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Photography composition: repetition

Repetition in photography composition is to photography what rhythm is to a song. Repetition of an item, color or element creates a pattern, and patterns draw the eye in to a photograph.

Repetition forms patterns for photography composition

A pattern was formed in the sand by the receding tide. Although the shapes aren’t all exactly the same, the repetition of similar shapes forms a pattern.

You know when you’re standing in a bookshop, looking at a shelf of the latest releases, there are several copies of each? Sometimes, for a big release, they’ll fill an entire section of shelves with the same book so that you can’t possibly miss it.

I don’t think I’m alone with this, but as I stand in front of that section, my eye dances from one copy of the same book to the other before I finally reach out and pick one up to turn it over and read the back cover.

Why does my eye dance from one to the other?

They’re all the same, I won’t glean any additional information by skipping from one identical copy to another. It’s just what we do, we scan to gather information.

If an odd book was put somewhere in that stacked bookshelf, my eye would immediately and irresistibly be drawn to it. This break in the pattern creates interest and, in a photograph, strengthens the composition. The break gives the eye a resting place.

Just as when the rhythm changes in a song, when the repetition is broken in a photograph, it creates depth and interest. It makes the viewer stop and notice. Sometimes the break in the pattern is so obvious, other times not.

A white feather breaks the pattern of the sand

The white feather stands out against the pattern in the golden sand, particularly as it is positioned with the rule of thirds in mind.

How to break repetition in photography composition

But don’t just break the pattern of repetition any old how.

Do it strategically. When breaking the repetition, it’s good to apply another very popular photography composition technique – the rule of thirds.

This is because layering composition techniques creates a strong and visually appealing image. So interrupt the repetition in the photo by positioning your subject at the intersection of the rule of thirds

Further reading: Why you need to know the rule of thirds, and how easy it is

Repetition of columns forming leading lines

In this instance we have 3 photography composition techniques in use: repetition of the pillars and lights forms leading lines to the subject, who is also placed at the intersection of the imaginary rule of thirds grid.

Learn about the other 18 rules of photography composition in our tutorial: 19 Photography Composition Tips you need to know to be Awesome

Simply creating a pattern of repetition, or a break in a pattern, can give you a subject to photograph in itself. For example, one red apple in a display of green apples.

Repetition in photography composition

The repeating pillars form a pattern, as well as leading lines. I positioned my subject to break the repetition, which made the image more interesting.

Everyday scenes for repetition in photography

The great thing about incorporating repetition in photography is that everywhere you look you’ll find repeating elements to use. That is once you start to look for repetition, of course. Think about:

  • a line of lampposts down a street
  • exposed bricks in a wall
  • cars in a parking lot
  • people in a crowd

Photography composition using repetition of locks on beach huts

A number of elements are repeated, adding to the composition, in this image: colour, details and textures. The locks and hooks on the beach hut doors form a leading line that draws our eye through the image. The hook on camera right is the only one out of alignment. This upsets the pattern, so creates visual interest. I know you’re just itching to turn it round the right way!

Further reading: 

How to use leading lines for awesome photography composition

Pattern in photography composition makes photos interesting

How to emphasise repetition in photography

The trick with using repetition to its full potential, is to isolate the repetition in the photograph. When you zoom in on a pattern so that it fills the frame, or at least becomes obvious in the frame, your composition will instantly become stronger. Your image will be more compelling to the viewer.

Allow me to demonstrate with this helpful herd of elephants…

A row of elephants forming a pattern in composition

Above is the uncropped photograph.

An elephant breaks formation improving composition

When I crop the photograph, the single elephant facing forward stands out in the line of elephants facing away. It breaks the pattern and, because it’s positioned bearing the rule of thirds in mind, our eyes are drawn to it, which emphasises the interruption in the repetition.

Line of elephants forming a pattern

Here is another alternative. In this crop I have used a few composition techniques: repetition (of the back view of elephants), leading lines (the line of elephants leads to the odd one out on the end), but also the rule of odds (3 of the elephants are facing forwards – beginning, middle and end).

Here’s a fun thing to do the next time you feel frustrated that the weather doesn’t suit you for photography and you’re stuck indoors, try some repetition photography. Gather similar objects together and photograph the repetition. Fill the frame with your subject to emphasise the repetition and see how creative you can be.

Further reading: Fill the frame for photos with impact – how, when, why

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