Think of rhythm photography like music. We use rhythm in photography to establish a beat to a photo, to make it interesting and entertain the eye. A photo’s rhythm leads the eye on a dance around the image.
If a piece of music was monotonous with no ebbs and flows, it would be very dull. Even Gregorian chants have changes in the rhythm. They’re very peaceful and relaxing and you certainly wouldn’t feel like getting up and dancing. But listen to a good trance remix and (if it’s your thing) you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself wanting to move. Or whatever your favorite style of music is.
Rhythm doesn’t end with music. Where would Shakespeare be without the rhythm in his sonnets? Or all the other poets?
Like all the arts, this is exactly how rhythm in photography composition works. In photography it’s a visual rhythm.
Why use visual rhythm in photography composition?
Rhythm is effective, because humans are curious and our brains are wired to find pattern and breaks in pattern. So when confronted with any form of repetition, our brains investigate it.
The rhythm dictates how our eyes move around an image – slow and leisurely, fast and hurried, or something in between.
How is rhythm shown in an image?
In photography visual rhythm is shown by repeating elements in the image.
If you’re thinking, well that’s just repetition or pattern in composition, you’re close, but not quite right. Yes, visual rhythm works like repetition and pattern in that it attracts he eye and encourages it to move around the photo.
Rhythm in photos leads the eye in the same way that using leading lines in composition directs the viewer to the subject of an image.
What’s unique about visual rhythm, just like with music, is that it sets a pace. As such it becomes part of the storytelling of the image. And different stories need different rhythms.
The shed panels behind the model are an example of regular rhythm in photography. Can you spot the other type of rhythm?
What are the 5 rhythm photography types?
Before I mention the types of rhythm, you should know that we create all types of rhythm in photos using repetition of:
- Similar objects
How they’re arranged determines the type of rhythm used and the feeling it creates. They are:
- Regular rhythm
- Alternating rhythm
- Random rhythm
- Progressive rhythm
- Undulating rhythm
1. Regular rhythm in photography
This is the most obvious type of rhythm, because it’s simply repetition of similar visual elements in an image.
Think of it like the regular beating of a drum.
Examples of regular rhythm include:
- A line of poles
- An open box of pencils viewed from above
Effect of regular rhythm
A regular rhythm is soothing, because the viewer isn’t forced to focus on just one element. But also, because you know what’s coming next.
Yet it’s not boring, because the eye still travels from one element to another. That said, too much of it can become boring.
The planks and shadowed gaps create an alternating rhythm, broken by the model positioned on the rule of thirds intersection.
2. Alternating rhythm in photography
When two or more elements are repeated in an image an alternating rhythm is created.
This would be like two different sounding drums being struck one after the other (I’m sure there’s a technical term for this, but I’m not a musician, so we’ll just go with my simple language).
Alternating rhythm can be used:
- Harmoniously with similar elements (similar in color, shape, line or similar objects)
- Or to create tension by repeating two different elements
This close up abstract image of the side of a building is visually interesting, because of the alternating rhythm. The shadowed section adds a relief from the busy pattern with the same repetition, but with less contrast.
Examples of alternating rhythm include:
- Shadows cast by the sun shining through railings
- A row of alternating green and red apples
Effect of alternating rhythm
Like regular rhythm, it’s dependable and expected, but the alternation makes it a little more lively and interesting than the single repeated element of regular rhythm.
The background of repeated shapes of the lobster pot frames add random rhythm and contrast with the regular rhythm of the wire mesh of the sides.
3. Random rhythm in photography
When similar visual elements appear scattered in an image there’s still rhythm, because our eyes wander from one similar element to another, but it’s a random arrangement.
I suspect Jazz would offer the musical equivalent of a random rhythm.
Examples of random rhythm include:
- Crowds of spectators leaving a game
- Autumn leaves scattered in the yard
The unevenly spaced poles on the left create a random rhythm and a leading line to the ruined pier.
Effect of random rhythm
The random scattering of elements encourages our eye to move around the image, so it evokes movement in an image.
Further reading: Movement photography essentials – camera technique & composition
The diminishing columns create a progressive rhythm leading to the vanishing point. Placing the model to the side of the vanishing point creates tension, aided by the slower progressive rhythm on the wall to camera left.
4. Progressive rhythm in photography
Progressive rhythm is similar to regular rhythm in that it involves the repetition of a similar element. The difference is often the angle from which we view the repetition, because the element changes in size every time it repeats.
Other times a progressive rhythm is created by an element changing color as it repeats.
Viewed straight on it’s regular, but from an angle the elements decrease in size, getting smaller as they fade into the distance. A vineyard viewed from above consists of regular equally spaced rows of vines, but when you drive past a vineyard, your eyes are inescapably drawn down the rows of diminishing vine trees.
Imagine a repeated drum beat that speeds up or slows down.
Examples of progressive rhythm
- A line of trees disappearing into the distance
- A young fern frond before it unfolds
- Ripples on a pond after throwing a stone in
Effect of progressive rhythm
A progressive rhythm not only controls the direction of the viewer’s eye, it can also speed up or slow down the movement as it explores the image. The change of pace can make us feel more energised or soothed, depending on whether the elements move from large to small or small to large.
The undulating “waves” of the fabric, repeat in the undulating structure ceiling create a soothing, calm sense of movement.
5. Undulating rhythm in photography
Undulating rhythm is a gentle visual rhythm. There’s nothing jarring or challenging about the repeated shapes – they’re round and soft.
Examples of undulating rhythm
- A landscape of green hills
- A pile of apples
Storm clouds lit by a setting sun create an undulating rhythm.
Effect of undulating rhythm
Because there are no hard edges, the ebb and flow of undulating rhythm is calming.
How to use visual rhythm for added impact
Break the visual rhythm. Just like with repetition and pattern, the fastest way to draw and hold a viewer’s attention is to establish a rhythm and then break it. But don’t just break it any old how.
As with the portrait examples of rhythm photography above, place your subject in a position that breaks the flow of the visual rhythm. This is particularly effective with regular rhythm.
It’s jarring, which is interesting and makes the subject stand out. But it’s also demanding, because our eyes can’t help but go straight there.
Further reading: 19 essential photography composition rules for creative photos
Last point on rhythm photography
Again, like with repetition and pattern in photography composition, an image’s subject of repeated objects, shapes or lines can be the rhythmic elements themselves. Just like a magnificent drum solo at a rock concert.
So look out for the rhythm of repeated objects when you’re out and about and think about how to capture a feeling created by the rhythm, even in an abstract image.
- How the light adds to the feeling – is it hard light or soft light?
- Are the shadows deep and dark or soft and not so obvious?
- Are the shapes round, jagged, soft edged or sleek straight lines?
- Do the colors work, or would it be more effective in black and white?
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