One of my favorite compositional tools. It creates order, balance, strength – when used with intention. When not, it can create an image that feels stale and boring. So, when does it work? Here are a few examples of when you might want to consider symmetry.
Think of it like folding a book in half. Things align whether folded left to right or top to bottom.
As with any symmetrical composition, you really need to pay attention to where you align yourself in relation to the subject. Look to markers on the ground – lines in tiles, carpet, concrete squares, etc. because they often align with the structure or building. Pay attention to the grid in your camera viewfinder to see that the spacing in the corners and where the lines intersect are the same on both sides.
I know these tips sound easy and, in theory, they are. However, it takes a lot of patience and attention to detail to make sure things line up equally.
Symmetry is one of those tools that if you’re off just a little bit the shot doesn’t work. It’s either get it perfect or be drastically off. Otherwise, you just feel the imbalance.
This is the most difficult to pull off because every single element in the frame needs to be perfectly aligned. See this first shot, for example of it not working.
Look at the very center where the light fixture is, the white area surrounding that is the giveaway that it’s not actually centered. It varies in its amount between the fixture and the next circle at the center of the ceiling.
In this case, this was as good as I could get given it’s a church and this was centered above and alter. Which, I was absolutely not going to climb on or drastically lean over to get the fully centered shot.
Now, for an example of where it works.
You see the chandelier in the center of the image and how it overlaps with the arches to the same degree at every arch. Beyond that, the sections of blue lights are equally exposed on all sides. Then, the arches in all four corners and each side have equal weight.
As I mentioned above, just below this chandelier was a pattern in the carpet that mirrored this above. So, I laid down on the floor to brace myself to allow the time I needed to get as centered as possible and align all the elements before releasing the shutter.
There are a couple of ways or situations in which I think symmetry helps create order from either busy or chaotic subjects.
First, with older, more ornate architecture I tend to rely on this type of composition. It just calms the scene and feels less busy.
Then, there are moments, even in more contemporary architecture where there’s just a lot going on and it helps to calm things down. For example, this shot of the Burberry building which is highly reflective. Add to that, there are layers of reflective surfaces that warp what the building is reflecting in different ways making it feel pretty chaotic.
By isolating this diamond-shaped pattern and placing it in the center of my frame it immediately calms the scene and balances the various layers of reflections and degrees of light and shadow.
Speaking of reflections, take any reflective surface and get as close to it as possible. When it’s a building, literally place your camera on the glass to minimize the glass. What you get is the architecture mirroring what it’s reflecting to create a symmetrical or near-symmetrical shot.
Create a sense of strength/power
Whenever you place your subject dead center you give it importance which feels powerful. I think this is especially try when the centered subject has a pyramid-like shape. The added harshness of this shape further emphasizes that feeling of strength and power.
Lastly, centering your subject creates balance. In the first two examples, the subject is symmetrical in one sense – if you fold either image in half, the architecture would align. However, that symmetry is broken by the way the light interacts with the building – the shadow vs light from one section to the other.
In this final example, the staircase is really just centered to create that sense of balance from inconsistent patterns on each side of the skylight.
These are just a few things to keep in mind when considering whether or not your subject can benefit from composing in a symmetrical or centered way. As with any shooting, just be intentional about how you want the shot to feel.