progression When composing wide-angle landscape images, a pattern or set of repeating objects or shapes can make a compelling foreground that helps move the viewer’s eye up and through the image in a dynamic way. I call this compositional tool perspective progression and it can be every bit as effective as leading lines or power shapes in creating visual movement.

For more help with visual patterns, as well as other photography composition concepts, check out my e-book, Creative Composition. Have fun with visual patterns and repetitions in your photography!

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Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. 


Behind The Lens: Cradle of Life

Behind The Lens: Cradle of Life

Behind The Lens

Behind The Lens: Cradle of Life

Cradle of Life
“Cradle of Life” Lone giraffe on the Serengeti Plains under dramatic evening skies. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Canon EOS 1DX Mark II and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens @ 70mm, 1/250 second @ f/13, ISO 100.

Cradle of Life

This captivating image of a giraffe on the Serengeti Plains almost never saw the light of day. Captured in June of 2017, it has languished in my image files (perhaps it was published somewhere on social media at some point) as a rather pedestrian sentimental wildlife image with a contrived, rule-of-thirds composition. There’s the fantastic, early evening light with crepuscular rays that added a dramatic flair, that’s all it had going for it to be honest.

I should say that it wasn’t exactly the same photo as the one you see above but it was the same capture. The original color version just didn’t inspire me very much, but I revisited this image during the coronavirus lockdown and decided to see how it felt in black and white. It was only then that the image came alive: the Serengeti grasses pulsed with the blowing wind; the light flooded the frame as the rays beamed from the sky; and the dark storm clouds loomed ominously over the wide expanse of the plains.

All of that was missing in the color version. My image portfolio is made up of 95 percent color images because color is such a big part of my experiences but every once in a while, a black and white interpretation better expresses how a scene felt to me than color. Cradle of Life is one of those exceptions.

The key to creating powerful and compelling black and white images is contrast. If your original raw file doesn’t contain much contrast, make it. Darken the darks, lighten the lights, create contrast by selectively adjusting tonal values of each corresponding color. And unlike color photos where there’s an implied threshold of believability that shouldn’t be crossed (photography is the only form of art where people expect the image to represent something real) that isn’t the case with black and white. Push the blacks to the limit if you like. The black and white medium doesn’t represent what we see because we don’t see the world that way. You have more creative latitude as a photographer to create mood with monochrome even if there isn’t any.

Cradle of Life was captured with a Canon EOS 1DX Mark II camera body and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens. The image was processed in Adobe Lightroom and Skylum Luminar 4.

Cradle of Life can be licensed or purchased as a print here.

Join The Adventure!

By subscribing to my monthly newsletter, you'll get timely updates on events, stories, my latest photos, and my favorite photography tips. Let me share this amazing world with you directly to your computer or phone. Come on, join the adventure!

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. 

Shoot To Thrill

Shoot To Thrill

Short Essays

Shoot To Thrill

“When this is in your hands, you are the center of the universe. Not that anything else exists, it certainly does. You are important, this thing empowers you to do whatever the hell you want.” – Mel DiGiacomo, photojournalist

“On the barrel, pretty white letters spelled out PARTY STARTER.” – Ilona Andrews, Gunmetal Magic

On the tediously long flight from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg, I was seated among a small group of middle-aged white men decked out in the latest camouflaged fashions. They were, as they say, all in. The affected clothing items and accruements included, but were not limited to, jackets, baseball caps, handbags, boots, eyeglass and phone cases, one eye patch, and a tee-shirt emblazoned in block letters:

GUN CONTROL IS BEING ABLE TO HIT YOUR TARGET

A hunting party, no doubt.

At this realization, I was for the briefest of moments shocked that these grown men were traveling across a vast ocean to kill the same beautiful creatures I was planning to photograph. I was also somewhat shocked at my naïveté since African hunting safaris have a much longer history and steeper tradition than wildlife photography. Grainy black and white photographs of a bespeckled Teddy Roosevelt, rifle in hand grinning over the corpse of some poor Cape buffalo, come immediately to mind.

While casting no judgments on legal hunting in general – for sustenance (if and when necessary) or as a governmental management tool with oversight by the appropriate authorities (for the benefit of wildlife or a specific species) – I must confess that killing for sport, trophy, or ego sickens me, particularly our African megafauna which has been in a precipitous decline in recent years.

Either way, for better or worse, I have zero interest in participating myself. I’ve spoken to many wildlife photographers who are former hunters, and they’ve all intimated that the primal “thrill of the kill” is the same; only a good wildlife image is much more of a challenge than a kill shot. With photography, the human predatory instinct is still propitiated but without the blood, guts, and guilt. It’s also more of what I would consider being a sporting proposition. Both characters in the drama can walk away from the encounter alive and well.

Still, in many ways, photography and firearms are inextricably married, with language being the most common bond. For example, a camera is still said to be fired, and so is a flash gun. A collection of lenses is often referred to as an arsenal and all lenses, of course, have a barrel. Super telephoto lenses are big guns, while small fully automatic, pocket-sized cameras are point-and-shoot. So without even having to mention headshot, you should already be getting my drift here.

The primary complication lies with the ambiguity of the words shoot and shot. A portrait photographer’s Twitter bio might include “I shoot people,” a joke that ceased being funny long ago if for no other reason it’s breathtakingly stale and unoriginal. If they go on to say that they can legally cut people’s heads off, well, then that makes it at least fractionally funnier.

The word shot is a cute, amputated form of the word snapshot, borrowed yet again from the culture of weaponry and born in the early 19th-century meaning, “a quick shot with a gun, without aim, at a fast-moving target.” Some photographers, I fear, might feel this definition hits a bit too close to home.

I use the words shoot or shot from time to time, but I try to do so as infrequently as possible. And not because of the words’ obvious violent undertones, but instead, I find them to be rather inelegant and crude. As a substitute for shot, I prefer the terms image or photo.

Image is snazzy and modern, entirely appropriate for smartphones and the digital age – digital imagery. Stretching photo all the way out into photograph feels too old fashioned and implies, at least to me, a tangible print that you can hold in your hands. The same goes for picture. The slang pic should always be avoided if you are older than 25 years old or if used outside the context of an online chat or text. Under no circumstances should it ever be verbalized. Capture, used as either a noun or verb, is steadily gaining in popularity among photographers but has never fully caught on with me. Epic capture or I captured a raging sunset last night is either too disconnected from photography or far too hip for its own good.

I think it’s time we all joined together to find some new terminology.

While in transit to Johannesburg, I was told of a U.S State Department bulletin, warning travelers to Tambo International Airport of thieves and muggers posing as taxi operators, an unsettling development.

As I carefully deliberated over my transportation options upon arrival, a friendly young man approached and offered a ride to my hotel at a reasonable price. I searched his appearance for any subtle clues – a ridiculous and futile exercise – then followed him out to his car, which had an illuminated “taxi” sign perched on the rooftop, a very good sign indeed.

When he asked about the purpose of my visit, I cryptically replied, “Shooting animals,” just as he reached for my luggage and opened the trunk.

“Ah yes, hunting?”

“Yeah, you could say that.”

Before the trunk was closed, I grabbed my oversized camera pack and said casually, “No thanks, but I’d prefer to keep the guns up front with me.”

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – JUNE 2015

Join The Adventure!

By subscribing to my monthly newsletter, you'll get timely updates on events, stories, my latest photos, and my favorite photography tips. Let me share this amazing world with you directly to your computer or phone. Come on, join the adventure!

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe.