Composition: Revealing Rhythms in Repeating Objects

Using a series of repeating objects in a photo’s background can make it compositionally impressive. It gives the photo a rhythm—which you can then interrupt with a properly placed subject. And if you hide the end of the series of objects that form the rhythm, you make the photo feel endless. Your audience gets the feeling that the row of repeating objects never ends.

Rhythm

Urban and industrial zones are a great milieu for finding repeating objects—repeating homes, poles, exteriors… and paths, leading among things like tree trunks or telephone poles. You’ll find most of nature’s repeating elements in macro photography, especially in the form of plant elements—tree needles, fern leaves, and more.

Rhythmic Elements as Your Subject

Often a photo’s repeating elements are its true subject. Photographs like these generally lie the border between descriptive and abstract.

Taking advantage of a repeating pattern on a radiator to create an abstract composition that harnesses gradually weakening light. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/100 s, f/2.8, ISO 80, focal length 12.8 mm (60 mm equiv.)

Taking advantage of a repeating pattern on a radiator to create an abstract composition that harnesses gradually weakening light.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/100 s, f/2.8, ISO 80, focal length 12.8 mm (60 mm equiv.)

This picture is made up of two rhythmic elements—the repeating tile pattern is intersected by the lines of the shadows. Here again, the real subject is the mood of the picture’s light. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/100 s, f/2.8, ISO 100, focal length 5.1 mm (24 mm equiv.)

This picture is made up of two rhythmic elements—the repeating tile pattern is intersected by the lines of the shadows. Here again, the real subject is the mood of the picture’s light.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/100 s, f/2.8, ISO 100, focal length 5.1 mm (24 mm equiv.)

Unlike the previous two abstract photos, this photo is descriptive. And yet regardless, its real subject is the rhythm of the several rows of repeating objects. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/30 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focal length 12.8 mm (60 mm equiv.)

Unlike the previous two abstract photos, this photo is descriptive. And yet regardless, its real subject is the rhythm of the several rows of repeating objects.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/30 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focal length 12.8 mm (60 mm equiv.)

Another descriptive photo. The subject is the food, whose individual parts are rhythmically positioned on the plate. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/20 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focal length 12.8 mm (60 mm equiv.)

Another descriptive photo. The subject is the food, whose individual parts are rhythmically positioned on the plate.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/20 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focal length 12.8 mm (60 mm equiv.)

Rhythmic Elements as Background

In portrait photography especially, it can be good to place your subject in an environment made up of rhythmic elements. That gives the photo a new dimension, and its background can function as a guideline leading towards your subject. But despite this you need to work with your rhythmic subject in a way that keeps it from overpowering your photo’s main subject—the person you’re photographing.

The rhythmic background positioned outside this photo’s depth of field forms a guideline that leads the viewer’s eyes to the subject. Canon EOS 7D, 70-200/2.8, 1/125 s, f/5.6, ISO 100, focal length 135 mm (216 mm equiv.)

The rhythmic background positioned outside this photo’s depth of field forms a guideline that leads the viewer’s eyes to the subject.
Canon EOS 7D, 70-200/2.8, 1/125 s, f/5.6, ISO 100, focal length 135 mm (216 mm equiv.)

Here the rhythmic background is the series of columns that gradually progresses beyond the depth of field; it gives this fashion portrait a sense of depth. Canon EOS 7D, EF 100/2.8, 1/100 s, f/4, ISO 200, focal length 100 mm (160 mm equiv.)

Here the rhythmic background is the series of columns that gradually progresses beyond the depth of field; it gives this fashion portrait a sense of depth.
Canon EOS 7D, EF 100/2.8, 1/100 s, f/4, ISO 200, focal length 100 mm (160 mm equiv.)

Perfection Through Rhythm

By utilizing rhythmically repeating elements as a background for your photo, you give it greater depth, and you can also use these elements to lead all eyes towards your subject. But compositions in which repeating elements are the real subject are also interesting. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a wide variety of elements in your pictures! It’s the only way to make sure they’ll get better and better.

Last updated 11. July 2016

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Author: Jan Zeman

I’ve been digitally editing pictures since 1996. I started taking pictures in 2006, and since then I’ve gradually been becoming a full-time photographer. In my work, I focus on portrait, architecture, cityscape, and product/advertising photography.

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