Symmetry is a powerful photographic compositional device, but how does it work? When should you use it? And, most importantly, how can you use symmetry in photography for amazing results?
In this article, I share everything you need to know to get started with symmetrical photography. I also offer some practical tips – so you can start taking your compositions to the next level, fast.
Ready to become a symmetry master? Then let’s jump right in, starting with the basics:
What is symmetry in photography?
Symmetry is a compositional device that features a subject reflected across an imaginary axis. In general, the main subject sits smack-dab in the center of the frame, like this:
However, as I discuss later in this article, a centered subject isn’t always necessary (and you can use off-center symmetrical subjects for compelling results).
Note that photographers, especially photographers engaging with composition for the first time, tend to avoid symmetrical compositions. The ever-popular rule of thirds emphasizes the value of asymmetry, so serious beginners try to work with the rule of thirds gridlines in the hopes of creating dynamic, well-balanced photos.
But here’s the thing:
While poorly used symmetry can result in boring, static compositions, symmetry – when correctly applied – creates balanced, intense, even in-your-face images, as I discuss in the next section:
Should you use symmetry in your photos?
When you’re just starting out with photography, working with strong symmetry can feel relatively natural. But over time, you may find yourself criticized by other photographers for overly centering your subjects, and you may start to feel like symmetry is best avoided.
While it’s true that symmetry can lead to static images if not handled carefully, it does a great job of creating bold, compelling compositions. In other words, symmetry, when executed with intent and creativity, can significantly enhance the visual impact of a photo.
When you create symmetry in the frame, the results are often intense and bold. Symmetry also emphasizes the geometry within a scene, making for very graphic and attention-grabbing images.
That said, symmetry isn’t always the right choice for every photograph. It’s essential to consider the subject, the scene, and the message you want to convey. In some cases, asymmetry might produce a more dynamic or intriguing shot.
Symmetry vs the rule of thirds
As I mentioned in the previous section, beginner photographers often use symmetry in their photos. However, they’re soon told to focus on creating asymmetric images that use the rule of thirds instead.
Briefly, the rule of thirds is an oft-repeated compositional technique that uses a handy grid overlay:
The idea is that you position key elements a third of the way into the frame, which gives the overall composition a sense of balance, while also preventing the shot from becoming too static.
But while the rule of thirds is great, and it’s often highly effective, it can get a bit repetitive. After all, using the same compositional framework over and over again will create similar images. Plus, the rule of thirds rarely makes for intense images; by positioning the subject off-center, you often take away from any in-your-face effects.
That’s why symmetry is a solid alternative to the rule of thirds. (Despite its name, the rule of thirds isn’t actually a rule, just a guideline!) Of course, you shouldn’t use symmetrical composition tactics all the time – as with the rule of thirds, you’ll eventually start producing repetitive images – but by using symmetry now and again, you can inject plenty of shock and awe into your portfolio.
Types of symmetry in photography
Symmetry can be broadly categorized into three types: horizontal, vertical, and radial. Recognizing these types can vastly improve the impact of your photographs!
Horizontal symmetry is perhaps the most visually striking form of symmetry, and it’s also readily available for photographers. It occurs when the scene or subject is mirrored across a horizontal axis (i.e., a horizontal line):
This type of symmetry is commonly found in nature, where still water provides a natural mirror for mountains, trees, and skylines. Photographs of a mountain reflected in a calm lake or the setting sun casting its hues on a quiet river are classic examples of horizontal symmetry!
Capturing horizontal symmetry requires a keen eye for detail and – if you’re photographing a water reflection – often a bit of patience, since you’ll need to wait for the wind to still and the water to become a perfect mirror. But in most cases, the effort is well worth it!
Vertical symmetry in photography is the opposite of horizontal symmetry; it’s found when a subject or scene is mirrored across a vertical axis (i.e., a vertical line). This type of symmetry is everywhere – it’s present in humans, the facades of buildings, vehicles, and more. Vertical symmetry offers a powerful way to emphasize subjects:
When you identify an axis of reflection running through your frame, you can carefully center it while seeking to balance the elements on either side of this line. This doesn’t mean the scene must be perfectly symmetrical, but the more symmetry that’s present, the more powerful the result will be.
Achieving impactful vertical symmetry often involves careful positioning and framing. You’ll need to make sure that you’re zoomed in or out enough to emphasize the symmetry, and you’ll also need to pay attention to both sides of the scene to ensure things don’t get too off balance.
Radial symmetry is when elements of the composition radiate out from a central point, creating multiple axes of symmetry. This type of symmetry is less common but can produce graphic, visually captivating images. It’s sometimes found in the natural world—flowers, starfish, and jellyfish viewed from above are prime examples!
To capture radial symmetry, you’ll need to keep an eye out for subjects with lines and patterns radiating from the center, and you’ll often need to change your angle to really emphasize the symmetrical elements. This might mean shooting directly above a subject to emphasize the radial design:
Or shooting from below to highlight the effect while looking up:
How to use symmetry in your photos
When you’re starting out with symmetrical photography, I encourage you to look for two things:
- Symmetrical subjects. I mean subjects that reflect across an axis, such as people, trees, and buildings.
- Reflective objects. I’m talking about water, metal, glass, and anything else you can find that reflects the scene.
These two elements – symmetrical subjects and reflective objects – are your symmetry bread and butter. As long as you have one or the other, you can pull off a symmetrical composition.
So when you’re out with your camera and you’re aiming to capture a powerful photo, stop, take a deep breath, and look around.
If you can find a symmetrical subject, such as an interesting building, do what you can to position it in the dead center of the frame. For the best results, line up your shot so that your sensor is parallel with the front of the subject, and (generally) aim to fill a large chunk of the frame with the subject’s mass.
Humans are symmetrical, so when I’m after a strong effect, I’ll ask my subject to face directly toward or away from the camera, like this:
Notice how the subject’s back is perfectly aligned with my camera sensor, and how even the lines of his shirt add to the symmetry. (No, his head isn’t angled for exact symmetry, but that was deliberate; by slightly subverting the symmetrical effect, I prevented the composition from becoming overly static.)
Even if you don’t have (or can’t find) a symmetrical subject, you still have a second option:
You can find a nice reflective object, then position your camera so half of the scene is real while the other half is reflected. It often pays to put the line of reflection in the center of the shot, though you can always position it along a rule of thirds gridline for a slightly more unconventional result.
These days, reflective symmetry is very popular among serious photographers, who rely on all sorts of reflective objects for stunning effects, such as:
- Car windows
- Car hoods
- Metal buildings
- Quiet lakes
- City puddles
- Car mirrors
- Smartphone screens
Really, when it comes to reflection photography, the only limit is your imagination and resourcefulness. (In fact, some photographers even carry bottles of water to create puddles when needed!)
6 tips for stunning symmetrical pictures
Now that you’re familiar with the symmetry basics, I’ll share my favorite tips for improving your symmetrical compositions:
1. Don’t be afraid to get close
When you’re creating symmetrical compositions, the closer you get to your symmetrical subject or reflective object, the more obvious the symmetry becomes…
…and more obvious symmetry makes for an intensified effect.
You see, if you use a wide-angle lens or shoot from a distance, it’s easy to lose instances of symmetry in the overall composition. Plus, the more you include in the frame, the more likely it is that the symmetry will be broken by some element, which in turn will weaken the effect.
So if your goal is to capture an in-your-face shot, get close – either by walking nearer to your subject or by using a telephoto lens. In fact, if you can, try to fill the frame with obvious symmetry.
Take a look at this image, which features a symmetrical subject (doing a relatively symmetrical pose) as well as a semi-symmetrical background:
But while the symmetry is nice, the wider perspective takes away from the effect; the result is much improved with a telephoto focal length:
2. Minimalism is your friend
Minimalism is a photographic style that features clean – even empty – backgrounds, simple subjects, and decluttered surroundings.
And when doing symmetrical photography, the more you can simplify your shot (that is, the more you can go minimalist), the better it will turn out.
After all, a simplified composition will make your subject the center of attention, which is pretty much always a good thing.
But how do you create minimalistic shots?
Start by looking around the scene and doing what you can to cut out distractions, either by physically removing them from the composition or by adjusting your camera angle. (For instance, try moving your camera slightly left, right, up, and down; you’d be surprised by how helpful these tiny movements can be!)
You might also look for large swathes of negative space and see how you can incorporate them into the scene. For instance, by getting down low, you can often bring a blank white or blue sky into the frame.
When shooting this lantern, the background threatened to weaken the symmetry effect:
So I used a wide aperture to blur it into oblivion. The final result is much more pleasing, and the symmetry of the lantern is far more obvious:
3. Work to find that central perspective
Capturing symmetry, whether horizontal, vertical, or radial, often requires finding the perfect central perspective. Achieving this balance is crucial for emphasizing the sense of symmetry and avoiding perspective distortion, which can detract from the overall effect.
Once you’ve identified a symmetrical scene, resist the urge to start shooting immediately. Instead, take a moment to assess the scene from various angles and positions. If you’re photographing a symmetrical building, for instance, adjust your position until you’re standing directly in the center of the structure. This central positioning is especially critical for building exteriors and interiors where symmetry is a significant part of the architectural design. It ensures that both halves of the structure align perfectly in your frame and will heavily enhance the symmetry’s impact.
Nailing this perfect perspective might involve a bit of movement and experimentation, but if you can get it just right, you’ll love the result.
4. Experiment with off-center compositions
Throughout this article, I emphasized the value of centralized symmetrical compositions.
And it’s true:
If you put symmetrical subjects smack-dab in the middle of your photos, then you’ll get dramatic, interesting results.
But sometimes it’s best to take your symmetrical compositions in a different direction, especially if you want the power of symmetry while also gaining the dynamism of an off-center structure.
If you do go for decentered symmetry, I’d recommend you avoid working with symmetrical subjects and instead compose with symmetrical scenes (e.g., a tree reflected in the water or a street reflected in a building facade).
(In my experience, when you decenter symmetrical subjects, the symmetry tends to fade into the background and you lose most – or all – of its power.)
So simply find a reflected scene, then instead of positioning the line of symmetry in the center of the shot, position it slightly higher, lower, right, or left. Here, the rule of thirds can be a big help – in fact, you can use an off-centered composition to satisfy both the rule of thirds and the symmetrical technique. Make sense?
5. Look up!
Finding symmetry at eye level is often the go-to approach for many photographers, but in my experience, that’s a mistake! Looking up can reveal an array of symmetrical subjects, especially in urban environments where the interior and exterior architecture offers plenty of geometric shapes and lines.
A wide-angle lens can often enhance the sense of symmetry in these upward shots by exaggerating the lines and curves of buildings and leading the viewer’s eye toward the center of the composition. For instance, you can capture outstanding photos of cathedral ceilings by standing in the center of the room and photographing upward with wide-angle glass:
Of course, don’t only photograph upward – always explore various angles – but remember that symmetry from a low angle can add a unique dimension to your images, so always remember to look up!
6. Crop for perfect results
My final suggestion is a quick one, but it’s extremely important if you want to create polished, professional symmetry pictures:
Always, always, always import your photos into a program like Lightroom. Then do a final symmetry check – and if the symmetry isn’t perfect, apply a bit of quick cropping.
(Is perfect symmetry always essential? Not if you’re after a more unconventional effect, as I described in the previous section. However, if your goal is to capture a stunningly symmetrical shot, then a slightly asymmetrical subject will significantly dampen the effect.)
I use Lightroom for this, which offers a handy rule of thirds grid; as you can see in the example below, I try to line of elements of my subject with the rule of thirds gridlines:
That said, you don’t need to do this final crop in Lightroom. Programs such as Capture One, Luminar Neo, and Photoshop are all perfectly acceptable. You can even do this step in a free smartphone app; the point is to spend time scrutinizing the image for perfect symmetry, then do what you can to fix any mistakes!
Symmetry in photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know what symmetry is all about – and how you can incorporate symmetry into your own photos for stunning results.
So practice locating symmetrical objects and scenes. Practice working with different compositions. And above all, have fun!
Now over to you:
What type of symmetrical photography do you plan to do? Do you have any tips of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!