In this guide, I’ll be discussing symmetry in photography, a powerful photography compositional technique that can transform your images from bland-looking photos to eye-catching photos with emphasis.
As a photographer who loves implementing composition techniques into my portrait photography, I’ve been able to practice with symmetry over the years and have come to appreciate the impact symmetry can have on a photograph.
With that being said, in this guide, we’ll be exploring the world of symmetry in photography discussing the definition of symmetry, its various types, why and how to use it, examples, and lots more.
By the end of this guide, you will have everything you need to know to harness the power of symmetry and unlock a new level of visual artistry in your photography.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
What is Symmetry in Photography?
Symmetry in photography refers to the visual balanced achieved in an image when the elements in the scene are evenly distributed around a central axis or point.
Symmetry is just one of many photography composition techniques and — as we’ll touch on later — can be found in various forms, from horizontal and vertical symmetry to radial and diagonal symmetry.
Symmetry can also be found in various genres of photography, from landscapes and architecture to portraits and abstracts. As a photographer, I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of symmetrical images.
The way a nice symmetrical image can perfectly divide the image into balanced halves, reflecting each other with precision, seems to be able to stand out among the noise and busy chaos of the world.
Symmetry can be naturally occurring, such as with the reflection of water in a lake, or it can be intentionally created through the arrangement of subjects and elements within the scene.
Regardless of naturally occurring or not, symmetry has the power to create images with visual impact.
What Effect Does Symmetry Have on a Photograph?
Symmetry can have a profound effect on a photograph. Not only can symmetry add visual balance and order to an image, but it can also introduce emotional and psychological effects:
1. Harmony and Balance
One of the primary effects of symmetry in photography is the sense of harmony and balance it can introduce to an image.
When the elements in the scene are evenly distributed on both sides of a central axis point — a visual equilibrium is created that is very pleasing to the eye.
This visual equilibrium creates a sense of tranquility, stability, and order, which can draw the viewer’s eyes into the image and create visual satisfaction.
2. Perfection and Precision
Another effect of symmetry in photography is the addition of a sense of perfection and precision.
The symmetrical arrangement of the elements in the photograph can produce a sense of meticulous attention to detail.
Nothing and nobody is perfect, but this meticulousness found in the scene from symmetry can create a sense of perfectionism, sophistication, and elegance in your photograph.
3. Familiarity and Recognition
Symmetry can also evoke a sense of familiarity and recognition in an image.
Symmetry is a common pattern found in nature and man-made structures from forests, oceans, buildings, bridges, roads, etc. Our brains are wired to recognize and appreciate this symmetry.
When we encounter a symmetrical image, it can trigger a sense of familiarity and make the image we view feel more relatable and approachable.
All in all, symmetry can produce a profound effect on an image. It can create a sense of harmony, perfection, familiarity, visual impact, or even creative tension.
Whether intentionally created or naturally occurring, symmetry in photography is a powerful composition tool that every photographer should use and have under their toolbelt.
With that being said, let’s explore some other reasons why photographers should use symmetry.
Why Use Symmetry in Photography?
Apart from the effects symmetry can create in your images, I wanted to touch on a couple of reasons why you should use symmetry in your photographs when you have the opportunity.
1. Creates a Strong Focal Point
Symmetry is a great technique to use when you want to guide the viewer’s gaze and create a strong focal point for the viewer to focus on.
Due to the balanced arrangement of elements created, a natural focal point is often created between the symmetrical elements that can draw the viewer’s attention.
You can leverage this by placing your subject or main focal point between the symmetrical elements to guide the viewer’s visual journey through the image and create a sense of visual flow.
2. Story-Telling and Emotion
Symmetry also has a strong ability to evoke emotions and tell stories. Referring back to the previous section, symmetrical images can create a sense of familiarity and recognition, which can trigger an emotional response from the viewer.
As mentioned in my article on Punctum, we can try our best to tell a certain story through our images, however, each viewer will draw their own story from the image. And while this is the case, symmetry is a great way to lead the viewer to his/her story within the image.
For example, a symmetrical image of a reflection in a calm lake can evoke a sense of serenity and tranquility, while a symmetrical image of a pair of doors with a subject walking through it can evoke a sense of mystery or anticipation.
Types of Symmetry in Photography
There are various types of symmetry in photography that can be used to create visually captivating images.
Let’s explore the various types of symmetry in photography:
1. Reflective Symmetry
The first type of symmetry in photography is reflective symmetry, which is also known as bilateral symmetry. This is the most common type of symmetry used in photography.
Reflective symmetry occurs when the image is divided into two identical halves either along the vertical or horizontal axis, with each half mirroring the other.
Reflective symmetry is often found within nature such as with reflections in the water, and in city scenes with architectural structures with symmetrical designs such as buildings, bridges, or roads.
Reflective or bilateral symmetry is great to use when you want to create an image with balance and harmony.
2. Rotational Symmetry
The second type of symmetry in photography is rotational symmetry, also known as radial symmetry.
Rotational symmetry occurs when you divide the image into identical sections that revolve around a central point — often creating a circular or spiral pattern.
Rotational symmetry can be found in natural objects such as flowers, seashells, or other architectural designs with circular patterns such as a spiral staircase.
Radial symmetry is great to use when you want to add a sense of movement and rhythm to your images.
3. Translational Symmetry
The third type of symmetry is translational symmetry.
Translational symmetry occurs when the image can be divided into identical sections that repeat in a linear or diagonal pattern.
This type of symmetry is often found in patterns and textures. The best example of this type of symmetry can be seen with a honeycomb.
You can also find translational symmetry in man-made objects such as tiles and windows or in natural scenes like with rows of trees or waves on a beach.
Translational symmetry is great for creating a sense of order and repetition, adding visual interest and rhythm to your images.
4. Approximate Symmetry
The fourth type of symmetry is approximate symmetry.
Approximate symmetry refers to symmetry that is not exactly perfect but still retains that sense of balance and order. It occurs when the elements in the image are not identical, but their placement and arrangement of them create a sense of symmetry.
Approximate symmetry occurs when there are slight imbalances in the image and is a great type of symmetry to use when you want to add a bit more visual interest and creative tension.
5. Broken Symmetry
The final type of symmetry is broken symmetry, also known as disrupted symmetry.
Broken symmetry occurs when you have symmetrical elements being intentionally altered or disrupted, creating a sense of asymmetry.
For example, imagine a perfectly even road you are about to photograph, and suddenly a biker appears on one half of the road — that would be broken symmetry.
Broken symmetry is greater for adding visual tension and adding a unique or unexpected twist to the image.
Broken symmetry can also be seen in images that have elements that are intentionally placed off-center, overlapping, or distorted — all resulting in a dynamic and visually intriguing image.
When to Use Asymmetry?
I mentioned asymmetry in the previous section with approximate and broken symmetry, so I wanted to touch on what that is because I believe in order to understand symmetry, you must also understand asymmetry and vice versa.
Symmetry creates a sense of balance and order, and intentionally breaking that symmetry creates asymmetry in the photograph.
Adding asymmetry to an image can further convey a sense of dynamism, tension, and creativity to an image.
In order to know when to use asymmetry, you must understand the subject and story you want to tell as well as the overall timing within the image
Using Asymmetry for Story-Telling Purposes
One key aspect of knowing when to use asymmetry in photography is understanding the subject matter and the story you want to tell.
Certain subjects naturally lend themselves to asymmetrical compositions, such as candid portraits of people engaged in spontaneous activities, dynamic action shots, or chaotic street scenes.
By intentionally placing elements off-center or creating imbalances in the frame, you can capture the essence of the moment, highlight the energy and emotion of the scene, and create visually engaging images that convey a sense of life and authenticity.
Asymmetry can be used to evoke specific emotions, such as unease, tension, or curiosity. For example, by intentionally breaking symmetry in a landscape photograph, you can create a sense of mystery or unease, leading the viewer to explore the image further and engage with it on a deeper level.
Timing and Asymmetry
Using asymmetry effectively requires great timing and a keen eye to identify moments when breaking symmetry can enhance your composition.
It may involve waiting for the right moment (taking a page out of the Decisive Moment), anticipating the movement of subjects, or experimenting with different angles and perspectives to find the perfect balance between symmetry and asymmetry.
In some cases, asymmetry will not be best depending on the type of photography you are photographing.
For example, in a formal or traditional setting then a symmetrical composition may be more appropriate. I believe asymmetry should be reserved when you are in a more creative or experimental setting where you can explore the bounds of your creativity.
In other words, if you’re photographing a wedding, maybe stick with symmetry and save asymmetry for another time — or at least make sure you get symmetrical images, then maybe if you have time and are happy with those, experiment with some asymmetrical ones.
Knowing what asymmetry is (which is the lack of symmetry), and when to use it will help you further understand when and how to use symmetry in your photography, which leads us to the next section!
How to Use Symmetry in Photography
In order to use symmetry in your photography, it’s a pretty straightforward process but there are some key points you should remember when out on a photo session trying to capture symmetrical images.
1. Identify Symmetrical Qualities
The first step in order to using symmetry in your own photography is to identify the elements in your scene that possess symmetrical qualities.
As we mentioned in the above sections, symmetry can be found in various forms around us, including architecture, nature, and man-made objects. They can also come in various types such as symmetrical, radial, translational, asymmetrical, and broken.
When trying to identify symmetrical qualities in the elements around you, keep an eye out for elements that are evenly balanced or mirrored on both sides of the frame. This could include symmetrical patterns, shapes, or lines that are repeated or reflected.
On the man-made side, look for things such as buildings, bridges, interior spaces, etc.
On the nature side, look for reflections on water, patterns in leaves or flowers, symmetry in landscape patterns, etc.
It takes time to train your eye to spot potential symmetrical qualities in your surroundings but it is very important as a photographer if you want to start capturing symmetrical compositions.
One way that you can start to do this as well is when you’re just out and about — look for symmetrical elements around you, in fact, this works for any compositional technique and is a great way to train your photographic eye.
2. Identify Subject or Focal Point
The second step is to identify your subject or main focal point.
Once you have identified symmetrical qualities in your subject or scene, it’s time to determine your subject or focal point. I believe you can go one of two ways — either have a subject or focal point within the frame of the symmetrical elements or use the symmetrical elements themselves as the main subject or focal point.
Using a Subject
While symmetry is about balance and repetition, having a clear subject or focal point will add depth and interest to your photograph and will be able to add an extra element of storytelling and interest to your images.
Consider the main subject or focal point you want to emphasize in your composition — which can range from a person, a building, or a tree, to a focal point in the distance. Ideally, you’ll want it to be a specific element though, but if not then just a general focus point works.
Once you identify a subject or focal point within the symmetrical elements, you’ll want to consider its placement within the frame. I prefer placing the subject in the middle of the frame, however, you can also position it/them slightly off-center to add some dynamic tension within the image and prevent it from feeling too static or repetitive.
Using the Symmetrical Elements as Subject
Another approach is to use the symmetrical elements themselves as the main subject or focal point.
For example, if you’re photographing a reflection on the water, the reflection itself could be the subject of your composition due to its already mesmerizing and abstract nature.
All-in-all, having a subject or focal point along with your symmetrical elements can further impact the mood and message of your photograph. Consider the story or emotion you’re going for with your image and select a subject that aligns with that vision
3. Experiment with Angles and Perspectives
Once you identify the symmetrical elements as well as the subject or main focal point, the next step is to start taking pictures and experiment with angles and perspectives.
When playing with the angles, I’ve found that there are mostly three different perspectives you can play around with:
The first perspective is the centered perspective and this means taking a photo where the symmetrical elements are perfectly aligned in the center of the frame and you are photographing the subject at a leveled position, neither in a low nor high angle.
This perspective is great for adding that sense of balance and harmony.
The off-centered perspective occurs when you angle the subject or focal point within the symmetrical elements off-center.
The easiest way to do this is just move your body to the left or to the right so the subject or focal point is no longer perfectly aligned in the center of the frame.
This perspective is great for adding extra tension, depth, interest, and dynamism to your image.
High and Low Perspective
The high and low perspective occurs when you photograph from a low or high angle and in turn, change the height of your camera.
Photographing from a higher angle can create a top-down view, providing a more unique and abstract perspective.
Conversely, photographing from a lower angle can create a more immersive and unique perspective, making the viewer feel as if they are looking up at the subject.
In summary, when it comes time to photograph, I recommend capturing a few photos in each perspective and angle so you can see which one you like the most!
Other Composition Techniques That Can Be Used with Symmetry
Symmetry is a very versatile composition technique that can be used with other techniques as well. Some we’ve already touched on:
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a classic composition technique that you can use with many other techniques including symmetry.
The rule of thirds consists of creating a 3×3 grid and placing your subject or main focal point along one of the interesting lines.
Combining symmetry and the rule of thirds, you can create a visually balanced image that will also draw the viewer’s eye due to the symmetrical elements.
Leading lines are another technique that is great for guiding the viewer’s eye into the image.
You can include leading lines that converge towards the central symmetrical elements. This will enhance the sense of symmetry and balance in the composition.
Framing consists of creating a natural frame around your subject or focal point. Oftentimes, symmetry and framing go hand in hand because the symmetrical elements often create a natural frame.
To take this a step further, you can have another frame within the symmetrical elements to create a frame within a frame composition technique.
Negative space consists of the area around your subject or focal point that is intentionally left empty or unoccupied with elements.
By using symmetry and negative space together, you can create a sense of balance, tranquility, and harmony while still drawing attentional to the main focal point.
Enhancing Symmetry in Post-Production
After you capture your image, a crucial step to further enhance the quality and mood of your image is to enhance it in post-production.
I personally like to use Adobe Lightroom. Here are the tips I use to enhance my symmetrical photographs to add a bit more refinement:
1. Adjust Alignment
The first tip is to adjust the alignment within post-production.
While taking the photograph, it’s not always possible to achieve perfect symmetry in-camera, but you can fine-tune the alignment in post-production.
The best way to do this is to straighten or rotate the image to ensure the symmetrical elements are nice and aligned.
2. Enhance Contrast and Color
The second tip is to enhance contrast and color within the image.
You can increase the contrast, adjust the exposure/brightness, and colors using the various sliders to make certain elements within the image stand out.
Experimenting with contrast and color can help with the specific color grade and mood that you’re looking for.
3. Removing Distractions
The third tip is to remove distractions or imperfections from the image.
One of the best tools ever invented, the healing or cloning brushes, will allow you to magically remove any unwanted elements or distractions from the image.
For example, if there are random people, trees, or poles that are taking away from the main subject or focal point, just remove them!
4. Cropping and Framing
The fourth tip is to use the crop tool to further enhance the symmetry and framing within your image.
I recommend experimenting with different cropping ratios to further emphasize symmetry and create a more visually appealing composition.
You can also mess around with the crop around the areas of the symmetrical elements to play with negative space and add further emphasis to the symmetrical elements.
Examples of Symmetry in Photos and Movies
Here are a couple examples of symmetry being used in movies:
2001: A Space Odyssey
In conclusion, I hope you enjoyed this guide on symmetry in photography.
Symmetry is a great composition technique every photographer should know and have within their photography toolbelt. Good luck and happy photographing!
Frequently Asked Questions
How does symmetry affect photography?
Symmetry can add a sense of balance and harmony to a photograph, creating a pleasing and aesthetically pleasing composition. However, relying too heavily on symmetry can also lead to a static and predictable image, and breaking symmetry can create tension and visual interest.
Why is symmetry so appealing?
Symmetry is appealing because it creates a sense of order and balance, which is pleasing to the eye and can evoke feelings of calm and stability. It is also often associated with beauty and perfection, which can add to its appeal.
What is the best symmetry for photography?
The best symmetry for photography depends on the subject matter and the desired effect. Radial symmetry, where elements are arranged around a central point, can create a dynamic and captivating image, while bilateral symmetry, where elements are mirrored along a central axis, can create a sense of balance and harmony.
Nate Torres is a portrait photographer based in Southern California and is also a photography author for Photofocus.com. When he is not photographing clients he is creating educational photography content that he publishes on his website as well as his YouTube Channel. He is also the founder of Imaginated.com, a search engine of educational creators. Learn more about me here → https://www.natetorresphotography.com/about/