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.
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 over repeated items?
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.
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.
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 obvious, other times not.
To make the most of this, place your focal point in the image to break the repetition. Your viewer’s eyes will go straight to it.
An example of repetition in portrait photography.
Advanced repetition technique
Once you’ve mastered repetition, you’re ready to take it to the next level with rhythm in photography composition.
With this you use how the elements of repetition to add to the atmosphere of an image.
For example, when you view a line of trees disappearing into the distance the repetition feels like it speeds up as the trees get smaller and appear closer together. If you look at a box of pencils from above the rhythm is regular and dependable, because the pencils are evenly spaced and equal in size as they’re all on the same plane.
Further reading: 5 types of rhythm photography for composition that sings
The white feather stands out against the pattern in the golden sand, particularly as it’s positioned with the rule of thirds in mind.
How to break repetition in photography composition
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
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.
Discover another 18 rules of photography composition here: 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.
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 street lights
- Exposed bricks in a wall
- Cars in a parking lot
- People in a crowd
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 emphasize 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…
Above is the uncropped photograph.
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 emphasizes the interruption in the repetition.
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 emphasize 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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