Symmetry in photography – everything you need to know
Symmetry exists everywhere around us. It is within nature, for example, in flowers and starfish. This means that artists have been reproducing symmetry in their works since the beginning of art. and photography symmetry is no different. But we also choose to make things that are deliberately symmetrical, too, such as in buildings and cars. And architects, painters, and sculptors use symmetry as a design or compositional technique.
Much like we might use the rule of thirds, as a photography composition technique, we can create photography symmetry, too. We might even use it along with another technique, such as leading lines or triangles. In this article, we are going to look at why symmetry is attractive, how to include it in your photographs, and why you shouldn’t use it too much, either.
Table of contents
What makes something symmetrical?
Very simply: if you fold something in half and the two sides mirror each other, it is symmetrical. There are different types of symmetry, and we will look at the most common ones in this article.
The beauty of symmetry
Perfection and symmetry are very closely related. There’s lots of research that shows that humans are highly attracted to symmetrical things and that the more symmetrical a face, the more attractive we find it. It’s almost as if it’s built into us. When things are symmetrical, we find their balance and how complete they look comforting. There is a sense of harmony in things that are symmetrical.
Photogaphy symmetry is simply applying summery to photos. This typically means that you are constrained by a certain aspect ratio (3:2 is very standard, and squares and 9:16 are getting more common with the rise of social media). Fear not! Having a boundary to your frame will actually make compositing a symmetrical shot easier. You will have limited space to worry about.
If something has vertical symmetry, its line of symmetry runs from top to bottom. You can say that is hs a vertical axis of symmetry. What is on the left mirrors what is on the right. People are cars are examples here. So you will see it in still life and portrait photography.
When the top and bottom halves of an image or thing mirror each other, they have what we call horizontal symmetry. There is an imaginary horizontal line where you can “fold” the photo. You will often find it in landscape photography, but also in some architectural or macro photography.
Reflective symmetry is a type of horizontal symmetry. It always includes a reflection. If you imagine a mountain scene that is reflected in a lake, that’s both horizontal and reflective symmetry.
If you can spin something around through 180º and it still looks the same, it’s radially symmetrical. It’s symmetry around a central point. Think of it like ripples in a pond or spokes in a wheel. You will find it in nature and architecture.
Symmetry in nature
People and animals usually have vertical symmetry that you can make into beautiful shots. But look out for leaves, which can be symmetrical horizontally or vertically, depending on how you position them in the frame. Succulents can have radial symmetry.
You can photograph a building from the front to capture its symmetry. As well as the obvious shape, look for color and details. You can alter your angles for interesting architectural photos, too. For example, try standing at the corner of a building a shooting upwards.
Leading lines direct your viewers’ eyes through your photo and take them on a visual journey. They will often highlight a subject, but sometimes the leading lines are the subject of the photo on their own. And very often, leading lines are symmetrical. Look out for the obvious, such as roads, footpaths, and railway tracks. But sea groynes and piers, even people’s limbs and eye-lines, can create beautiful leading lines.
When you photograph things in macro, for example, insects, plants, and flowers, or patterns and textures, you can emphasize their symmetry. This type of photography requires a lot of patience, but it is worth it.
Mixing things up
Sometimes you will find that you shoot an image with two types of symmetry in it. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s really quite striking. This usually happens as a mix of radial and horizontal or vertical symmetry in architectural photography. Look for it in the ceilings of buildings.
Almost symmetrical, but not quite
Perfect symmetry is very striking. While that might be the photo you’re desperate to make, there is a lot to be said for near symmetry.
A really good example of near symmetry would be a group photo, where you arrange everyone so that they are perfectly balanced. But unless you are photographing multiple sets of identical twins, it cannot be perfectly symmetrical. However, arranging the people in the photo into a symmetrical design will make it feel organized and harmonious.
If you photograph something that is perfectly symmetrical but deliberately includes a single element that breaks the symmetry, you do two things. First, you draw attention to whatever it is that’s out-of-place and emphasize it as your subject. Second, it enhances the symmetry in the photo and makes it even stronger.
By photographing something that is perfectly symmetrical against an irregular background, you will highlight its symmetry.
Rules are definitely made to be broken, so don’t feel that your symmetrical compositions have to be perfect. Breaking the rules of symmetry with intent can be very powerful.
Giving symmetry your best shot
You do not need any particular gear in order to shoot symmetrical photos. You do, however, need to be on the lookout for the right subject or possible composition. A tripod with a level will help you with horizontal and macro shots. If your screen has a grid, that will help to achieve shots with vertical symmetry. You might find that using the live view screen allows you to judge if your subject is lined up properly more easily than your camera’s viewfinder. And remember: perfect symmetry is extremely rare. Very often, there’s a speckle or a shadow or a cloud shape which means it is perfect. Don’t worry about it!
Don’t overuse symmetry
As beautiful as symmetrical photographs are, they can also become boring if you use them too often. You don’t want your entire portfolio to be full of them, just as you don’t want it to be dominated by frames-within-frames, for example. If you are looking for other good rules of composition, the rule of third, and triangles are good ones to start with.
It’s very rare that you will succeed in capturing a perfectly symmetrical photo. You will be thwarted by a slight blemish in a flower petal. Or the way the light is falling means there’s a gentle color shift between one half of your photo and the other side. It’s not the end of the world. It’s life. And it’s still beautiful. Embrace it, but still look for the symmetry in the world because it’s such a fantastic photography tool.
Symmetry provides a sense of balance and a feeling of harmony in photos. Human eyes like looking at symmetrical things.
Horizontal, vertical, and radial symmetry are the three main types.
Reflective symmetry uses something reflective, like water, glass, or a mirror, to reflect one half of the photo into the other.
If you can fold a photo in half, either horizontally or vertically, and one side is the mirror image of the other, then it is symmetrical. If you can spin a photo around a central point and it looks the same, then it is symmetrical.
A symmetrical photo is always balanced. A balanced photo does not have to be symmetrical. A balanced photo can have something dark contrasting against something light. Or you can balance something big against something small.
Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.