Composition: Photographing Patterns

By Geoff Harris

dahlia veracruz, Photographing Pattern, Abstract, Macro, Pattern, Nature, Composition,  form, light, colour, Color

Photographing patterns in nature can be an excellent way of improving your photography, because it makes you think about composition, form, light, and colour. It also challenges you to look for a picture when one isn’t immediately obvious, and so trains up your photographic eye.

And it has an extra bonus – unlike many other types of photography, such as wildlife, landscape, travel, and so on – you don’t need to go anywhere special to do it!

Patterns can be found in all sorts of places once you start to look. Nature is full of patterns – repeating tree trunks, veins in leaves, overlapping flower petals, wave patterns on the sand, grain in wood – the list goes on and on. And man-made objects can supply plenty of patterns too – from the patterns made by the windows in a skyscraper, to a line of stacked up trolleys outside a supermarket.

Photographing Pattern, Abstract, Macro, Pattern, Nature, Composition,  form, light, colour, Color

Once you’ve found your pattern, you need to think about how to compose your photograph. Usually a pattern picture will be stronger when you exclude other elements that are not part of the pattern – and this will often mean using the telephoto end of your zoom lens, or else going in quite close so that you can fill the frame with your chosen subject.

Sometimes you may have a perfect repeating pattern in your picture, but at other times you might choose to break the pattern in some way. Imagine looking down from a window onto an outdoor café. It’s early in the morning so nobody is there yet, and the tables and chairs form a good repeating pattern from your high viewpoint. Most of the tables have blue tablecloths, but a few have yellow. You’ll then need to think about how you distribute the colours within your picture. Perhaps you might choose to fill your frame with blue covered tables, including only one yellow one. In that case, where will you put it? Perhaps on one of the rule of thirds points?

Photographing Pattern, Abstract, Macro, Pattern, Nature, Composition,  form, light, colour, Color

The quality and direction of the prevailing light will make a difference to the way your pattern photos appear. For instance, imagine you’re facing a line of tree trunks, evenly spaced and sized, and close together. In overcast light they will make a subtle pattern – but in strong side light one side of each trunk will be lit while the other side falls into shadow, and this will make a more dramatic pattern.

In fact a strong light can create some very graphic pattern pictures if you look for shadows – for instance, the shadows of a balustrade across a pavement. To find this type of a photo, you’ll need to have a fairly strong light which comes from quite low down and so casts long shadows.

Photographing Pattern, Abstract, Macro, Pattern, Nature, Composition,  form, light, colour, Color

In any type of photography, a strong low side light will show off the form of your subject to its best advantage. And this applies just as much when you’re photographing several subjects with the same shape.

At other times though, a more overcast light may be better, particularly if you’re photographing delicate natural subjects such as flowers. You’ll see the patterns formed by petals more clearly when the petals are not casting shadows onto each other, as sometimes happens in bright light.

The more you start looking for patterns, the more you’ll notice them – and they really can make great photographic subjects!

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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