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Composition: repetition

Repetition in photography composition is to photography what rhythm is to a song. Repetition of an item, colour 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 looking at the identical copies on either side. It’s just what we do, we scan to gather information.

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.

If an odd book was put somewhere in that stack, 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.

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 any old how. Do it strategically. When breaking the pattern, it is good to apply another very popular photography composition technique – the rule of thirds.

Consider positioning the break in the pattern bearing this rule in mind to create a strong and visually appealing image.

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.

Repetition in photography composition

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

The great thing about incorporating repetition into your composition is that everywhere you look you will find elements of repetition. 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!

How to emphasise repetition

The trick with using repetition to its full potential, is to isolate the repetition in the photograph. When you zoom in on the 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 This 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 is positioned bearing the rule of thirds in mind to emphasise this.

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. Set up your own still life patterns, fill the frame with your subject and see how creative you can be.

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Everyone can take great photos. Just start with the basics and build from there. We’ll show you.

We’d love it if you could tell us about your repetition experiments and still life set ups in the comments.

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