Essential Composition: Visual Patterns
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.
“Brazen Serpents” Glacial rivers in southern Iceland
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.
“Stripes” Zebra fur patterns, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
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.
“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!
Loved reading this, as I have noticed my own awareness of pattern increasing over time. As I indulge my interests in a myriad of ‘things’, in much part due to my phone’s camera which captures them in an instant, I have acquired ‘new’ eyes, a new and different way of ‘seeing’ these things. A crack in asphalt caused by the eruption of the tiniest, perfect, persistent blossoms seeking light and sustenance becomes a miniature world of beauty, the struggle for survival, set out in a meandering row of identical petals clinging to their little piece of the landscape. My elementary camera has opened up a whole new world for me: photography.
This is something I rarely do, much to my disdain. I would like to put include more patterns in my work, but finding them … I’m not an art type so it’s something I need to work on. Patterns can just add so much to a photograph.
Nice article Richard. Thanks for sharing and inspiring us. Your photography is amazing and informative.
Absolutely on point.. What you wrote about ‘Discernable regularity’.. Developing photography skills isn’t just about what’s in the frame.