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A 10 Step Guide to Understanding and Utilising Pattern

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This post is part of a series called Composition.
A Beginner's Guide to Thoughtful Framing & Cropping
The Art of Using Backgrounds to Create Moody Photos

Patterns surround us in both natural and manmade forms, offering photographers great opportunities for dramatic and eye catching shots. But how do we best utilise pattern in our work? Today we'll be taking a look at several different examples to better understand pattern in photographic composition.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in November of 2010.

Step 1. What is Pattern?

Patterns are simply repeated shapes, colours or objects, ordered in either regular or irregular formations. As a photographer, using pattern is key to good composition and, when used effectively, can transform an otherwise bland image into something dramatic and eye catching. Patterns are formulated all around us - in both natural and man made settings. The key for photographers is firstly to find them, and then secondly to use the scene to our advantage.

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Step 2. Why Is Pattern Useful?

Patterns are an indefinite entity; there is no telling what a good or bad pattern is, so their benefits are totally subjective. For example, pattern can present strong structure, a well defined theme, eye catching repetition, or colour that brings an image to life.

Appreciating pattern will enhance your photographic work across the board. It will help to develop your photographic eye and increase your appreciation for the correlation between shapes, colours and line in all aspects of photography. You don't need any special equipment to maximise pattern within your work, just a well-trained eye and the ability to gain a vantage point to maximise the potential of the pattern.

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Step 3. Where Do You Find Pattern?

It's very hard to define where to find pattern, as it can be anywhere and everywhere! The key is to keep your eyes open as you go about your daily life and ensure you have a camera on you at all times just in case! Try exploring around the nearest town or city and I can almost guarantee that you'll find some great examples of patterns.

What is important is the vantage point from which you shoot. If on a small scale, ensure that you get in close to capture all the detail of the pattern. Often, however, patterns can emerge on a large scale and the best way to view them is from above, so if you can, get up high for a birds eye view and who knows what you'll find!

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Step 4. Regular Patterns

Some of the most rewarding patterns to shoot consist of shapes, lines or colours that repeat in a strict formation. Filling a frame with clear-cut lines or a consistent geometric formation lends itself to a strong, dramatic photograph. It is the regularity of the arrangement of the objects that give it such strength.


A reoccurring pattern is often present before the photographer intervenes - it's not a case of creating the pattern through the image, but finding the pre-existing pattern and utilising the angle of shot and lines to create the photograph.

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Step 5. Irregular Patterns

There is often the presumption that a pattern has to involve straight lines to produce something recognisable as a pattern, but this is not the case. Primarily in the natural world, patterns can be found in irregular formations and, in direct contrast to regular formations, the photographer may have to create a pattern from a selection of objects themselves.

I don't mean physically moving objects into a distinct pattern, but using their eye and angles to recognise the potential for a pattern within the given setting. This creative aspect to irregular patterns is far more difficult than shooting regular patterns, but it gives the photographer a lot more freedom to create from what they see.

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Step 6. The Natural World

The natural world offers an endless range of possible patterns to find and make the most of. Simple rock formations, lines of trees or veins in a leaf are all easy to find and capture. Make sure you search on both a small and large scale. Often the detail in natural objects can contain fascinating patterns, but similarly, something like a large sandstone formation with many layers and tones of sediment will be great subject material.

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Step 7. Man-Made Patterns

The same principle applies to shooting man made patterns - close up detail like brickwork or cobblestones can offer great opportunities for pattern shots, but it is also possible to find patterns when looking down from skyscrapers over a huge city.

Structures and buildings are often a great place to start, and a lot of architectural photography utilises pattern as most buildings have set structural formations and window patterns. Cars, and even people, can also lend themselves to pattern shots - particularly when arranged in rows or grouped together.

However, my favourite man-made pattern shots are taken from a birds-eye view, e.g. down at a café or roof, so if you can, get up high!

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Step 8. Compositional Principles

When using pattern in your work, it is important to maximise its affect by thinking carefully about composition. The first thing to consider is filling the whole frame with the pattern, which will increase the effect and drama of the shot as it means the eye has nothing to distract it from the pattern on show.

You also need to experiment with the angle at which you shoot the chosen pattern. Some shapes and lines will lend themselves to being shot straight, with a rigid square structure, whereas other correlating patterns may be better captured from a more inventive perspective. Have a play around with varying angles to see what works best.

A final aspect to consider is the combination of pattern and space within a shot, with the possibility of emphasising a pattern by contrasting it with an area of plain colour or natural space.

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Step 9. Breaking the Pattern

Once you've mastered exploring regular and irregular patterns, trying looking at breaking up the pattern. By this I mean utilising a pattern, but incorporating an anomaly within the pattern as a point of interest, e.g. a shot of rows of red colouring pencils, with one blue one somewhere in the row.

These can be easy situations to manipulate, but very hard to find in a natural setting. If used effectively, you can capture an extremely dramatic shot, especially if there is a human element involved, so if you find one whilst you're out and about, get snapping!

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Step 10. Experiment!

As always, try to master the basic principles and then get creative. You never know when or where you're going to find patterns, so try and take your camera with you - whether in the countryside or in the city - and keep your eyes peeled! Remember to utilise angles, light, composition variation, and if you're feeling adventurous, try combining patterns together in the same shot...

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