How to Use Symmetry In Photography

Symmetry in Photography: A Guide to Using it

There are graphical elements, and visual tools that photographers use to make their photographs simpler to understand – because our brains are used to seeing, and understand these patterns and phenomenon – but also make their images stronger, visually.

Symmetry as a graphical tool in Photography is an extremely strong compositional device that can be used to draw the attention of your viewers. It declutters the image, and makes it visually simple, yet intriguing.

Beyond Photo Tips has a running project about SYMMETRY; and you’re welcome to join us in its exploration. Now, let’s look at what symmetry is, and how you can spot it in nature, and even create symmetry in your images.

What is Symmetry?

In simple terms, Symmetry is when one part of an image is reflected on the other side in our image. It could be as simple as each element being reflected along a vertical axis, or it could be a complex reflection following a displaced pattern as in Glide Reflection Symmetry and Translational Symmetry.

In the world of composition, symmetry is also called ‘Formal balance’. You’ll see this most strongly in the first two types of symmetry that we deal with in this article.

The easiest way to recognise whether an image is symmetrical is to draw a line down the middle, either vertically or horizontally, and ask whether the two halves mirror each other. But, is symmetry just another word for ‘reflection’? There’s actually a lot more than just that.

Symmetry has a number of definitions in various fields: in biology, mathematics, physics, geometry, chemistry, and aesthetics. So, let’s keep it simple. We’ll deal with the types of symmetry that you are likely to see in photographs.

Often the symmetry that you see in photographs is intentional and carefully planned, but often enough it is just a happy coincidence. This is most likely because symmetry is inherently present in everything around us. Think about it: even our bodies are vertically symmetrical.

Once you know a little more about symmetry, you will be able to make good use of this compositional tool in your photographs.

4 Kinds of Symmetry in Daily Life

The kind of symmetry that we’re most accustomed to is “Reflection”. Along with reflection, the four kinds of symmetry that we most commonly deal with are:

  1. Reflection Symmetry
  2. Rotational Symmetry
  3. Translational Symmetry
  4. Glide Reflection Symmetry

Now, let’s see how we can use these four types of symmetry in photography.

1. Reflection Symmetry

in the Tunnel (Reflection Symmetry)
Photo By: OiMax
Three on the ride  (Reflection Symmetry)
Photo By: Jsome1

Reflection Symmetry is what you see in a mirror. The regular layman’s understanding of the word reflection…

If a line were drawn (usually vertically) through the axis of the symmetry, each feature or point on one side would be equally distant on the other side of the axis.

Usually in photography, this means that the left and right halves of the image are almost the same.

When used in composition, this is called formal composition, and is one of the most basic, and recognisable forms of composition. You can see in these photos, that the left and right halves are almost identical when split down the middle.

2. Rotational Symmetry

An Example of Rotational Symmetry in Photography
Photo By: Retinafunk
Another example for rotational symmetry in photography. radial lines out of a lantern
Photo By: cotaro70s

Rotational Symmetry is what you see when a shape or pattern is rotated around a point (also called the origin).

To observe it, take a look at earthen pottery or even just a circular plate.

In these images, you see graphical element that radiate outwards from a central point of focus. They also draw attention to that central point, giving it prominence.

3. Translational Symmetry

Translational symmetry
Photo By: Solar ikon
stairs (tv-tower)
Photo By: POSITiv
* Diamond Pattern Satin Fabric Texture *
Photo By: pareeerica

Translational Symmetry is simple to show, but a little complicated to explain. Translation Symmetry is when an object has been slid along a line, and been duplicated.

It is not flipped, or rotated about an axis; rather it is as if a duplicate of the object has been created. You can easily see that in the images shared here.

Try to find objects that look like this, or to use such a concept in your composition.

4. Glide Reflection Symmetry

I Went Out Walking...
Photo By: Matt McGee
Footsteps In Sand
Photo By:  Ryan Holst

A good example of Glide Reflection Symmetry are animal tracks, or human footprints in sand.

They are seemingly reflected, but also displaced along the axis… like a reflection has glided along the axis. This makes it rather easy to understand from just the name alone.

This type of symmetry may be more difficult to use as a compositional device itself. However, it is useful to recognise the presence of this type of symmetry in the world around us, and possibly to use it as a graphical element in your photography.

Other Types of Symmetry

Wikipedia lists other interesting forms of symmetry, and I encourage you to visit the page for more descriptive explanations.

Personally, I find Scale Symmetry and Fractals to be of particular interest, but fractals are an entirely different topic for us to explore and probably isn’t so easy to visualise in composition as ‘symmetry’ (Hint: Golden section is based on fractals).

What is Symmetry Useful for in Composition?

Reflection symmetry is often seen in photography. You’ll see it very often in architectural photography to show balance and presence. It is also an easy way to show off complex shapes.

However, you must remember that using static reflection symmetry very often can make images begin to seem static, and without any dynamism. This is desired sometimes, but not always. You must choose when it it is appropriate. It is also very easy to distract from perfect symmetry. This is why the photographer must take care to ensure that verticals and horizontals are perfectly aligned to the edge of the frame to make this work.

Translational and Glide Reflection symmetry can bring in dynamism that reflection symmetry lacks.

Join The Symmetry Photo Project With Us

Now, join in with us and try your hand in using symmetry in photography. Take a look at the Symmetry Photo Project page, and join us.

As always, feel free to leave a comment and let me know if you found this article useful.

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Published: May 2, 2009 | Last Updated: July 13, 2021

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