Symmetry is a way of composing your images. It is when two halves of your image are the same or visually very similar. This creates a balance in your composition that is pleasing and often calming. There is beauty in the balance. Our minds like symmetry. Something is satisfying when two halves of the image have the same structure. Symmetry is an echo of a shape.
The similarity in shapes across your image clarifies the scene. The first step is seeing the symmetry. Then, compose your photo to emphasize the mirrored shapes.
In this guide, we will explore ways of composing with symmetry. This will bring balance to your photographs. We will help you see mirrored patterns in the world and show you how to frame them for a balanced look in your images. We will also show you how to create symmetrical compositions later in post-processing.
Here’s what we will cover:
- Types of symmetry
- Finding symmetrical compositions
- Variety in symmetry
- Creating symmetry
Let’s start by exploring the four most common types of symmetry in photography:
Symmetry takes advantage of repetition and pattern in composition. Architecture often includes repeating lines. This image takes advantage of found symmetry looking up at a lit building (lower half). I copied and flipped it in post-processing to create a mirrored image (upper half). Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Types of Symmetry
Symmetry is where parts of your image are the same or very similar. The mirrored elements can be arranged in different ways: left and right, top and bottom, or radiating out from a center point.
Landscapes reflected in the water are examples of horizontal symmetry. Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado, is a famous example of a reflected landscape. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Horizontal symmetry is when the top and bottom halves of your image mirror each other. The midpoint, where the mirrored images meet, lies horizontally across your image. We often see this in landscape photography with water reflections. We will talk a bit more about reflected symmetry shortly.
Architecture often includes vertical symmetry like this tunnel in the London Underground. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Vertical symmetry is when the left and right halves of your image mirror each other. The midpoint lies vertically in your frame. We often see this in architecture. A row of windows or columns forms a repeating pattern. This is perfect for a symmetrical composition. As a photographer, you can choose to highlight this repetition in the way you frame the structure.
Domes are examples of radial symmetry. The patterns radiate out from a center point. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Radial symmetry is when repeating elements radiate out from a center point. You may see both horizontal and vertical symmetry. You can find radial symmetry in both nature and architecture. For instance, you may see a symmetrical pattern radiating out from a center point. You can see this if you look straight up at a domed skylight. Many plants and flowers are also structured around a center point.
I took these two images less than an hour apart from the same location. Notice the difference in the reflection. Reflected symmetry is fleeting and depends on angle and light. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Reflected symmetry appears when a shape is mirrored on a reflective surface. The surface can be natural, like a body of water, or man-made like a window or polished metal.
Reflected symmetry is fleeting. It depends on the light and where you stand. Move a little to the left or right and the symmetry appears. If the sun rises higher or fades, then the symmetry disappears.
Finding Symmetrical Compositions
Now that you know the types of symmetry to look for, let’s turn our attention to finding symmetrical compositions. Symmetry is all around us, in architecture and nature. Finding a possible composition is the first step. The second is framing it to maximize the mirrored pattern.
Look For Patterns
Symmetry is a pattern mirrored. When you see a repeated pattern, there is always a possibility of a symmetrical composition. Any form that repeats may be composed symmetrically, but simple repetition is not necessarily symmetrical. How you frame the repetition matters. You can emphasize or deemphasize the symmetry by how you compose the image.
When you see a pattern, look for a natural center point where the mirrored elements meet. This can be an actual or implied dividing line.
To emphasize symmetry, find the exact middle of the pattern. On this bridge, there is a natural middle point between the arches. It’s also seen in the structural support in the middle part of the bridge. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
A symmetrical composition needs only to include one repetition of a shape. If you are photographing a series, decide how many shapes to include in your image. Experiment with a different number of elements. Also, look at where you place the edges of your frame. Cutting off part of an element may emphasize the shape more than including the entire object. Choose the composition that emphasizes the mirrored pattern.
Where you stand to take a photo will either emphasize or deemphasize symmetry. Your angle can either expose or hide the reflection. Tilting the camera slightly changes the way the lines and shapes in the image interact.
Level your camera at the places where the mirrored halves meet. If you are standing slightly off-center, the symmetrical effects can be lost. The shapes on one side of your image compress, deemphasizing the similarity.
Tunnels are usually good places to find symmetry, but you have to stand in the exact center of the space. In this image, I’m just off-center. This compresses one side and throws the symmetry off. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
When photographing reflected symmetry, your position is essential. The symmetry may completely disappear if you are too high or move even a couple of inches. For instance, get low when photographing symmetry in pools of water. Only when you are level with the water will the symmetry appear.
Before you take the photo, check the edges of your frame and especially the corners. When composing for symmetry, lines on the left and right of your frame should meet the edge in the same position. You can make some adjustments in post-processing, but try to frame your image in-camera.
Focus in on Shape
When looking for symmetry, study a scene. Look at the primary lines and shapes. You may see forms echoing in the general outline of the shapes, but sometimes you need to look a little closer to see the pattern. Sometimes zooming in removes distractions around the shapes and emphasizes the symmetry.
Even if there is not a clear repeated pattern, there can be symmetry within one subject. For instance, an arched doorway or a window mirrors itself. Nature also includes symmetrical patterns, but they may not be clear at first glance. Look closely for lines and textures. A flowering plant may not be symmetrical as a whole, but look closely at a leaf or a flower and you will often see a pattern.
A macro lens lets you get close and sometimes reveals a symmetrical pattern. Impatiens plants are not generally symmetrical as a whole, but one flower is especially when backlit. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
When creating a symmetrical composition, zoom in tight. Focus on mirrored lines and shapes. Also, remove a cluttered context that unbalances the image. This may mean removing features like color and texture. Silhouettes emphasize shapes. You may find symmetry only when you focus on backlit shapes.
Timing and Long Exposure
Maroon Bells outside of Aspen, Colorado, is a famous mountain reflection. But when the water is choppy, the reflection disappears. Lengthening the shutter speed smooths the water. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Especially with reflective symmetry, timing is everything. You may visit a place many times and never see a symmetrical composition. Then, one day when the light is right, you will see the reflection.
Reflections are only symmetrical if the reflecting surface is clear enough to reflect. Rough water and light direction impact whether there will be reflective symmetry. Wind and waves break up the reflection. To make the water a reflective surface, take a long exposure. Leaving the shutter open smooths motion like the ripple of water. Long exposures turn choppy lakes into the glass. Use neutral density filters to limit the amount of light coming into your camera.
Variety in Symmetry
The mirrored parts of your image do not need to be identical to be seen as symmetrical. Sometimes it is enough if the general arrangement of lines and shapes appears to repeat. Your mind simply has to classify one half of your image to be like the other. Near symmetry takes advantage of the balanced quality of symmetry, But it also introduces novelty for visual interest. They may not be mirrored identically but create symmetry.
If the lines and shapes are similar, your mind will accept variations in the mirrored image. For instance, water reflections are darker and more compressed than the reflected subject. Our eye accepts these variations. After all, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we see a reverse image of the world.
This image reads as symmetrical because of the similarity in the shop window. The color of the boot anchoring one side of the image mirrors the sleeping man on the other side. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Slight differences become more interesting when the overall composition is symmetrical. Add variety by slightly changing an element like texture or color. The repetition of shapes is stable, but novelty is interesting. The best art often combines the familiar with the novel.
Symmetrical images often work best centered, but you can offset the composition using the Rule of Thirds. We can see the implied symmetry in the repetition of the shape. Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Most compositional techniques favor asymmetry. For instance, the Rule of Thirds emphasizes an off-center subject. Unbalanced images tend to be more interesting. Symmetrical compositions are about balance and are often centered, but it is possible to combine symmetry and the Rule of Thirds for a more dynamic composition. Our minds tend to complete shapes. Place the midpoint of a symmetrical composition off-center. This cuts the mirrored shape on one side. If you start a repetition, your mind will complete the implied symmetry.
You can either find symmetry to photograph or create it in a studio or during post-processing. In a studio, reflective surfaces like dark glass or water mirror a subject.
You can also create symmetry using photo editing programs like Photoshop. Create a copy of the shape and flip it for a mirror image. Creativity and vision are all you need. With imagination, an average photo of the Gateway Arch becomes a symmetrical image. Compare the before and after pictures.
Left: Before. Original image of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on a foggy morning. The reflection creates horizontal symmetry. Right: After. In Photoshop, I copied the image and flipped it to create vertical symmetry. I removed the remaining concrete edge to emphasize the echoed shapes. Photographs by Jenn Mishra
Photograph by Jenn Mishra
Symmetry is a way of composing an image. Two halves of your image are mirrored. There is symmetry everywhere. You can find it in architecture and nature, but you can also find momentary symmetry in a mirrored reflection or as two people pass each other on the street. With imagination, you can create symmetrical compositions in post-processing. Copy and flip an image. The two mirrored halves stitch together to create a new whole.
- What is a symmetrical composition?
- Describe three types of symmetry.
- How is reflected symmetry different from the other types of symmetry?
- The macro image of an Impatiens flower is an example of what type of symmetry?
- A landscape reflected in a pond is an example of what type of symmetry?
- True or False. Repetition is always symmetrical.
- Describe three ways you can find symmetry in the everyday world.
- True or False. You must either compose your image symmetrically or using the Rule of Thirds, but you cannot do both.
- True or False. Symmetrical halves of an image must be identical in all elements.
- How do you create symmetry in post-processing?
Go for a photo walk to look for examples of symmetry. If you are walking in a town or city, look for symmetry in architectural design. If you are walking in nature, look closely at the plants. When you find symmetry, frame it in your camera to emphasize the mirrored pattern. This may mean getting close or making decisions about how much of the subject to include. Check your edges before taking the shot to make sure lines intersect the edge of the frame similarly on each side of the mirror.