How to Use Rhythm, Texture, and Pattern in Photographic Composition

We see patterns everywhere. Related to rhythm and texture, these are powerful tools in photography for a multitude of reasons.

What is a pattern? It depends who you ask. My very old Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a repeated decorative pattern”. The online version of the Cambridge Dictionary says it is “any regularly repeating arrangement, especially a design consisting of repeated lines, shapes or colors on a surface”.

In photography, I would describe it as an area comprising several similar elements which, viewed holistically, appear as a coherent structure with repeating parts. If you are familiar with the Gestalt theory, it says that the human mind brings together corresponding elements. This is useful to us because the human spirit craves simplicity. Where there was once a jumble of several individual pieces, there is now just one element, the pattern.

Our ability to recognize patterns is innate and our brains are wired to identify them. We find them soothing because they create order out of chaotic randomness. So, using patterns is one method that we can use in our images. Indeed, artists have used patterns throughout history and in all cultures. Argentina’s Cueva de las Manos features hand-painted designs dating back over 9,000 years, pottery found in China dating back 20,000 years, and Aurignacian artwork dating back around 30,000 years Before our era.

How many repeated parts do we need to see a pattern? An object in itself is not a pattern, and neither are two. We’re starting to have 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 hiking groups 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 world was still with us.) So a pattern expands 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 whole.

Once a pattern becomes large enough, it acquires its own texture. To understand this, imagine a flock of birds forming a speckled pattern in the sky.

When we zoom in, this texture disappears and a new pattern including 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 up, and we see individual birds, but the smooth body texture comes through. As we get closer, the texture starts to fade. Then the pattern of the feathers is formed. It goes on ad infinitum.

A key word when it comes to patterns is repetition. A pattern consists of similar components that reproduce over and over again. Note that I say similar. The components that make up a pattern do not have to be identical. The patterns we see in nature are rarely made up of identical parts, although man-made patterns often do. But there is a need for commonalities there. For example, different sized beads of the same color would form a pattern, as would same sized beads of different colors. Beads of different sizes, textures, colors and shapes can create a pattern, but it will be weaker than if the beads had more similarities.

Also, as soon as you add too many variables, the model breaks down entirely and just becomes a collection of unrelated objects. So, from a photographer’s perspective, more similarity in pattern means that 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 double moon reflection draws the eye, and its force balances the taller, lighter frames of the windows on the left. By interrupting the pattern, the image is enhanced.

The angle at which the patterns run should also be considered. Just by tilting the phone’s camera when I took the photo above, the lines from the edges of the panel ran diagonally across the frame. This adds extra tension to the image. In the real world, our brain expects the diagonals to be unstable and ready to fall. Therefore, we feel the same in models. Moreover, this principle applies more broadly to any subject.

On the other hand, combining diagonals with horizontals or verticals can add strength because our mind expects the diagonals to reinforce them, like a buttress on a wall, guy lines on a tent, the poles of end diagonals on a truss bridge or the struts under a dock.

Designs don’t have to be limited to the content of a single photograph. A series of images together can form a pattern. In the art world, think of Andy Warhol’s famous “Campbell Soup Can” serigraphs. It is not a single painting but a series of 32 canvases intended to be exhibited together, forming a pattern.

Rhythm is related to patterns. Rhythm moves the eye in one or more directions. But most models don’t, so our eyes wander around them. In other words, rhythm has guidelines, while non-rhythm patterns do not. Therefore, we must use rhythm to our advantage. Just as rhythm can deliberately draw the eye in, it can also draw the eye away from the subject or act as a blocker to keep us from entering the picture.

Some models on their own can be interesting, but they can also be mundane. Without adding a title, it is difficult to add meaning to a photograph of a pattern other than presenting it as an abstract image. Generally, a pattern has the same visual weight on it. With reference to Gestalt theory, which I mentioned earlier and how the mind craves simplicity, we can use a pattern just as powerfully as a blurred or empty background by interrupting it with something with more visual weight.

I hope you found this interesting. Did you use patterns, textures and rhythms in your photos? Are there particular models that you use regularly in the genre of photography that you have chosen? It would be nice to see examples in the comments.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like this one on two things that could be holding your photography back.

Michael E. Marquez