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What is symmetry in photography composition?

The easiest way to describe symmetry in composition is that if you were to fold a symmetrical photograph in half, along the line of symmetry, you would have two identical photos.

That is, if the photograph has exact symmetry. The symmetrical composition does not have to exist in the entire image for it to have symmetry. Parts of the frame can be symmetrical. Or you could get in close and concentrate on just the symmetry, so that all other detail is cropped out.

What’s more, symmetry does not have to be perfect. In fact, a slight break in symmetry can be very appealing. A symmetrical image grabs attention. Once you have your viewer’s attention and they go in for a closer look, a break in the symmetry catches the eye and gives it somewhere to rest.

Breaking the symmetry can also introduce tension to an image, which automatically makes it more interesting.

Breaking symmetry in photography composition for emphasis
Do you find your eyes keep going to the dark button in this image?

Where to find symmetry in photography composition

When you start looking, you’ll be surprised by how much symmetry you see around you, both manmade and natural. But first, lets look at types of symmetry.

Types of symmetry

There are three main types of symmetry that you will see around you every day.

1. Vertical symmetry

Buildings and roads naturally make good subjects for symmetrically composed images. If a road is placed centrally in the composition, the line down the middle already splits the image in two.

Columns are also a great example of vertical symmetry.

Informal symmetry in photography composition
Roads are good for vertical symmetry. In this example, although the sides of the road are different, they appear symmetrical.
(PS - We're not crazy. We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere on a very long, very straight road and hadn't seen another car for an hour when we did this. )

If you’re photographing architecture symmetry in composition is quite clean cut and obvious, but when you’re photographing people it can be less so. The symmetry is still there, however.

Arranging wedding guests in two lines for the bride and groom to go through the middle while the guests throw confetti is a great example of why symmetry works. Apart from the fact that that way all the guests get to participate in the confetti tradition, the loosely symmetrical lines of guests makes for interesting composition. It leads the viewer to the bride and groom in the middle.

Speaking of weddings. The shot from the back of the church down the aisle, with the ends of pews on either side of the aisle in frame is symmetrical. It also leads the viewer to the focus point, the bride and groom in the middle of the image.

2. Horizontal symmetry

Reflections are a great example of horizontal symmetry.

When using reflections it is very easy to combine symmetry with the rule of thirds, which otherwise seems to be a contradiction. If your main point of interest is at the cross section of the rule of thirds and the scene is reflected in water, you will naturally combine these two rules.

3. Radial symmetry

Images that radiate from a central point, such as spokes on a bicycle wheel, the petals on a daisy, or the circular water ripples when a stone is tossed into a pond have radial symmetry.

Radial symmetry in photography composition

Leaf patterns create radial symmetry in plants   

What makes good symmetry in composition?

Like with the other rules of composition, in order for a symmetrical image to be compelling, the composition must also be strong. There must be something that draws your eye to the image and makes you want to linger on it.

A strong focal point draws the viewer in and holds their interest.

Symmetrical balance

Symmetry in composition is achieved when two halves of an image hold the same weight. This is also known as formal balance, or symmetrical balance.

However, this symmetry does not have to be literal in the sense of one half of an image exactly mirroring the other. Symmetry can also be achieved when different elements are used to appear symmetrical.

Further reading on balance:  Essential tips for creating balance in composition

Symmetrical balance in photography composition
Symmetry in photography composition does not need to be a mirror image of two halves. The image can appear symmetrical if the two halves are made of similar elements.

Symmetry, repetition and patterns in composition

Symmetry goes hand in hand with repetition and patterns. If an object is repeated, it forms symmetry, repeat it again and we see repetition (you don’t say!). Any object that is repeated enough times will form a pattern.

The same guides apply to patterns as to symmetry in composition. That being that a break in the pattern makes it more interesting, catches the eye and gives it somewhere to rest.

Further reading on repetition:  How to use repetition to make your photos irresistible

Where to find symmetry in photography composition

When you start looking, you’ll be surprised by how much symmetry you see around you, both manmade and natural. Here are some ideas to get you started…

  • Shelves of new releases at the bookstore
  • A row of windows
  • A full rack of bicycles
  • Rows of lavender growing in a field
  • A puddle, a lake, any flat water

If you have any questions about symmetry in photography composition, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our composition tips have helped you to understand how to use symmetry in photography composition, share that too.

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