What is symmetry in photography? And how can you use it for amazing compositions?
In this article, I will share with you everything you need to know about symmetry.
I’ll take you through the different types of symmetry and different ways to use symmetry, and I’ll share plenty of tips and tricks along the way.
Are you ready to become a symmetry expert?
Then let’s get started!
Symmetry in photography is when two parts of an image are reflections of one another. When symmetry is used in photographic compositions, it results in a strong, in-your-face effect, thanks to the two image halves that extend outward from the point of reflection.
Note that not all symmetry requires a perfect reflection across a point or line of symmetry. You can create beautiful compositions using only near-symmetry (where the two halves of the symmetrical composition are only similar, rather than identical).
Symmetry is a popular compositional device, one that you can use for stunning images. But you have to be careful; too much symmetry, and you can end up creating an image that’s static and, well, boring.
Symmetry in photographic composition can be boiled down to three broad categories:
And radial symmetry.
Each of these options will give your images a different feel, which is why I highly recommend you learn how to apply all of them when shooting.
Now let’s take a look at the different types of symmetry, starting with:
Vertical symmetry refers to a reflection across a vertical (that is, an up/down) line.
So a photo of a person looking into a mirror would show vertical symmetry.
Same with a person looking into a reflective car window, or a reflection on a glass building, or a reflection in a person’s sunglasses.
Of course, vertical symmetry doesn’t have to occur in the form of a standard reflection. You can have buildings with identical halves (and could be split down the middle for clear vertical symmetry). Even most portrait photos include some form of vertical symmetry, because humans are vertically symmetrical!
And as I explained in a previous section, symmetry doesn’t have to be perfect. You can always have near-symmetry – such as two people standing across from one another – and still get a powerful compositional effect.
Horizontal symmetry is the opposite of vertical symmetry:
Instead of reflecting across a vertical line, it reflects across a horizontal one.
So a photo of a mountain above a reflecting lake would be an example of horizontal symmetry.
In fact, reflections in water are a very common type of horizontal symmetry, one that you’ll see all the time in landscape photography.
And street photographers love to use puddles of water to create interesting horizontal reflections for their mind-bending urban images.
Radial symmetry is created by reflections that extend in a circle around a particular point.
So instead of having a line of symmetry, across which an image is reflected…
…a radially symmetrical image will have a circle of symmetry, such as in a photo of a starfish, where the arms are radially symmetrical.
Note that radial symmetry is probably the rarest of the three types of symmetry. But it also offers the most powerful effect, because it concentrates the symmetry and forces the viewer to really explore the composition.
Flower centers offer radial symmetry, as do many plants. Often, it’s possible to create a strong composition simply by putting a radially symmetrical subject smack-dab in the center of your photo. The radial symmetry will keep the image interesting, and the overall effect will make your subject pop.
But while radial symmetry is common in macro photography and street photography, it’s tough to find radially symmetrical structures in landscape or portrait photography.
Landscape photography is full of opportunities to use symmetry.
You just have to know where to look!
First of all, there’s vertical symmetry. You can often find this in mountains, which can be divided in two to create a symmetrical composition. The same is true of ocean shots; you can often find symmetrical foreground subjects, such as a beautiful rock, which can lead the eye to the (still symmetrical) background.
Second, there’s horizontal symmetry. Landscape photographers always incorporate water reflections into their images, which leads to beautiful horizontal symmetry. Note that you can often get beautiful horizontal symmetry at dawn when the wind is low, and the water is still for the best reflections.
Third, there’s radial symmetry. While this is harder to find in landscape photography, you’ll occasionally run into radially symmetrical subjects, such as rocks, rock structures, plants, and more.
It’s tough to find radial symmetry in architectural scenes.
After all, architectural photography mostly just involves buildings, and buildings are rarely circular or star-shaped!
However, there’s plenty of other symmetry in architecture to play with.
For one, you can find vertical symmetry all over the place in buildings. Almost every building is vertically symmetrical, so it’s possible to create compositions that place a building front and center, emphasizing the line of symmetry for great results.
By the way, you often have a choice:
Place the line of symmetry in the dead center of the image, or place it off to the side (often along a rule of thirds gridline).
If you place the line of symmetry in the dead center of the image, you’ll often end up with a very intense, aggressive composition.
Whereas if you place the line of symmetry on a rule of thirds gridline, the final image will be more tame.
Which is best?
That’s up to you, as the photographer! But both can look nice.
As for horizontal symmetry:
You definitely can find it in architectural photography, such as when photographing a building above a reflective river.
Just keep an eye out for vertical and horizontal symmetry when shooting architecture, and you’re bound to find some stellar compositions.
As I mentioned above, most portrait photography involves vertical symmetry simply because humans are vertically symmetrical.
You can also create vertical symmetry by positioning two people next to one another (the line of symmetry runs vertically between their bodies).
Horizontal symmetry is much more rare in portrait photography, though if you position your subject above reflective water or above a reflective car hood, you can easily create a horizontally symmetrical composition.
And, in portrait photography, radial symmetry is almost impossible to find.
If you’re looking to spice up your landscape photos with symmetry, here’s what I recommend you do:
First, consider whether to position the symmetry line in the shot’s center or off to the side. A centered composition tends to be more powerful, whereas an off-center composition tends to feel more dynamic. Both can work, but you should always be aware of where you place your symmetry line and its consequences.
Second, think about whether you can carefully break the symmetry. This can often lead to a very cool result, as the entire composition will show symmetry – except for a single point.
For instance, you might photograph a mountain reflected on water, but with a single bird flying through to break the symmetry at the top.
Does that make sense?
Ultimately, the best symmetrical shots often come about through experimentation – so once you’ve found some stunning symmetry, don’t be afraid to play around with different compositions!
Symmetry brings to mind static, centered images.
Whereas the rule of thirds calls for key elements to be placed a third of the way into the frame.
While symmetry and the rule of thirds tend to aim in opposite directions…
It is possible to use both together.
As I mentioned above, you can actually place a vertical (or horizontal) line of symmetry along a rule of thirds gridline.
And if you’re dealing with radial symmetry, you can position it at a rule of thirds power point!
That way, you can take advantage of both symmetry and the rule of thirds.
Ultimately, you can combine symmetry with different rules of composition and principles of photography.
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about symmetry in photography.
And you know how it can be used for gorgeous results.
So, next time you’re out shooting, don’t be afraid to test out some symmetrical compositions.
You’ll get stunning results!