Repeating Patterns :: Digital Photo Secrets

Repeating Patterns

by David Peterson 0 comments

The human eye loves pattern. Patterns are predictable, and in a way that makes them soothing. They are harmonious, and they have rhythm—not unlike a favorite piece of music. But they are also dynamic—patterns are always moving, even when they aren't. Your eye moves across a pattern, from the first to the next to the next, and even when that pattern leaves your vision you still imagine that it continues on, outside of the world that you can see. There are a mirriad of patterns available in our world. Let's talk about a few, and how using them can enhance your photos.

[ Top image Greek architecture by Flickr user Ian Kershaw]

If you ever get stuck for subjects, I want you to try this—head out one afternoon with one goal in mind: to find and photograph patterns, and only patterns. At first, that may seem a little limiting, but once you’re out there in the field actively looking for patterns, you’ll be amazed by how many of them you can find.

Manmade Patterns

At first, the majority of patterns you discover are probably going to be manmade, because humans love to create patterns almost as much as they love to look at them. There’s pattern in the way the windows are arranged on a building, and in the way that cobblestones are laid out in an old street. Fence posts have pattern, and so do the keys on your computer’s keyboard, the telephone poles that line a country road and the weave of a basket. To find pattern, first go where the people are—but don’t forget that humankind doesn’t have a monopoly on patterns. They can be found in the natural world, too.

  • Canon EOS 40D
  • 1600
  • f/22.0
  • 0.25 sec (1/4)
  • 135 mm

pattern {EXPLORED} by Flickr user VinothChandar

Natural Patterns

Nature also does a pretty good job of creating patterns. Think of the facets on a crystal, for example. Or the pattern on the back of a seashell. The lines on a sand dune can form an interesting pattern, and so can the spots on a Dalmatian. A row of birds sitting on a tree branch can also be called a pattern, though it’s probably not what comes to mind when you try to imagine patterns in nature.

  • Canon PowerShot S2 IS
  • 100
  • f/2.7
  • 0.025 sec (1/40)
  • 6 mm

Honeycomb by Flickr user justus.thane

Regular Patterns

Most of the time, when you think of patterns, you probably think of those manmade patterns like the examples above. Most manmade patterns are “regular,” which means that they contain repeating elements that are pretty much the exact same size shape, and are evenly spaced. Humans excel at making regular patterns not just because they appeal to our sense of order, but also because they’re necessary, to a certain degree. Imagine for example if all the parts of a bridge were as assembled without precision, if the pattern of all those struts and beams was a little bit “off.” Would that bridge be as safe to cross as a bridge that was built with perfect precision? That’s one reason why you’ll find so many perfect, regular patterns in the manmade world. If your goal is to photograph those perfect, regular patterns, you should travel into a city and start your search there.

  • Canon EOS 1000D
  • 100
  • f/0.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 0 mm

Bottles by Flickr user Kristoffer M.C.

Irregular Patterns

Patterns in nature are often, but not always, what we would call “irregular.” Irregular patterns do not have to have the same size and shape, and their individual elements do not have to be placed at exactly the same distance from each other. All they need is some sort of similarity, and a sense of belonging together.

In other words, don't shy away from pattern just because it lacks that perfect regularity that you might find in a wall made of bricks, or in the front grill of a car. Pattern does not have to be perfect.

Color Pattern

Pattern isn’t just limited to the shapes, sizes and spacing of objects. Pattern can also be found in color. A field of cultivated flowers is a perfect example of this—they’re often planted in rows of varying colors. Or you could find color pattern in textiles, crayons, or a group of people wearing team colors. Open your eyes to this type of pattern and you’ll start to see it everywhere.

  • Canon EOS 350D Digital
  • 200
  • f/32.0
  • 10
  • 60 mm

cocktail straws by Flickr user spacepleb

How to Find Pattern

The most important element of a strong pattern is repetition. Look for patterns with at least three repetitions, but remember that there is really no limit to how many objects appear in the pattern. The more repetitions you have, the greater that sense infinity will be to your viewer. And what could be more profound than infinity? It’s the reason why human beings struggle to find meaning in the universe.

If those patterns still aren’t revealing themselves to you, try looking at your surroundings from unusual angles. You may not notice the pattern of a spiral staircase, for example, until you’re standing on the top step, looking down. You should be doing this anyway, in your quest to take interesting and unique photographs, but it can be a great way to seek out and find interesting patterns as well as interesting subjects in general.

  • Fujifilm FinePix E550
  • 200
  • f/2.8
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 7.2 mm

Monument, London by Flickr user Lee Jordan

If you’re still having a hard time coming up with inspiration, think macro. Sometimes when you get close to a subject, patterns you didn’t notice will start to emerge. You don’t really think of an animal like a lizard as really having a pattern, but when you zoom in on its scales you will see how regular they are.

How to Photograph Pattern

Now that you’ve found that pattern, what do you do with it? There’s actually a pretty fine line between capturing a compelling image of a pattern and creating an image that’s actually harmed by the inclusion of a pattern. That’s because patterns are so dynamic, that if they are accompanied by other elements they will always compete for your viewer’s attention. A pattern that is not the subject of the shot may make an image look busy or just plain distracting.

It’s also a lot more compelling to view a pattern that we presume doesn’t have an end than it is to view one that stops before the edge of the frame. There are certainly exceptions to this guideline, but as a general rule, patterns that extend beyond what the viewer can see are more interesting, because they can be presumed to go on forever. So in real life, you may only be shooting a handful of bottles, but if you completely isolate those bottles from everything around them, you’ve created the impression that there are hundreds or thousands of them.

Another way to create a compelling image is to break the pattern in some way. This is a great technique for directing your viewer’s eye to a part of the scene—because the break in the pattern is eye-catching, her eye will land there first, and will then travel across the rest of the pattern. That break is a little bit jarring, and it can also be thought provoking. Why is there a red apple in there with all those green apples? Anything that makes your viewer wonder—even on a subconscious level, even if it’s just about a small thing—is going to make for a more compelling photograph.

Untitled by Flickr user what_marty_sees

A pattern break can be a change in color, or it can be a change in type (an open window on a wall full of closed windows, a single duckling in a box of yellow chicks). You can also remove something from the pattern—your viewer will be left wondering what happened to that missing puzzle piece or the brick that should be there on the wall with all those other bricks.

Where you place your missing or different element in the frame is an important consideration. Placing it on one of the rule of thirds intersections is almost always a good move. When you place important elements on those sweet spots, you create movement in the image. Your viewer’s eye goes there first, and then it travels around the image. It’s doing that anyway because that’s what eyes typically do when they encounter a pattern, but giving your viewer’s eye a place to go first makes for an even more interesting scene.

Staging a Shot

Photographers sometimes shy away from the idea that you can encounter some little piece of the world and then manipulate it in order to create a stronger photo. This probably stems from the age-old idea that a photograph is first and foremost a tool for capturing reality. It’s time to let go of that stereotype—photography is an art, and artists have what you call “creative license.” Imagine if a painter was set on only capturing the world as he saw it. Sure, you could paint some pretty pictures that way, but they’d be a little uninspired. Most artists add or subtract elements from a scene as they see fit, and they will always put their own creative spin on whatever they’re using as a model (if anything at all). So don’t be afraid to create a pattern of your own. Don’t be afraid to break a pattern that you found in nature. No one is going to know, and even if they did it wouldn’t matter. You’re an artist—do whatever is necessary to capture the image as you have envisioned it.

Seeing pattern is a skill that takes some practice. Most people don’t spend time looking around for areas of repetition, so they just don’t see it. For you, it’s going to be different. You’re going to see pattern everywhere you look, even when you’re not looking for it. And learning to see pattern will do other things for you, too, like help you learn new ways of looking at the world in general.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.