Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to use symmetry to create engaging images in the thirteenth article of his sixteen-part series on composition.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
One of the easiest ways to create a perfect composition is to shoot a symmetrical subject. The photo is perfectly balanced, and the graphic design you end up with is usually very pleasing. The best place to look for symmetry is in architectural details, such as doors and windows, skyscrapers, ancient ruins, and ceiling patterns. (It’s obviously harder to find symmetry in nature, although it does exist.) Photo 13.1 presents an example. I shot this Art Deco façade in Riga, Latvia. Although the elements are different, the graphic design of the famous pool in the Hotel Gellért in Budapest is a classic symmetrical subject. Notice that I positioned myself precisely in the center of the pool because that underscores the symmetrical design.
When I was in the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs, the avant-garde symmetrical architecture made a great subject to shoot (13.3). The purple-colored lighting is coming from the stained glass window.
When shooting ceilings with domes, you should usually be standing on a point in the floor that is directly beneath the center of the dome. I did this when I photographed the spectacular St. Mary’s Church in Krakow, Poland (13.4). In European cathedrals, the point is often marked on the floor in the form of a mosaic or marble design. You have to be very careful when composing the image, because the center of the design has to be precisely equidistant to both sides of the frame. Otherwise the photograph will look off-balance.
Sometimes symmetry comes unexpectedly. When I photographed a dance performance in India, the positions of the various dancers couldn’t have been arranged better in terms of composition. Image 13.5 is an example from the many pictures I took during the show. In order to get them, I had to be in the right place relative to the performers. That meant that I had to be right in front of the girls, because shooting a symmetrical scene from the side doesn’t work nearly as well.
Another place to look for symmetry is in calm bodies of water. Reflections make classic images simply because of the compositional balance. The photo of Gdańsk, Poland (13.6), offers a good example. Notice that I placed the water line in the center frame. This goes against the Rule of Thirds, which suggests you place it along the upper or lower horizontal third. However, to emphasize the perfect symmetry in this shot, I placed the water line in the exact middle. Similarly, the photograph of the pier in the Dominican Republic (13.7) was composed with the horizon line in the middle of the frame. I think this adds to the balance and the artistry of the image.
I used the center vertical position for the unusual mirrored structure in the parliament building in Berlin (13.8). The 14mm lens I shot with provided a distinctive perspective on this dramatic architectural statement, but the symmetry of line and form make the image succeed.
Go to the next article in this series: Light's Influence
Read the full series:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Graphic Design
- Classic Landscape Technique
- Moving into the Frame
- Distinctive Perspectives
- Light's Influence
- Negative Space
- Breaking the Rules