Blog: Employing Symmetry (Part 1)

If you have ever done research on how to get the right visual shot – whether painted, photographed, or captured in motion – then you probably know the ‘rules.’ This stuff isn’t new. But today I think it’s worth repeating.

The elephant in the room is that, to misquote the rogue pirate Barbossa, “… the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.” While there is aesthetic appeal with a host of the visual rules that have developed over centuries – the fact is that we can quite easily go ahead and break them. But. Before we do… we really ought to know why the guidelines exist, and why they work first. Then we can decide when and how to best ignore them for our work.

To demonstrate, take a look at this montage of the cinematographic symmetry (try saying that three times fast!) used in the internationally acclaimed TV series, Sherlock.

There is something kind of soothing about it, isn’t there? To put it as simply as I can, where the goal of composition is to create a path that is pleasing for the eyes to follow (this is why the guideline exists) – symmetry gives the viewer a vague sense of the harmonious, of beautiful proportions, and of balance (this is why this particular guideline works).

There are many techniques that will strengthen (or weaken) the symmetric properties of an object or scene. How much of a scene we choose to show is paramount. So too is the position of the camera in relation to the subject, its height, tilt etc. We also need to take particular care to ensure the centre of the composition is equidistant (my word of the day!) to both sides. When done right, it looks simply beautiful. But can you imagine – for example – a shot of the Taj Mahal (an entirely symmetrical structure… right down to its symmetrical reflection in the pools of water around it) that has been misaligned? Well… it would look sort of like this…

The fact that this image is only slightly out is enough to make it a jarring visual. So while it is possible to break the guidelines of symmetry, if and when we chose to do so, we will really need to go all out. No half measures.

Coming up in part 2, we will finish looking at how to employ symmetry with another example or two, and some concluding considerations.

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