The Tuesday Composition: Repetition

Salt Polygons at Sunrise, Death Valley
Salt Polygons at Sunrise, Death Valley

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

A while back we talked about visual echoes–and we primarily focused on repetitions of two similar or contrasting objects. Today I’m going to revisit that topic with a greater emphasis on repetition generally, whether two, eleven or a million similar image elements.  If you didn’t get a chance to read the echoes post, I suggest going back and and reading it now, many of the ideas in today’s post will relate to and reflect on the ideas I presented there.

Repetition is a powerful and amazingly versatile tool.

One of my favorite uses of repetition in composition is in simplifying an image. In general, images with many kinds of disparate elements can be harder for the viewer to make sense of–put enough elements together and you take away an easy sense of what elements of the image are important, dominant.

Repeating patterns in an image can help organize all of those elements into a pattern that’s easier for the viewer to understand. Salt Polygons at Sunrise has hundreds of elements, but our eye quickly integrates the underlying pattern of the salt polygons and makes sense of what’s going on in the image. A random collection of that many disparate elements in an image would feel much more chaotic. (Of course, that might be what you want, but more often, my own work tends towards less chaotic.)

Clouds Forming in Alpenglow, Eastern Sierra, California
Clouds Forming in Alpenglow, Eastern Sierra, California

Like visual echoes, repetitions of similar objects can guide us to compare and/or contrast the elements in the image. This is a particularly crucial part of  Clouds Forming in Alpenglow. While the repeated pattern in the mountain peaks does simplify the image a bit, the repeated pattern of the clouds is far more important.  A single diagonal cloud would tell the viewer very little about the dynamics of what’s going on behind that cloud; however, three clouds each moving in a parallel direction away from the repeated peaks in the image presents a much deeper question as to what’s going on. In this case, that pattern isn’t an accident, the clouds are literally being formed downwind of the peaks, and the blurred cloud motion helps to confirm that fact.

Dawn Migration and Tabular Iceberg, Greenland Coast
Dawn Migration and Tabular Iceberg, Eastern Coast of Greenland

Salt Polygons also compares repeated elements, and “shows us” depth and scale as a result. We “see” the repetition of polygons, we compare them and (subconsciously) notice them recede as we move up the image (as well as change in shape), and we quickly and intuitively grasp that we’re looking across a vast, flat plane of these polygons.

Finally, one can strengthen the power of repetition by putting the repeated elements into a line, and making use of the special   properties of lines and edges that we’ve talked about in earlier posts.  Dawn Migration and Tabular Iceberg provides a very simplistic example, comparing and contrasting the repeated, blurred bird images in this print becomes more interesting as our eye is guided through the composition by the lines of the flock.

Desert Rhythms
Desert Rhythms VIII, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Beyond a certain number of repeated elements, our repetitions often lose their their independent existence and begin to take on the sense of a single object, a rhythm, a texture. My sand dune abstracts, such as Desert Rhythms VIII, contain a number of examples of that idea. Even short of these extremes, though, a rhythm, that is, a repetition not only of elements but of distances between the elements, strengthens the power of repeating elements and helps unify them into a single visual element.

With all these possibilities, compositional repetition is an important tool for creating powerful and effective images.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Have you tried taking photos of rice terraces? That would make a great photo with the “Repitition” theme. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and images with us.

  2. Sakura: No, I haven’t yet had the opportunity, but I’ve been delighted by many of the images of rice terraces I’ve seen, and I hope to someday. Thank you!

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