Symmetry and Asymmetry in Composition
Composition can be a tricky subject for some photographers. It can seem overwhelming to have so many rules to master. But it needn't be that complicated. You already know a good image when you see one. Let's see if we can boil things down to the fundamentals.
I'm going to start this week with the fundamental concept of symmetry. My dictionary defines the term as being made up of copies of some object as reflected or repeated in some other manner. The classic examples would be that of a mirror or perhaps the calm surface of a mountain lake. A butterfly's wings are symmetrical, as are the left and right sides of the human form. Look at yourself in the mirror, and everything is on the wrong side. Reflected symmetry stares back at you.
But almost any other variant that looks like a repetition could qualify. Some symmetry is apparent; some is more in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, the word comes to us from the Greek, where it indicated anything balanced, harmonious, or beautiful in proportion. When we call something symmetrical, we probably mean in the stricter, reflected sense of the concept. When we say something has a certain symmetry, we're probably talking in the looser, "zen" sense of the word. Both meanings apply to photographic composition, but most sources that teach the subject get hung up on the former.
I'm going to assume you've mastered the simple reflection. Such images are often split, either horizontally or vertically, frequently with the dividing line placed near the center of the frame. Whatever is on one side of the line appears as a mirror image on the other, flipped upside down, or left for right. Most aspiring photographers learn this successful formula early on. Most intermediate photographers eventually figure out that all such images look the same after a while. While possessing a formal sense of symmetry, they can look overly static and perhaps even a tad boring. Once you've seen or at least taken enough such images, they may not hold your interest the way they once did.
That shouldn't mean we stop shooting such images, of course. Whenever I see a nice, classical reflection, I can't help but shoot a few frames. Even though the results are predictable, I find I can't stop myself. Such shots may present technical challenges but few compositional ones.
But symmetry can have other forms. There's the radial symmetry present in the petals of a flower or the arms of a starfish. There's the converging symmetry of railroad tracks that merge to a point on the horizon. Sometimes, only the shape or color repeats. Reflection and repetition don't have to mean both copies are identical. They merely need to look close enough that the viewer recognizes the symmetry.
We say that something is asymmetric when it lacks symmetry. But a successful image with asymmetry can't just be random. Things in the frame still need to look balanced. Randomness can appear confusing, leaving a viewer with no way to understand what you are trying to convey. They might consider what's on hand, but their attentions will be divided. There should be some unifying balance to tie things together.
Objects in the frame each have a degree of visual weight based on how much they draw a viewer's attention. Put something of equal visual importance on each side of a frame, and you have an asymmetric composition. Position two objects that repeat the same form on one side and offset them with something on its own but of equal weight, and you have both symmetry and asymmetry. See how this works?
Pleasing asymmetry relies on a satisfying balance. Everything in the frame can contribute to this balance, but so can significant but meaningful open areas. A single bird in the corner of an image might work when visually offset by the vast area of sky diagonally opposite. Look for it to be facing into the possibilities presented by the open sky. Place that same bird in the middle of the frame, and you've bulls-eyed it, giving it no place to escape. The proverbial "rule of thirds" can help if you're having problems with placement.
Although it is the most obvious, relative size isn't the only thing that contributes to visual weight. The color and tone of each object also play a role. Objects with greater sharpness or clarity look like they have greater significance than less distinct elements as well. And yes, things that genuinely are heavier often look that way.
A lopsided image with no counterweight can appear incomplete and awkward. An open area lacking a reason to be there represents a lost opportunity. Compositionally, the entire frame is your responsibility. Neglecting any significant portion risks the balance needed in a successful image. What if you put your viewfinder on a counterbalance scale? Does things look evenly weighted, or do they seem about to tip over?
So how do you know when a composition works? As I said at the outset, you already know a good image when you see it. The problem is that it's hard to accept that and harder still to act on it. Before you press the shutter release, consider your composition. Look for ways to strengthen the symmetry or asymmetric balance of your design. You may start with a good image, but don't stop there. You can create an even more pleasing and balanced image if you make the entire frame contribute its fair share.