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How to Use Rhythm and Pattern to Create Stronger Compositions

After I had written my article about juxtaposition and contrast I realized that one of the photos also perfectly illustrated the concept of rhythm in composition. Here it is (I’ve added arrows to show you the way the eye moves through the photo).

Rhythm and pattern in composition

The rhythm comes from the way the eye moves from the first tower to the second, then on to the statue. These three focal points are linked by colour (they are a similar shade of brown) and shape (they are all narrow shapes emerging from the bottom of the frame). The combination of shape and colour pull the eye, creating a natural rhythm as it moves through the photo.

I suspect the sensation of rhythm is reinforced by the western convention of reading a page from left to right. It would be interesting to hear from readers whose mother language utilizes text that is read in a different direction. Does that change the way you perceive the rhythm of this photo? Please let us know in the comments.

Another aspect of rhythm is pattern. This photo of a tiled roof is a study of texture, rhythm and pattern. The repetitive shapes and lines of the tiles create a pattern, and a rhythm is created as the eye moves through the image.

Rhythm and pattern in composition

Incidentally, rhythm often becomes more powerful in black and white photos because there is no colour, one of the strongest elements in a colour photo, to distract attention from the other elements of the composition (rhythm, texture, tonal contrast and so on).

The key to using rhythm to make your composition stronger is in first spotting the pattern or repetitive elements, then framing the scene in a way that emphasizes the rhythm. This is a test of your observational skills, and you’ll get better at it with practice.

Simplicity and rhythm

There is another way of emphasising rhythm, and that is to keep the composition of your photos as simple as possible. Here’s an example.

Rhythm and pattern in composition

There are two types of simplification going on here. One is that I moved in close to the three pots so they dominated the composition. The photo contains just three elements – the stones in the foreground, the white wall in the background and the pots themselves. The other is the conversion to black and white, which simplifies the photo by eliminating colour.

Simplifying the composition strengthens the natural rhythm created by the movement of the eye from pot to pot.

The power of three

Another element in the photo above that helps it work is that there are three pots. Three seems to be a particularly powerful number in many art forms and culturally significant myths and legends as well as photography (think of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth or the three ghosts in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol).

Then there’s the Japanese legend of the three wise monkeys.

Rhythm and pattern in composition

Again, in this photo I simplified the composition by moving in close. That allowed the natural rhythm created by the position of the three monkeys to become a strong compositional element.

When it comes to composition, including odd numbers of repeating objects seems to work better than even numbers. Three, five or seven of something together is better than two, four or six. It’s a general principle (not a rule) that may come in handy.

Rhythm and line

Sometimes you will come across natural lines and repetitive shapes or patterns that work together to emphasise the sense of rhythm.

Rhythm and pattern in composition

In this photo there is a natural rhythm created by the spacing of the incense sticks. This is reinforced because the incense sticks rest on a ledge that moves in a strong diagonal through the frame. Here, line and pattern work together to create a strongly directional sense of rhythm.

Your turn

Can you think of any other examples of using rhythm to make the composition of photos stronger? Feel free to add your photos to the comments.

Mastering Photography

Composition and line

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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