How to use 3 types of symmetry in photography composition

What is symmetry in photography composition?

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

That is, if the photograph has exact symmetry.

The symmetrical composition doesn’t have to be across the entire image for a photo to have symmetry. Parts of the frame can be symmetrical. Or you could get in close and concentrate on just the symmetry, cropping out all other detail.

What’s more, symmetry doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, a slight break in symmetry can be very appealing.

Symmetry in photography composition

The buildings either side of the road create symmetry, but it’s not an exact symmetry. One of the reasons I enjoy photographing in this ancient town is that the roads are very narrow, so it’s easy to create symmetry for portraits and wedding photos

How to make symmetry in photos even more interesting

Here’s why it works. 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, let’s look at types of symmetry for photography composition.


Three types of symmetry

The three main types of symmetry that you’ll see around you every day are:

  • Vertical symmetry
  • Horizontal symmetry
  • Radial symmetry

1. Vertical symmetry

Vertical symmetry in photography is when the left and right side of a photo are symmetrical.

How to use vertical symmetry in composition

Buildings and roads are ideal for symmetrically composed images. Placing a road centrally in the composition, with the line down the middle, splits the image in two and creates symmetry.

All a portrait photographer needs to do is place their subject in the frame to take advantage of the 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. Placing my subject in the center of the symmetry, in the lower third of the image, creates an eye catching image.
(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.)

Columns are also a great example of vertical symmetry in photography composition.

If photographing architecture, symmetry in composition is quite clean cut and obvious, but when 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 in photography composition works.

The symmetry of the rows of guests also works as leading lines, leading to the main focal point of the image, the bride and groom. This layering of composition techniques in photos makes composition stronger.

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 composition. Again, it leads the viewer to the focus point, the bride and groom in the middle of the image.

Photography composition ebook

2. Horizontal symmetry in photos

Horizontal symmetry occurs when the top and bottom of an image are symmetrical.

Reflections are a great example of horizontal symmetry.

When photographing reflections it’s very easy to combine symmetry with the rule of thirds, which otherwise seems to be a contradiction. However, you can naturally combine these two composition rules.

To use both rules, with the scene reflected in water for horizontal symmetry, place your main point of interest at the intersection of the rule of thirds grid.

3. Radial symmetry

Images that radiate from a central point have radial symmetry, such as:

  • Spokes on a bicycle wheel
  • Petals on a daisy
  • Circular ripples of water when a stone is tossed into a pond

Radial symmetry in photography composition

The circular ripple in the water is a great example of radial symmetry. During a lifestyle family photo shoot noticed the boy creating ripples in the water so I composed with him on the right vertical line of the thirds grid and waited for the right moment

Leaf patterns create radial symmetry in plants

I’ve just realised that this plant on my desk is another great example of radial symmetry

What makes good symmetry in photography composition?

Like with the other rules of composition, for a symmetrical image to be compelling, the composition must also be strong.

Something must attract your eye to the image make you want to linger on it. In portrait photography compositional elements must also draw your eye to the subject, the main focal point of the image.

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

Symmetrical balance in photos

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

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

Symmetry is one of a number of techniques for creating a static composition, which conveys a sense of calm and orderliness.

Symmetrical balance in photography composition

Composing with symmetry doesn’t require a mirror image of two halves. As with this bride and groom portrait an image can appear symmetrical if the two halves are made of similar elements. (He loved his car and wanted it included in the wedding photos, so I went with an abstract approach)

Symmetry, repetition and patterns in composition

Symmetry goes hand in hand with repetition and patterns in composition. It’s just a numbers game:

The same rules that apply to using patterns in photos also apply to symmetry in composition. That being that a break in the pattern makes an image more interesting, catches the eye and gives it somewhere to rest.

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 symmetry 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

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

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