There is a reason why there’s a pattern photo on most people’s desktops right now. You don’t even have to search for them online. They come integrated with your operating system as wallpapers. They are tailored pretty much to everyone’s liking. How many times have you caught yourself brooding and just staring at those lines and shapes? That’s how patterns work. And that’s why pattern photography is so captivating when done right.
But how is it possible for something so simple to have such a powerful impact? Basically, pattern is a repetition of certain elements – shapes, forms, lines, colors, types of things. Considering how our culture and civilization teach us to appreciate originality and uniqueness, the pleasure we draw from patterns seems to be counterintuitive.
Here’s a simple answer to this riddle: we like patterns because we aspire to order. Orderly things make us calm, whereas interruptions of order disturb us. And that’s the psychological basis of pattern photography. A pattern can be a repetition that is merely visually appealing. But it can also be a powerful emotion or statement.
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“It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.” – Douglas R. Hofstadter
How Do Patterns Work?
Patterns draw their impact from regularity and integrity, or lack thereof. You can either capture this regularity and make a beautiful composition, or emphasize an interruption and make it your focal point, altering the message completely.
For example, a plain row of identical windows may not seem the most interesting thing in the world. But you just need to find an unusual perspective and, for example, catch the reflection of clouds, and you will tell a story of freedom vs. confinement.
If one of the windows is broken and you make it your focal point, it instantly changes the impression and outcome. It interrupts the pattern and draws attention to itself. Or have a person stand behind one of the windows. That will be a powerful story of loneliness and alienation. That’s how meaningful interruption really is.
If done right, patterns are intense and dramatic. If not, they can be more or less pleasant to look at, but boring and empty beyond the surface.
Where to Find Patterns?
There are patterns literally everywhere around us. Street and architecture photographers find them in urban scenery – huge blocks and buildings, bridges, city squares, skyscrapers, the interiors of cathedrals and historical buildings. Urban scenes are mainly man-made and therefore packed full of different kinds of repetitions.
If you often make excursions to nature and countryside, take a look at plants and zoom into their tiny structures. Study flowers, fields, forests. All things exist within groups of other, similar things. You just need to practice observation, to the point where you will visualize different kinds of patterns even in your dreams.
“From where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.” – Tony Hillerman
Tip #1. Practice Observation
One of the most important things in any kind of photography is seeing things that untrained eye can’t see at first glance. You need to observe your mundane reality, everything you normally take for granted. Climbing a staircase every day? It’s bound to be full of patterns. Passing by a row of suburb houses on your way home? There’s another pattern and a great idea for pattern photography.
Need more ideas? Go to a farmer’s market and look at their piles of fruits and veggies. Stop by a railway station and look for patterns in rails, train wagons, electric wires. When you’re on a beach, maybe there will be some footprints in the sand that will create a pattern. When you go to a concert or a game, wait until everybody leaves and snap those empty seat rows. Zoom into the texture of a handmade bag to capture the symmetrical stitches – a broken stitch could be your focal point.
“If you make listening and observation your occupation you will gain much more than you can by talk.” – Robert Baden-Powell
As a photographer, you’re normally focused on spotting unusual, different things. As a pattern photographer, you have to do the opposite: focus on repetitions, on many of the same thing, and realize what’s special in them.
Once you train your eye to recognize patterns, they will help you master composition and realize that opportunities live everywhere around us.
Tip #2. Get Micro and Macro
The world is full of interesting facts. But many of them are only visible from a bird’s or worm’s eye view, or when you zoom into tiny structures that otherwise pass unnoticed. Roll up the sleeves and climb high places. Get down to the ground or observe the pavement beneath your feet.
Try to find the best angle that conveys three dimensions, instead of just standing in front of objects. Dimensions will infuse the picture with dynamics and excitement. Even if you found what you think is your perfect angle, don’t stop tiptoeing around it. Even if your shots turn out to be lousy, it will be a useful experience. It’s not easy to spot a photogenic pattern, much less to tell a story with it.
Tip #3. Don’t Always Strive Toward Perfection
As we all know, perfection is impossible. Even in nature, it’s extremely rare, assuming it exists at all. Show the world as it is, with imminent disorder and discord. You can make an effort to arrange a few objects (such as apples) in a perfect order. But they aren’t perfectly identical, nor should they be. A pattern doesn’t need to be perfect in order to work.
In fact, that rotten apple might just get your photo one step closer to perfection.
Tip #4. Choose Your Frame Wisely
If you’re dealing with a regular pattern, fill the frame so it doesn’t include anything outside the pattern itself. Unless you want to talk about the “pattern-ness” of the pattern.
For example, if you decide to snap a number of cars stuck in traffic, or colorful line of Lego blocks, the frame of your photo will determine what the viewer will see. They may see a handful of cars or blocks, or it may appear to be millions of them. You don’t have to include all the cars in your photo. Don’t let the edges restrain your message. Let it look as if you captured just one tiny segment of an endless repetition.
Tip #5. If You Break the Pattern, Do It at Intersection
Remember the rule of thirds? It basically teaches us not to place our focal point in the center of the image. Instead, capture it so it would ideally sit in one of the intersection of thirds. That way, the interruption will be all the more interesting and eye-catching.
Tip #6. Make Use of Shadows
Utilize both light and shadows. Shadows themselves can create patterns, as in window blinds. But they can also add more dynamics to another pattern.
Feel free to create patterns or manipulate existing ones. Even though it may seem like cheating, it’s not. Even if that particular scene isn’t a raw, unprocessed snapshot of the real world, it doesn’t matter as long as it tells a story.