Landscape Compositional Tool #9:


Symmetry as a landscape compositional tool can generate interest for a viewer in a pleasing way, and is a valuable tool in your landscape photography compositional toolbox. Symmetry can be in horizontal, vertical, or even radial. It can also be actual symmetry in terms of a reflection on a calm lake or perceived symmetry where a photo appears to by symmetrical, but is slightly different. Symmetry works as a compositional tool because symmetry is pleasing to the human eye. While it is pleasing to the human eye, it also means that interest can be lost very quickly when a viewer is looking at a photo with symmetry. To incorporate symmetry effectively, be sure to include enough interest to hold the viewer’s attention.

The most common type of symmetry is reflections. These are horizontal symmetry, where the image is reflected across a horizontal axis of the photo. In the photo below of Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, Mount Moran is reflected in the calm water and this scene has perfect symmetry about a horizontal axis of the photo. If we folded the image along the horizon, it would form a perfect match. This is also a form of actual symmetry, where the top and bottom are the same since it is a reflection.

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Consider the image below from Convict Lake, near Mammoth Lakes, California. It is horizontally symmetrical since we could fold the top down and it would match the bottom; however, the bottom reflection is not exactly the same as the actual scene. The rocks in the foreground are different than the sky, and the slight movement in the water created a blur of the mountain and fall color trees on the left side of the image. This is an example of perceived symmetry because it appears to be symmetrical, but after further examination, it is not actually exact symmetry. This example is a bit of a stretch because the reflection is still a very good reflection and it is easy to tell it is a mirror image of the scene above the water.

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Another example of perceived symmetry comes from the Cypress Tree Tunnel at Point Reyes National Seashore. The trees appear to be symmetrical across the road, but looking closer at the image, the left and right sides are slightly different in the shapes of the trees, especially in the foreground. When first glancing at this image, it appears to be symmetrical, but after looking closely, the two sides are different. This is also an example of vertical symmetry. If we fold the left side across to the right side, the two would be close to matching. Because this is perceived symmetry, the two sides would not match exactly.

May 25, 2021

The photo below was taken along a random road while driving through Iceland in January. Notice how if the image were folded in half along the vertical axis, the two sides would match almost identically. This is an example of actual symmetry and vertical symmetry. This photo is an example of how the viewer can easy lose interest in the photograph. Because the symmetry is pleasing to the eye the two sides of the photo are almost identical, it doesn’t hold the viewer’s attention as long. It’s almost as if this is only half of a picture since both sides are about the same. More interest in the foreground would really help this picture hold the viewer’s attention longer.

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image is an example of vertical symmetry since the left and right sides appear to be symmetrical at first glance. After looking more closely, the viewer can tell the right side foreground is water, and the left side foreground is snow covered. The two sides appear to be the same, but they are actually different. Even the mountains appear to be symmetrical at first glance, but they are different as well on each side. This is another great example of perceived symmetry where the two sides appear to be symmetrical, but they are actually different elements. The symmetry in this photograph is pleasing to the eye, because at first glance it appears to be symmetrical. This image holds the viewer’s attention because the two sides have enough differences to make it interesting to the viewer.

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Radial symmetry is more difficult to find than horizonal or vertical symmetry, but it can be found in nature. Radial symmetry is when a photo is symmetrical no matter how the axis is drawn. An example of radial symmetry is star trails, as shown in the photo below from Bodega Head in California.

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As seen in the photo above, the sky is radially symmetrical because no matter how a line is drawn through the center of the star trails, it will be symmetrical. Since the photo is cut off at the top, not all axes will result in a symmetrical sky, but a viewer can imagine that the star trails continue above the top of the frame. This symmetry works because the concentric circles that are radial symmetrical are pleasing to the eye. As mentioned above, the symmetry that is pleasing to the eye can lose a viewer’s interest very quickly. The star trails are also an example of perceived symmetry since the star trails are all different shapes and colors, but the symmetry still works in this image. The radial symmetry in this image works because there is so much interest in the foreground and the star trails are different colors and shapes, which holds the viewer’s attention while viewing the photograph.

Symmetry as a compositional tool in a landscape photograph can be horizontal, vertical, or radial, and is pleasing to the human eye. Another type of symmetry that could be found is diagonal symmetry, where the image is the same on both sides along a diagonal axis. This type of symmetry would follow the same patterns of the horizontal and vertical symmetries discussed above. Actual symmetry is usually found in a reflection, while perceived symmetry is apparent symmetry at first glance, but after looking closer, the symmetry is not exact. While pleasing to the human eye, symmetry can also cause a viewer to lose interest quickly in the image so be sure to add interesting elements to hold the viewer’s attention that works with the symmetry!

The symmetry compositional tool is a valuable one in the landscape photographer compositional toolbox. It can be used to create compelling images that generate interest. Check out this article for more compositional tools that create amazing landscape photographs.

How have you used symmetry in your photographs? Let me know in the comments below!

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