Using pattern in photography composition is easy, because patterns are everywhere! So, wherever you are you can find a pattern to use as an element of composition in photographs.
What’s more, you can create a pattern and you can highlight a pattern just by the way you photograph it.
Let’s look at how to make the most of pattern photography by emphasizing it as a composition element with a few simple tricks.
I used this row of identical pillars outside of a building to create patterns in the background of my composition. By photographing my friend from the side the pillars became a receding row, adding interest and depth to the image.
What composition elements make patterns in photography?
Patterns in composition are created by the repetition of similar elements in photos, specifically:
Shades of a particular color can form a pattern, as well as groupings of completely different colors.
Even the repetition of the same color, if repeated enough, forms a pattern in photography composition.
This row of beach huts caught my eye because of the patterns formed by the repeating shapes and colors.
If you get enough lines together in a scene, you’ve got a pattern to photograph.
The angle that you choose to photograph the line pattern from and how to you choose to frame the scene will affect the impact of patterns in composition.
What’s interesting is that lines in photos appear to move closer together when photographed from the side rather than from the front.
Look out for shapes in photos, because recurring shapes make great patterns in photography. As do groups of similar shapes.
When you have enough repeating similar shapes in a line, you can use the pattern that’s formed as a leading line to lead the viewer’s eye to the main focus of the image.
Just the tones formed by light and shadow can create wonderful patterns in photographs.
For example, shadows created by the sun shining through railings could make a really interesting pattern to include in an image.
Repeated tonal variation between light and dark areas is a highly effective composition element for black and white photography in particular.
Where to start with pattern photography?
A pattern forms wherever enough elements repeat, so let’s look at:
- Naturally occurring patterns
- Made patterns
- Photographer made patterns
1. Naturally occurring patterns
- Petals on a flower
- Waves rolling to the beach
- Ripples in a pond when you throw a stone in
- Ranges of mountain peaks
- A row of ducklings walking behind their mother
I noticed the patterns formed in the sand by the receding tide and thought it would make an interesting abstract image. By photographing from a low angle I emphasized the texture in the pattern brought out by the low angle of the sun.
2. Made patterns
I was going to say man made patterns, but as animals also create patterns, I’ll just say made patterns.
- Rows of vines in a vineyard
- Bricks in a wall
- Books on a shelf
- Buildings and parts of buildings
- Stacked oranges on a market stall
- A line of people
There’s a fascinating little fish, the puffer fish, that’s the king of pattern making. As you can see in this 1 minute clip from a BBC documentary, the male fish creates beautiful patterns in the sand on the seabed to attract a mate.
3. Photographer made patterns
Doing this photography composition exercise will instantly show you how the same objects create different patterns in photos when photographed at different angles.
- Arrange a group of similar items and photograph them from above.
- Then photograph the same set up from 45 degrees.
While you can use this to be creative with patterns for still life photography, it’s also good to bear in mind when looking for (or creating) patterns in the background of portrait photos.
Types of patterns in photography
Patterns come in all forms, and can be broken down into two categories:
- Regular patterns
- Irregular patterns
1. Regular patterns
When we think of patterns it’s usually regular patterns that spring to mind.
Regular patterns in photos are regularly occurring arrangements of similar or identical objects that make up a pattern.
There are so many examples of patterns in this image, for example, the repeating arches, the different brickwork patterns and even the stone slabs of the path. So it makes the perfect background for a portrait.
2. Irregular patterns
However, very often a pattern emerges in irregular shapes, colors, textures and tones. A good example of an irregular pattern is my photo of the pattern in the sand left by the retreating tide (further up in this tutorial).
With enough repetition, even of irregularly occurring elements, a pattern forms.
Techniques for photographing patterns
Things you can do to make the most of using patterns as an element of composition in photography include:
- Consider your angle
- Fill the frame
- Break the pattern
Each of these tips for using patterns in photos involves using another photography composition technique, which is why it’s good to develop a broad knowledge of photography composition.
I moved around a lot at this location photoshoot to photograph the walkway’s railings from different angles for different patterns in composition. Every time I changed position the lines leading to the model changed
1. Angles and viewpoints
When composing your shot, think about the angle that you photograph from. Try out different viewpoints if possible to see which works best in the photo.
For example, if you’ve ever driven past a vineyard, you’ll have noticed patterns forming from the rows of vines and how it changes as you pass each row. Coming down a mountain pass towards a vineyard you’ll see the impact of how the pattern changes from a higher viewpoint.
2. Fill the frame
Getting in close and filling the frame with a pattern emphasizes the pattern and simplifies the image. Combining these composition techniques makes the pattern more obvious and the composition stronger.
In portrait photography you can use this technique by placing your subject in front of a pattern and filling the background with just the pattern. An example is to photograph an author in front of a bookcase full of books.
This creates an interesting background and makes the subject stand out against the pattern, which leads to my next point.
3. Break the pattern
The rebels among us are going to love this!
If you really want to emphasize a pattern, try breaking it. You’ll need to make sure that the break in the pattern is obvious, otherwise it won’t contribute much to the composition of the image.
Imagine you’re at the bookshop, looking at a display of the latest release and there’s one odd book that doesn’t belong there. That odd book will draw your eye, because it’s different.
This strengthens the composition of the pattern, because it gives the eye somewhere to rest, instead of constantly moving over the same books. It also adds tension to the image by constantly drawing the eye back to it.
A red apple in a display of green apples draws your attention by being the odd one out, which makes the image more interesting.
When you do break the pattern, it’s good to bear in mind the rule of thirds composition technique. For a photo with maximum impact, place the break in the pattern composition on one of the grid intersections.
In this image your eye goes straight to the white feather on the pattern of beach sand for three reasons: it’s placed on the intersection of the rule of thirds grid, as the lightest part of the image it draws the eye, and it breaks the pattern.
Give pattern photography a go
If your family and friends are sick of being photographed and the family dog runs away the moment you pick up your camera, try photographing just patterns.
Photograph patterns on their own, as the subject of the photo, rather than as an element of composition.
Half the fun of pattern photography is finding the pattern and the other half is seeing how great it looks in photos!
Leave a comment
If you have any questions about using pattern in photography composition, let us know in the comments.
Also, I love good news, so if my photography tips have helped you to understand how to use pattern composition, share that too.