Nothing could be more appealing than repetition. You know, like when your coworker tells you the same joke 25 times or when your preschooler won’t stop making monkey noises. Yeah, I know. Neither one of those things is really all that appealing, but trust me when I say photography is different. Visual artists in general, in fact, recognize the value of pattern in creating a visually interesting composition. Remember pop-artist Andy Warhol’s repeating cans of soup? Love it or hate it, you still had to stop and look at it. (Or recreate it!) That’s the power of pattern.
Why, then, do human eyes love pattern? Unlike repetitive noises such as those annoying monkey screams, visual pattern suggests harmony and rhythm. It appeals to our eyes in the same way that harmony and rhythm in music appeals to our ears.
[This is the last article in our series on Visual Design. Read them all!]
Pattern is everywhere. It can be either natural or manmade, though it is often easier to find pattern in manmade subjects. Just look for strong visual elements that repeat themselves. Patterns can be either regular or irregular, which means that they don’t necessarily have to consist of geometric shapes with precisely regular placement.
For most of us, regular patterns are the easiest to spot. They can include the windows of a building, a row of crops or the weave of a basket. Irregular patterns, on the other hand, are those that do not necessarily have geometric shape and do not have a precise amount of space between each object in the pattern. Examples of this kind of pattern are the ripples on a beach at low tide, or a zebra’s stripes.
Pattern isn’t just limited to shapes – you can also find it in color. Think of the repeating colors of flowers in a greenhouse, or the varying colors of bricks used on the wall of a building. Patterns can even be found in living subjects–the feathers of a tropical bird, for example. They are in moving subjects too, such as riders in a bicycle race or a box full of yellow chicks.
Start looking at your surroundings with an eye for pattern and you may be surprised to discover just how much of it there is in the world around us. To get an eye for it, you’ll have to start learning how to look at every scene from different angles and different perspectives. Zoom in on the skin of a lizard, for example, and you can’t help but notice the pattern of its scales. Pay attention to the way the rails on a balcony cast shadows onto the ground below. To find the pattern in a crowd of people at a concert, visit the nosebleed seats and shoot down at the mass of heads watching the show. Think about everything you see in terms of what it might look like from above, below and at close range, as well as from the usual man-standing perspective. Changing angle and point of view may reveal pattern that you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
It’s not usually enough to simply find the pattern in your subject, you also have to shoot it correctly. Lizard skin that includes a recognizable leg, tail or head becomes much less about the pattern and more about the lizard. To make the pattern visually appealing as a pattern, you need to isolate it from everything around it. This will give your composition a feeling of infinity, even if that happens to be a little white lie. You don’t need to find infinite subjects to make your pattern appear to go on forever; the pattern can end just outside the frame and still leave your viewer with the feeling that there are hundreds or thousands of those objects, even if there are only a dozen of them.
Another simple technique for capturing striking patterns is to interrupt or break them in some way. This can be done by adding a different color object to a pattern of same colored objects, for example, a red apple in a collection of green ones, or a yellow rose among red roses. You can also break a pattern with different types of objects – a Volkswagon Beetle in a line of SUVs, or a duckling amongst those yellow chicks. Removing something from the pattern can also add interest.
Don’t be afraid to cheat a little – no one is going to care whether or not you happened to stumble upon that one gingerbread girl amongst a plate of gingerbread men, or if you put her there yourself. What matters is whether or not the final image is interesting to look at.
When you break a pattern, the object that is different becomes the focal point of the photograph, so take care how you position that object in the frame. Following the rule of thirds, you can divide the frame up into nine equal parts with four intersecting horizontal and vertical lines, then place the varying object at one of those intersections. If you’re using a shallow depth of field, make doubly sure that that object is the one that is in focus.
Sometimes you can use pattern to tame an otherwise chaotic image. Portrait photographers do this all the time when arranging people for group shots – for example, by placing the taller person in the center of the group and lining up the rest of them on either side of him in descending order of height. You can use this same trick whenever you have a group of similar objects in a somewhat chaotic arrangement. Let’s say you’re photographing a plate of sliced bread–try arranging the pieces in a spiral pattern or in a loose circle. You may find that your image (and your food) looks more inviting to the viewer if it has a sense of rhythm and harmony.
Mastering the use of pattern in your photographs does call for a couple of different lenses. First, you will need a zoom lens, which will allow you to fill the frame with pattern more or less regardless of where you happen to be standing. Likewise, a macro lens will help you with those close-ups.
Like all photographic elements, pattern can be both overused and underused. If you train yourself to look for it even when you aren’t actually out with your camera, you will eventually develop a feel for what sorts of patterns are visually interesting vs. what sorts of patterns you should just keep on walking past. But of course, digital film is cheap (because there’s no such thing), so don’t be afraid to shoot even when you aren’t sure your final image will be a good one. That delete button is always an alternative if things don’t work out.