We see patterns everywhere. Related to rhythm and texture, they are powerful tools in photography for a host of reasons.
What is a pattern? It depends upon who you ask. My very old Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a repeated decorative design.” The online version of the Cambridge Dictionary says it is “any regularly repeated arrangement, especially a design made from repeated lines, shapes, or colors on a surface.”
In photography, I would describe it as an area comprising multiple similar elements that, when viewed holistically, appear as a coherent structure with repeating parts. If you are familiar with Gestalt Theory, it says that the human mind groups matching elements. That is useful to us because the human mind craves simplicity. Where there was once clutter with multiple individual parts, there is now a single element, the pattern.
Our ability to recognize patterns is innate, and our brains are hard-wired to identify them. We find them soothing because they create order out of chaotic randomness. Thus, using patterns is a method we can utilize in our imagery. Indeed, artists have used patterns throughout history and in every culture. Argentina’s Cueva de las Manos has patterns of hand paintings dating back over 9,000 years, pottery found in China dating back 20,000 years, and art from the Aurignacian dates from circa 30,000 BCE feature patterns.
How many repeated parts do we need to see a pattern? An object on its own isn’t a pattern, and neither are two. We are starting to get a hint of one emerging with three to seven objects. Seven is the maximum number we can usually recognize without having to count. (Years ago, I used to lead parties of hillwalkers and would never take more than seven in a group because, with more than that, I would have to physically count the members to see if everyone was still with us.) So, a pattern develops beyond seven, and the more objects there are, the stronger it becomes. With a strong pattern, we are less likely to see the individual elements and, instead, register the entire thing.
Once a pattern becomes large enough, it gains its own texture. To understand this, imagine a flock of birds forming a speckled pattern in the sky.
As we zoom in, that texture disappears, and a new pattern comprising the shapes of the birds emerges. Our eyes notice clusters of birds flying in the same direction or at different distances.
Zoom in closer and the pattern breaks down, and we see individual birds, but the smooth texture of the body appears. As we get closer still, the texture starts to disappear. Then the pattern of the feathers forms. That continues ad infinitum.
A key word when it comes to patterns is repetition. A pattern consists of similar components reoccurring over and over. Note that I say similar. Components making up a pattern don’t have to be identical. Patterns we see in nature rarely consist of identical elements, although artificial patterns often do. But there does need some commonality there. For instance, different-sized beads of the same color would form a pattern, as would the same-sized beads of different colors. Beads of various sizes, textures, colors, and shapes may create a pattern, but it will be weaker than if the beads had more similarities.
Moreover, as soon as you add too many variables, the pattern breaks down entirely, and it just becomes a collection of unrelated objects. So, from a photographer’s perspective, a greater number of similarities within the pattern means the individual components have less visual weight and are, therefore, less distracting.
Take, for example, the following image of the side of a building covered in glass panels. The repeating pattern of the panels lacks interest, but the visual weight of the moon’s double reflection draws the eye, and its strength balances the higher, lighter-toned frames of the windows on the left. By interrupting the pattern, the image is improved.
The angle at which patterns run should also be a consideration. Just by tilting the phone camera when I took the above shot, the lines of the panel edges ran diagonally across the frame. That adds extra tension to the image. In the real world, our brains expect diagonals to be unstable and ready to fall. Accordingly, we feel the same in patterns. Moreover, that principle applies more broadly to any subject.
On the other hand, combining diagonals with either horizontals or verticals can add strength as our mind expects diagonals to reinforce them, like a buttress on a wall, guy ropes on a tent, the diagonal end posts on a truss bridge, or the struts beneath a pier
Patterns should not necessarily be restricted to the contents of a single photograph. A series of images together can form a pattern. From the art world, consider Andy Warhol’s famous “Campbell Soup Can” screen prints. It was not one painting but a series of 32 canvasses intended to be displayed together, forming a pattern.
Related to patterns is rhythm. Rhythm moves the eye in one or a series of directions. But most patterns do not do that, so our eyes wander around them. In other words, rhythm has leading lines, whereas patterns without rhythm don’t. Accordingly, we should use rhythm to our advantage. Just as rhythm can deliberately draw the eye, it may also lead the eye away from the subject or act as a blocker to prevent us from moving into the picture.
Some patterns on their own can be interesting, but they can be mundane too. Without adding a title, it’s hard to add meaning to a photograph of a pattern other than presenting it as an abstract image. Generally, a pattern carries equal visual weight across it. Referring to the Gestalt theory, I mentioned earlier and the way the mind craves simplicity, we can use a pattern equally as powerfully as a blurred or empty background by interrupting it with something with greater visual weight.
I hope you found that interesting. Have you used pattern, texture, and rhythm within your photos? Are there particular patterns that you regularly employ in your chosen photography genre? It would be great to see some examples in the comments.
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