Rhythm is something that is found in all the creative arts.
It is an unseen hand that guides us through a performance, giving it its background structure and stability.
Like music or dance, photos too have their own visual rhythm and variations in composition and structure that give the image its coherence.
Intrigued? Read on to find out the kinds of rhythm photography can contain, and how you can add it to your own work.
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What is Rhythm in Photography?
Rhythm in photography is a way of paying attention to specific compositional elements and structuring your image around them in a way that moves the viewer’s eyes through the frame.
When done well, rhythmical composition can give your images a coherent sense of balance or harmony, and it can be used to give your photographs a sense of movement, flow, and energy.
That energy can be fast, it can be slow, calming, or frenetic. The energy can rise, fall, or stay steady. It can bring you close to the subject, or keep you at a distance from it.
Put simply, visual rhythm is the beating heart of your images. And, like a heart, it’s essential.
Photographs with good use of visual rhythm invite the viewer to keep looking at them, they draw them in. All great photographs have great visual rhythm.
Conversely, a photograph with poor visual rhythm will make you want to look away. Something about it will make you feel uncomfortable, will jar.
What are the types of rhythm in photography?
Regular (visual) rhythm
Probably the most common visual rhythm used in photography.
Regular rhythm refers to the repeated use of identical elements in a frame. These elements should also repeat at regular intervals.
These regulated visual elements give a sense of order and balance to the frame.
The repetition of identical shapes (for example, concentric circles), or subjects (for example, equally spaced people), creates a steady rhythm for the eye to move over.
Think of a row of trees in a forest, a line of people, a picket fence, a chess board, or a scene of identically spaced balconies on a building. These are the kinds of scenes that have a regular rhythm.
As the name suggests, undulating rhythm is all about the lumps, humps and curves. The soft shapes.
It’s a gentle rhythm, with no sharp edges. The eye travels along the curves to a particular point in the frame – the background, the middle- or the top third – and is taken there without any breaks or diversions.
An example of shots using undulating rhythm would be an abstract of the ruckles in a bedspread, or a simple landscape of rolling hills leading to the horizon, or sand dunes.
Progressive rhythm is a kind of regular rhythm, but one that plays more with perspective.
But because the regular element changes in, for example, size or colour each time it’s repeated, it leads the eye in a particular direction using diagonal lines.
For a good example of progressive rhythm, think of a row of trees that appears to vanish into the distance as they get smaller.
This is an interesting style of rhythm, in which the photographer uses two types of rhythm and alternates between them.
These rhythms can complement each other, to give a more harmonious composition, or they can directly contradict one another, leading to a more energetic or discordant photograph.
An example of alternating rhythm could be concentric circles leading the eye towards the background, while horizontal shadows lead the eye across the frame.
With random rhythm, the repetition is there, but it doesn’t take place in such an ordered way as it does in other kinds of visual rhythm.
Visual elements in a scene are repeated but they may not be positioned regularly.
Images using this rhythmical technique tend to have more tension and dynamism to them. They can often appear at first glance as somewhat chaotic, although the eye will then quickly tie the repeated elements together and understand the image’s rhythm.
Photographs of hay bales in a field, hot air balloons in the sky, or a pile of colourful autumn leaves, are examples of the kinds of images that use the technique of random rhythm.
Breaking the rhythm of a photo can have quite a visual impact, especially when the rhythm would be especially harmonious.
A sudden break in colour, texture, pattern, or shape, in an otherwise coherent and balanced scene, gives the viewer a shock, like a sudden cymbal crash.
Not only can the use of this technique add a spot of emphasis, but it can also highlight the rhythmical balance of the rest of the scene.
What is the difference between pattern and rhythm in photography?
Although rhythm often contains different kinds of patterns, for example, geometric shapes, repeated patterns or textures, pattern alone does not necessarily create rhythm.
And, although patterns are often used as part of rhythm, they are not generally alone creators of rhythm.
Whatever elements rhythm contains, its hallmark is that it creates leading lines and a flow through the image that leads the viewer’s eye in a particular direction.
Patterns in photography don’t always do this. They can be quite mundane or abstract.
They often don’t lead the viewer’s eye in any particular direction, instead allowing the viewer’s eye to rove the frame.
Generally speaking, rhythm focuses the energy of an image at a particular point or in a specific direction, whereas patterns carry equal visual weight across the surface they cover.
11 Creative Examples of Repetition Rhythm Photography
Here are some great examples of how repetition can be used in photography. Look carefully, and try to see which kinds of rhythmic elements are being used alongside the repetition.
How to Use Rhythm in Photography
But, how is good rhythm achieved?
First, you need to pay careful attention to the interaction of the visual elements of a scene, such as colours, textures, shapes, lines, and contrast.
All visual scenes will contain some or all of these elements, and training your eye to recognise them, and then control them and find ways to enhance them, will bring your photography to a higher level.
You will be able to harness the power of progressive rhythm, alternating rhythm, random rhythm, undulating rhythm, regular rhythm; all the rhythms. Now say that sentence really quickly.
Look for colours
Colour repetition or extreme colour contrasts are a great way to bring images to life.
Stay alert to scenes which contain similar hues if you want to create harmonious scenes, or sharply clashing and contrasting colours for images with more dynamism.
Often, one of the easiest ways to create rhythm in our photographs is to focus on details.
A building façade with coloured balconies is much more visually arresting if you zoom in close to the pattern those balconies make, rather than shooting it from a distance.
Getting close to subjects or objects opens up eye and composition to abstraction, and a much greater opportunity to find rhythms.
Use your environment
Look around you. There’s rhythm everywhere.
There’s movement, pattern, shape, colour, and texture, to every kind of scene, whether you’re shooting landscape, architecture, street photography, or even in your own home.
It’s a case of training yourself to see it.
Practice with architecture
This is something that I find particularly useful.
Architects have to consider so many rhythmical elements in their designs, that buildings are often the perfect subject to photograph if you want to practice rhythm in photography.
Colour, lines, shape, material, and how the building fits into and interacts with its environment; these are all at the heart of architecture. So, it makes sense that they’re a great playground for photographers training themselves to notice specific visual elements.
Try to combine as many elements as possible
This is a way to push yourself.
Rather than focusing on one rhythm, look for competing or harmonious elements to create an alternating rhythm.
Trying to make these interact in a way that ties the image together is a great challenge.
Break up patterns
Once you have a composition you’re happy with, try to find a way to disrupt its rhythm.
Is there something you can include in the foreground or background?
Is there anything that would shake up the balance of the image (without destroying it), and make it more visually arresting?
Decide where to stand
This is a core technique whenever you’re practising any kind of photography.
Often our mind can settle on a composition and become quickly satisfied with it, but many of the most interesting compositions are a step further along the path.
How would the rhythm of your photograph change if you photographed the scene from above? From below? From the opposite side?
If you turn around, is there something completely different, that you haven’t yet noticed, that is also worth photographing?