Using Repetition in Composition

A photo of colorful lacquered bowls laid out for sale in Vietnam.

Written by ian robert knight

Travel Photographer, Bangkok

Photographers are constantly learning new techniques to become better at their crafts. For some photographers, myself included, we never stop learning. There is always some new ideas or technologies or equipment that allow us to improve our work. But often, trying to perfect things we already know can yield better results. Working on composition is a good example of this. One of my favourite techniques is using repetition in composition. Let me explain why.
There are many, many composition techniques. Even if we don’t consciously notice them in our work, they often appear anonymously. The most famous composition that most photographers use is called the “Rule of Thirds”. I use it all the time, because it works. It’s not just a photography composition concept – it’s used in a lot of art and design throughout history. But it isn’t always the best design choice for every image. Sometimes compositions are right in front of us in nature. All we need to do is to learn to see them.
A photo of colorful lacquered bowls laid out for sale in Vietnam.
All the same, but different.

Repetition is everywhere.

Repetition is one of those natural compositions. When you know what to look for, you’ll be surprised how much it occurs around us – either naturally, or man-made. Sometimes this can be simple repetition like lines or objects, and sometimes it can be more complex like patterns. But they exist everywhere. Using repetition in composition is easy, because most of the work is already done for you.

Using repetition in composition is easy, because most of the work is already done for you.
Repetition in design is like rhythm in music. There is some comfort in having a pattern that repeats itself. It’s visually pleasing (or audibly pleasing). As we look at a photograph, our brains process the patterns and recognize that the items are repeated again and again. And it subconsciously counts the items and tries to categorize them into groups of items or colours or shapes. But as it does this, we stop, even briefly, to process what we see in the image, just a little bit longer than normal. And as a photographer, that’s what I want my viewers to do.
A photo of birds on a wire that look like musical notes, in Yangon, Myanmar.

Patterns occur in nature too.

How do we see repetition?

I think that patterns that occur in nature are harder to spot, compared to patterns that are man-made. For natural patterns, we have to look more closely, at items in detail. Some patterns are not visible when the subject matter is looked at from too far away. Stripes on zebras, striations on rocks or sand, leaves on ferns, and other natural patterns are easier to see when you look closely.

Man-made patterns are usually more visible, because they are purposely created. They have repeated colours or shapes that are laid out in patterns that are obvious even at a distance. Some of the easiest places to find repetitious patterns are in markets and architecture. In markets, shopkeepers lay out their products in patterns that are meant to be eye-catching. Often it will be organized by colour or material. In architecture and design, patterns are used to make buildings more appealing.

A photo of red lanterns in Macau, China.
A photo of fancy slippers on display in a shop in Vietnam.
A photo of old car axles piled up in Bangkok.
A photo of red and white umbrellas drying in the sun, in Thailand.
When you come across a pattern that you want to photograph, it’s important that you choose your settings carefully. If it’s possible, it is best to photograph the subject on an equal plane. That is – make sure your camera is flat to the subject, rather than at an angle. This will help to make everything remain in focus. If the subject is all at the same relative distance to the camera, then any aperture and shutter speed combination will work.

If the camera is at an oblique angle to the subject, then it’s important to use a small aperture to ensure maximum depth of field. This will ensure that everything is in focus from front to back. In this situation, unless you have lots of daylight, it would be ideal to be using a tripod.

A photo of fish drying in the sun in Thailand.
A photo of colorful T-shirts on display in Penang, Malaysia.
A photo of red and yellow joss sticks piled up inside a temple in Vietnam.

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