Conventional wisdom holds that interesting photographs are made by following a few compositional rules like having a single center of interest, using leading lines to guide the eye through the frame and dividing the scene with the rule of thirds. But one image element makes for interesting pictures even when it doesn’t follow these rules. It’s pattern and repetition, which almost always create compelling photographs.
With a pattern filling the frame, an image doesn’t need to have a single point of focus. The repetition creates energy and balance that makes the entirety of the image compelling.
Any object that repeats can create a pattern, whether that’s the feathers on a bird, the pickets on a fence or the texture in foliage, fabric or stone.
One technique for the effective use of patterns is to look for repeating elements in situations where a single center of interest is elusive. This can be done by changing perspective—a top-down angle, for instance, or another atypical viewpoint can reveal patterns that otherwise might be missed.
The natural world is a great place to look for patterns; maybe the best in fact. Mother nature provides patterns at all scales—from the veins of a leaf viewed close-up to vast stands of aspen trees shot with a wide angle from afar.
Manmade objects, of course, also incorporate regular patterns—particularly in structural elements and aesthetic designs. The many tiles on a clay roof, for instance, or the steel girders that form the frame of a building under construction. Even the bubbles on a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Patterns really do abound, we just have to train our eyes to pick them out from the clutter.
While a single pattern filling the frame is often enough for an interesting picture, one way to take patterns to the next level is to look for the little differences that change the pattern or break it up. This might be a subject set off against a patterned background or the place where there’s an anomaly in the pattern itself—like a unique leaf intersecting with patterned foliage in an eye-catching manner.
Physical environment aside, one great place to find patterns is in the interplay between light and shadow. The setting sun shining through a fence can make for a dynamic pattern—and that can be put to use as a key light or it can become the subject of the photograph itself. Wherever you find them, patterns offer a reliable way to create interesting compositions of all kinds of subjects—once you train yourself to see them.