Symmetry in photography may seem hard to create…
…but it’s actually quite easy, and very powerful.
With symmetry, you can get images like this:
Which is why every photographer should understand how to use symmetry, and when it can be used for amazing results.
Fortunately, I’ve included everything you need to know about symmetry in this article.
So, when you’re finished, you’ll be a symmetry expert!
Let’s get started.
What Is Symmetry in Photography?
Symmetry refers to any sort of reflection across an imaginary line.
This includes true reflections, where a reflective surface creates symmetry, like this:
True reflections are the most common type of symmetry in photographic compositions, because they’re both interesting and highly noticeable. Photographers often gravitate toward reflections in water, reflections in buildings, and so on.
But symmetry also includes situations where two distinct elements appear to be reflections of one another, like this:
Creating such “false” symmetry requires an eagle eye, but if you can find it, you’ll often come away with a great photo.
Finally, symmetry includes situations where a single element is “reflected” across an imaginary line, like this:
You’ll often find this type of symmetry in close-up photography genres, such as macro photography, with flowers reflected around the frame, though you’ll also find it in wildlife photography, portrait photography, and any additional genres that involve frame-filling shots.
Why Does Symmetry Work?
Symmetry makes for stunning photos.
It has to do with compositional balance, where both sides of the frame feel equally weighted.
You see, the best compositions tend to be balanced across the vertical axis, which means that the right side of the frame should feel as “heavy” as the left side of the frame.
Here, I’m referring to the weight of the visual elements, rather than any actual weight; this mostly has to do with size and color, where larger and more noticeable items “weigh” more than smaller and less noticeable items.
And, as you might imagine, symmetry creates balance very, very easily. Vertical symmetry, in particular, makes for nicely balanced images, like this one here, where both sides of the frame are weighted equally:
From a compositional perspective, horizontal symmetry tends to be less important, because we don’t really evaluate weight along the horizontal axis. But it does matter, if only a little, so it pays to think about horizontal symmetry, as well.
By the way, balance isn’t the only reason why it’s a good idea to include symmetry in your photos.
Symmetry also creates a level of intensity in the composition, thanks to the equivalent portions of the frame.
Which means that symmetry makes for very in-your-face photos.
Of course, creating intense compositions isn’t always the goal–but when intensity is what you’re after, symmetry is a great way to proceed.
Types of Symmetry in Photography
I’ve talked about symmetry and how it can improve your photos. And I’ve touched on a number of key forms of symmetry.
But let’s take a more formal look at the different types of symmetry in photography, and when you might find them.
Vertical symmetry is symmetry across the vertical axis, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s a reflection across the right/left sides of the frame.
Here’s an example of vertical symmetry:
Do you see how the left side matches the right?
As I explained above, vertical symmetry is great because it balances the right and left portion of the frame with equally heavy visual elements.
In fact, if I could have one type of symmetry in a photo, I’d go for vertical symmetry–it’s just that useful.
Vertical symmetry is relatively common in nature–most organisms have vertical symmetry of some sort–so it’s especially useful for nature photographers.
For instance, here’s a landscape shot that uses vertical symmetry:
And here’s a wildlife shot that also uses vertical symmetry:
Horizontal symmetry is symmetry across the horizontal axis. In other words, your scene should be symmetrical across a horizon-like line.
As you might imagine, horizontal symmetry often comes about through reflections in water. You’ll often find stunning landscape photos that use horizontal symmetry to great effect, like this:
And note that you don’t have to work with scenic lakes; you can also find horizontal symmetry in puddles, pools, and much more.
Now, horizontal symmetry is nice, but it doesn’t have the balancing power that vertical symmetry can offer. When you find reflections across the horizontal axis, you’ll be able to easily achieve a balance across the top and bottom of the frame, but this just isn’t what viewers focus on.
On the other hand, horizontal symmetry offers a neat effect, plus it also results in very in-your-face images, same as vertical symmetry.
So it’s certainly something to keep in mind!
Diagonal symmetry is more rare than vertical or horizontal symmetry.
It refers to symmetry across a diagonal in your composition, like this:
It’s pretty difficult to find, but it does convey an interesting sense of disorientation; it’s good for images that are designed to communicate tension.
By the way, while you won’t find much diagonal symmetry in nature, you can create it yourself by simply tilting your camera to create a sloped horizon.
Radial symmetry refers to symmetry around a single center point–like the symmetry of bicycle spokes around the center of the wheel:
Radial symmetry is my favorite type of symmetry, for one key reason:
It allows you to create powerful abstract shots.
And you can find radial symmetry very easily in nature–in flowers, for instance, in starfish, in trees (when photographing them from above), and more.
So while radial symmetry might seem a bit unconventional, you’ll find it all over the place. You just have to look!
So far, I’ve primarily talked about perfect symmetry, where you have a reflection (of sorts) across an axis or around a circle.
But there’s another type of symmetry that you should be aware of:
Near symmetry isn’t true symmetry, but it’s a sort of compositional or geometric symmetry that you can use for great results.
For instance, if you have two people standing on one side of the frame, and you have two people standing on the other side of the frame, that’s near symmetry.
It’s not a reflection. It’s not necessarily even obvious to the viewer that the symmetry is there.
But each side of the frame will be carefully balanced, which is why near symmetry is worth pursuing.
How Can You Find Symmetry for Your Compositions?
Symmetry is everywhere, but it can take a clever eye to find it.
I recommend looking for reflective objects, such as puddles, ponds, glass windows, and metal car hoods; these can provide great results, assuming you carefully frame your compositions (see the tips I give below!).
You can also find symmetry without reflections–in nature, for example, or even across different parts of the scene, such as when you have a person on the left side and another person on the right.
And make sure that you look for all types of symmetry; horizontal symmetry is nice, but you can also find vertical symmetry, radial symmetry, diagonal symmetry, and near symmetry!
Tips for Using Symmetry in Your Photos
Now let’s take a look at some quick tips for improving your photos with symmetry:
Place the Line of Symmetry in the Center of Your Photo
You don’t always need to position the line of symmetry in the center of your photo.
But it often works well, because it emphasizes the in-your-face, balanced nature of a symmetrical composition.
So if you have a shot of a mountain with its reflection, instead of positioning the horizon/reflection line toward the top or the bottom of the frame (as the rule of thirds would suggest), instead position it smack-dab in the middle of the shot!
And if you have a shot of a symmetrical flower, instead of positioning the flower off to one side along a rule of thirds intersection point, go ahead and put the flower in the middle of the frame.
The image will turn out beautifully balanced!
Fill the Frame With a Symmetrical Subject
Symmetry is powerful. And it makes for some eye-catching effects.
But if you want your viewer to really feel the effects of the symmetry, then it’s important that you keep the symmetry large within the frame.
That’s why I’d recommend you create tight symmetrical compositions, which fill the frame with the symmetrical subject and hit the viewer over the head with symmetrical brilliance!
Position Your Camera Parallel to the Symmetrical Area
This one’s a bit tricky, and it doesn’t always work, but it’s good to be aware of.
You see, when you’re photographing symmetry, here’s what you don’t want:
Your symmetrical subject moving away into the distance.
Instead, you want the symmetry to proceed all on the same plane of the composition, so that the symmetry is perfectly parallel to the camera sensor.
Because the more the symmetry “leans” away, the less powerful it becomes, and the less interesting your shot becomes, generally speaking.
So when you frame up a symmetrical composition, do what you can to keep the symmetry parallel to your camera. Try changing up your perspective by getting high or low, moving closer or farther away.
That’s how you’ll get a stunning symmetrical shot!
Symmetry in Photography: The Next Step
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about symmetry–and how you can use it in your images for amazing results.
So keep an eye out for symmetry.
And don’t shy away from including it in your photos.
Symmetry is bold, it’s powerful, and it can be truly breathtaking!
Symmetry refers to any reflections across the image. This can involve real reflections, such as a subject looking in a mirror, or a subject reflected on water. It can also involve illusory reflections, such as when you photograph an animal that has identical left and right sides.
Symmetry is everywhere, and photographers use symmetry of all types! If you’re eager to get started finding symmetry for your photos, look for reflections–in windows, in buildings, in water, and more!
Symmetry allows photographers to create balanced images–because what could be more balanced than a subject and that subject’s reflection? That’s why symmetry is a great way to improve your portfolio. Note that symmetry also helps you create very stable, static, bold images. This doesn’t always make for the best shots–but when it works, it can be very powerful!
I’d recommend looking for symmetry whenever you’re out shooting. The truth is that symmetry is all over; there are reflections in windows, in water, and in metal, plus there’s all sorts of natural symmetry, such as on animals and plants!
Then, once you’ve found some symmetry, go ahead and position it carefully in the frame. I often recommend placing symmetrical subjects in the center of the shot, but you can experiment with other options, as well (such as using the rule of thirds gridlines to produce an interesting result).
Symmetry isn’t always against the rule of thirds, because it’s possible to find symmetry and position it along a rule of thirds gridline.
However, photographers frequently compose their images with symmetry in the center of the frame. This is to produce an intense image, and I’m a big fan of this type of shot! And it’s true: In such a case, you’re going to break the rule of thirds. But that’s okay, because the rule of thirds isn’t actually a rule; it’s a guideline, and it’s one that you’ll want to break on occasion!
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.