Jim Zuckerman on Composition: Patterns

By Jim Zuckerman
Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to use camera techniques and choose shooting perspectives to capture patterns in the ninth 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.


Shooting a pattern involves a different kind of thinking. It is entirely an exercise in filling the frame with color, a repeating design, an interesting texture, or even a pattern of light that makes a compelling image. Patterns can be found virtually anywhere, although some of the easiest ones to identify occur in nature. They can run the gamut from the natural design in a rock face to ripples in sand, clouds, a mass of flowers, cracked mud, or a telephoto shot of the side of a giraffe or a leopard where we see only the markings on the animals and nothing else. Other compositional considerations such as the Rule of Thirds, leading lines, balance, and framing usually don’t apply when shooting patterns. Images 9.1 and 9.2 have nothing to do with these principles. The shoes and striated earth are nothing more than color and texture. You can see in 9.3 how the tightly composed shot of a giraffe’s spots make a compelling pattern.

Figure 9.1

Figure 9.2

Figure 9.3

Almost without exception, I feel it’s important to have complete depth of field when shooting patterns. If possible, make the back of the camera as close to parallel as possible to the plane of the pattern. This means that each point in the surface will be equidistant to the sensor in the camera, and therefore the entire surface of the pattern will be sharp at any lens aperture (assuming the subject doesn’t have much depth). If you can’t do that—and many times a composition requires that the back of the camera be oblique to the subject—then you need to use a small lens aperture to get as much of the pattern as sharp as possible.

If the subject is relatively far away, like the remarkable hills that I photographed in John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon (9.4), depth of field is not an issue at all. The details and the lines will be sharp at any lens aperture. On the other hand, when you move in close and fill the frame with cracked mud, flowers, or a rock texture—as in 9.5, 9.6, and 9.6—you need to use a small f-stop. Even though both of these subjects are basically flat, they have contours and depth. Therefore, I would use f/16 or f/22 to be sure the entire photograph is sharp.

Figure 9.4

In the pattern of cracked earth in Death Valley, image 9.5, the camera was oblique to the surface of the ground, and therefore a small aperture was required to make both the immediate foreground and the background sharp. In the photograph of the architecture in Gdansk, Poland (9.8), I used a 200mm telephoto lens to fill the frame with the pattern. At this distance, depth of field would be extensive at any lens aperture, so it was easy to hand-hold the camera and lens with a fast shutter speed.

Figure 9.5

Figure 9.6

Figure 9.7

Figure 9.8

Colorful patchwork designs make wonderful patterns, and one of the reasons I like doing aerial photography is that I can see striking patterns from the air. Image 9.9 shows the remarkable pattern that fields of tulips make in Holland, for example. I hired a small plane to get this shot, and for maximum photo quality I opened the window so that the plastic didn’t degrade the image.

Figure 9.9

Architectural design offers a great source of patterns, especially in mirrored high-rise buildings. I found a beautiful pattern (9.10) in Southfield, Michigan, and I was drawn to the contrast of the copper-colored glass with the black graphic lines.

Figure 9.10


Go to the next article in this series: Lines

Read the full series:

  1. The Rule of Thirds
  2. Leading Lines
  3. Framing
  4. Graphic Design
  5. Backgrounds
  6. Classic Landscape Technique
  7. Foregrounds
  8. Moving into the Frame
  9. Patterns
  10. Lines
  11. Balance
  12. Distinctive Perspectives
  13. Symmetry
  14. Light's Influence
  15. Negative Space
  16. Breaking the Rules



Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Jim Zuckerman