How Symmetry and Antisymmetry Impact Your Photos
There are many powerful composition techniques available to photographers: the rule of thirds, leading lines, s-curves, the rule of three, negative space, etc.
One of the most powerful techniques of composition is Symmetry and Pattern. The human eye naturally picks up on patterns, and we are drawn to explore them.
When we think symmetry, we usually think of things like the images above. A reflection is one of the easiest ways to achieve symmetry, often producing mirror-like results. The photo of the bird is a good example of this mirror-like symmetry, while the bridge uses a more complex plane of symmetry. Both images are far more striking due to their reflective qualities. But does symmetry always have to deal with reflections? Certainly not — take a look at the photos below.
These images utilize symmetry of shape without including a reflection. The landscape photo is symmetric about the center vertical, while the photo of the steps is symmetric about the diagonal . While they’re not a mirror-reflection, they contain the same shapes about their lines of symmetry. These photos also exhibit something called antisymmetry. Really, antisymmetry is anything that isn’t symmetric, but I’m speaking of something more intentional. The two photos both have symmetry of shape while boasting antisymmetry of tone and color. The landscape: gold vs green, death vs life. The steps: light vs dark, floor vs wall. Combining symmetry with antisymmetry can be quite powerful indeed. Here are two more examples of this idea.
The trees are balanced in shape and placement, but are antisymmetric in color: light green vs dark green. The corridor is symmetric in shape while antisymmetric in tone: light wall dark windows vs dark wall light windows. Do you find yourself flipping your eyes back and forth between the antisymmetric elements? That’s the idea. We see the pattern, but we see that something is wrong with it. This causes us to vigorously explore the similarities and differences. Another thing about the corridor photograph is that it’s symmetric about more than one plane — it’s vertically and horizontally mirrored in shape while opposite in tone. Here are a couple more examples of symmetry about different planes or axes.
The people walking are also symmetric about the vertical and horizontal just like the corridor, and this photo also displays antisymmetry. The two subjects aren’t quite the same, but they give that appearance at a glance. But symmetry doesn’t just apply to mirrored objects or shapes about one or more planes, you can also have radial symmetry. The green spiral is an outstanding example of radial symmetry. Do you find your eyes swirling out from the center as you follow the legs of the spiral? The radial pattern provides a natural focal point for your eyes to start exploring from. So when you’re out with your camera looking for your next shot, defocus your attention from the details of the subject matter, and look to the shapes and colors that make up the scene. Try to find elements of symmetry and antisymmetry, and compose your shot around those ideas. If done right, you’ll hold the attention of your audience for a much longer time because you’ve given them something to ponder and compare right from a single image.