Dynamic Symmetry for Photographers A Real-World Approach for Taking Better Photographs
This article is an attempt to teach photographers how to read a work of art, introduce the principles of design using classical skill-based art techniques, define the true meaning of intuition in photography, and shed light on the many myths regarding Dynamic Symmetry, camera grid products, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Photographers that have a strong desire to build upon the modern-day rules of composition will find Dynamic Symmetry extremely beneficial. Dynamic Symmetry is not a gimmick nor is it "New-Age." In fact, this system of design is over two thousand years old. Artists that have employed Dynamic Symmetry principles in their work include Magnum photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martine Franck, Alex Webb, Leonard Freed, Eve Arnold, and Constantine Manos as well as a long list of master painters such as Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Pablo Picasso, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and Vincent van Gogh.
All of the recommendations made in this article are based on ten years experience in design, two years experimentation with camera grids and hundreds of hours spent analyzing art. More importantly, everything the photographer needs to learn more about Dynamic Symmetry and composition in art is available on this site as a free download. In summary, Dynamic Symmetry is a serious design tool that will allow the artist and photographer to create superior quality art with an infinite amount of flexibility. Below you can download a Dynamic Symmetry grid pack for Lightroom and Photoshop, a PDF copy of The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist, a camera grid pack for beginner students, and a PDF on the best books available for learning more about the art of composition. These books represent a complete course in design and no further readings on Dynamic Symmetry are necessary. I highly recommend starting with The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry by Michel Jacobs.
Tools Required to Learn Dynamic Symmetry
The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry Click here to download
Dynamic Symmetry Grid Pack for Lightroom and Photoshop and a Dynamic Symmetry Camera Grid Pack Formats Included: 3:2 (35mm film), 4:3, 7:6, 16:9, and the 5:4 Click here to download
The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist Click here to download
For the photographer to be productive in applying Dynamic Symmetry principles to their images, it's important to understand that they can't approach design in the same manner as the artist. Because the artist has no restriction on time to create a work of art, they can spend days, weeks, months, and even years on a composition. In contrast, photographers only have a fraction of a second to compose their photos. Due to the obvious differences between these two artistic practices, the professional photographer will find that Dynamic Symmetry is best used as an analytical tool - not one of direct application.
At the beginning stages of learning Dynamic Symmetry, it’s critical for the photographer to acknowledge the difference between the intuitive act of photographing and intuition in composition. These two concepts are not the same and shouldn't be viewed as such. As I repeatedly mention throughout this website and in my user's guide, composition in art is not intuitive (in the magical sense), and it's a skill that must be learned, mastered, and applied if the artist or photographer expects to create a consistent and masterful body of work in their lifetime.
In the book The Decisive Moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson states “Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move." While many photographers assume Henri Cartier-Bresson is stating composition in photography is intuitive, this assumption would be incorrect. What Bresson is actually referring to is the brief moment in time when a trained photographer can recognize visual order in a scene and have the skills and insight to be able to capture a successful photograph based on solid design principles.
It's well documented that Henri Cartier-Bresson was thoroughly trained in classical skill-based art techniques and executed this intuitive knowledge with precision in a massive body of work. Unlike most other photographers, Bresson had hundreds of images that were considered masterpieces, and he was able to accomplish this incredible feat because of his training in design. Richard Avedon talks about Bressons' accomplishments in his 2004 interview with Charlie Rose. Click here for the video clip.
Learn How Photographers Apply Dynamic Symmetry An Email From a Curious Photographer
I received an email recently from a photographer that was curious about the application of Dynamic Symmetry. The photographer who wrote asked, "How can I capture an image based on Dynamic Symmetry composition rules and how can I enhance the power to acquire the knowledge of this system?" Even though I address both of these issues thoroughly in my user's guide, The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist, the question is an important one and deserves further clarification.
Like the person who sent me the email above, many photographers are confused how to apply Dynamic Symmetry to their photographs because the act of photographing is, in many ways, intuitive, and they don't have the time to create elaborate compositions like the artist that draws and paints. While this time constraint might seem restricting at first, there are several ways a photographer can effectively incorporate Dynamic Symmetry principles in their body of work. Here's how.
Learn how to analyze art. You can do this by selecting a few of your favorite artists and carefully inspecting all aspects of their designs. Start with the artist's earlier works and track their progress throughout their career. Take notes of their improvements, shifts in subject matter, changes in technical approach, etc. Try to recognize repeated patterns, consistency in quality and specific artistic style. Also, look for ways to improve their images and decode why some works are better than others.
Once you have fully grasped the elements of design (figure-ground relationship, overlapping, the greatest area of contrast, perspective, the armature of the rectangle, etc.), you can then learn how to apply these techniques while you're taking pictures. In other words, you've trained yourself to look for specific qualities that make a photograph a work of art and have the ability to respond to them quickly. In my user's guide, I refer to this intuitive approach to composition as "intuitive knowledge."
By investing the time to study drawings, paintings, and photographs you're learning how to improve your visual literacy skills. Every highly trained artist throughout history, from da Vinci to Degas, went through the process of analyzing art and there is no reason that the modern artist and photographer shouldn't do the same. And even though this approach is frowned upon by most contemporary art teachers, in the past, it was a way for the student to learn all the techniques of value, color theory, design and so on.
Click here for a video on analyzing art. Click here for a video on the armature of the rectangle.
Overlay Dynamic Symmetry Grids in Post-Processing Design Grids for Quick Analyzation
Every time you've completed a photography shoot, overlay design grids on your images to see how well you did. This form of analysis is extremely beneficial for improving your visual literacy skills, requires almost no effort, and drastically speeds up the learning process.
Henri Cartier-Bresson used the same practice by drawing the 1.5 armature of the rectangle on a piece of tracing paper. He would then lay the tracing paper on top of his contact sheets and prints to determine which images worked and which ones failed. Today, this process is more efficient because you can use Lightroom and Photoshop to import pre-made design grids. If you're willing to incorporate this additional step in your post-processing workflow, your visual skills will improve each time you pick up your camera.
Work the Scene Take More Than One Photograph
Among photographers, there is a continuous debate on how many photographs of a scene they should take. Some claim one image is enough, while others advocate for shooting more. However, one crucial point to keep in mind is that a classically trained artist will rarely, if ever, draw only one sketch before transferring their design to the canvas. They might do 3, 5, 10, 15 drawings or more. Photographers should approach composition in the same manner by shooting a series of images (as opposed to just one). Click here for a sample image of Henri Cartier-Bresson working a scene from the book "Scrapbook." To learn more, I recommend the book Magnum Contact Sheets.
Improve Your Knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry The Best Books Available on Composition in Art
To improve your knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry and composition in art and photography, click herefor a complete list of recommended books. It's important to note that this list does not contain any photography books. In my experience, most photography books on composition only discuss the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Rule of Space, and Leading Lines.
Other Considerations for Photographers That Want to Learn More About Dynamic Symmetry
Design Grids for Cameras Advertising vs. Real-World Application
With the recent revival of classical art training, Dynamic Symmetry is becoming more widespread. Along with this rebirth in classical design techniques comes new art and photography products as well. Over the past few years, I've had a significant number of photographers ask me if taping design grids to their camera's LCD screen is necessary for creating great compositions. My response is always the same - absolutely not.
Regardless of the product claims found online, professional photographers don't use camera grids to compose their images nor are they photographing with these grids in mind. More importantly, using camera grids in no way ensures that the photographer will capture an acceptable image. Creating successful photographs is dependent on many variables that include the armature of the rectangle, figure-ground relationship, proper overlapping, and the appropriate balance of individual elements in your design.
Before using camera grids, there are several factors that all photographers must consider. Firstly, attaching a design grid to a camera's viewfinder prevents the photographer from concentrating on the scene or subject they are photographing because they are always preoccupied with lining up visual elements. In turn, this constant distraction limits the photographer's artistic creativity because they aren't considering any other alternatives for their composition besides the design scheme they have chosen to tape to their LCD screen.
Secondly, photographers that rely on camera grids for composition are not acquiring the long-term benefits of learning classical skill-based art and will never develop the necessary intuitive design skills to shoot without this visual crutch. The fact is, despite all the elaborate camera grid products available, there are no shortcuts for creating great art and taping design grids to your camera is far too limiting to be considered a realistic approach for applying Dynamic Symmetry in photography. This technique is best suited for the beginner student.
Why Complicated Dynamic Symmetry Grids are Unnecessary for Photographers
One of the biggest mistakes I see made among many photographers and design educators is that they overcomplicate the application Dynamic Symmetry. When a classically trained artist creates a drawing or painting, they aren't copying what they see. The artist will manipulate lines, change angles, and move their subject (or subjects) around the canvas to line up specific elements with a design grid. Because the photographer doesn't have this degree of flexibility in the design phase, there is no need for using complex design grids on cameras or in post-processing - the basic armature of the rectangle is more than enough for most photography applications.
My Professional Experience and Thoughts on Camera Grids
I rarely use camera grids to compose my photographs, and I never use them when shooting professional work. For landscape photos, I sometimes use the basic armature of the rectangle. Because Dynamic Symmetry allows the artist to create an infinite number of compositions, photographers should never restrict creativity by locking their images into one design scheme. Photographers that continually use design grids on their camera, whether it be the Rule of Thirds or Dynamic Symmetry, are always faced with this problem.
While some online marketers claim camera grids are necessary for applying Dynamic Symmetry to a photograph these design educators lack real-world experience, misinterpret the application of Dynamic Symmetry in photography, are trying to increase camera grid sales, and overlook the critical fact that tools should benefit the artist, not restrict their artistic freedom. Camera grids are not only unnecessary but if overused a photographer's visual literacy skills become stunted, and their images predictable and overly mechanical.
In my combined 36 years experience as a photographer, educator of design, and graphic artist I have yet to come across any highly skilled, historically relevant photographer that used camera grids to compose their images and for any professional to engage in such a practice would mean a loss of credibility. Photographers that are taking their first step towards learning more about the art of composition should fully understand that camera grids are an aid for the beginner student - not a tool for the skilled professional.
Composite Photography vs. Straight Photography
For those photographers interested in composite photography (cutting and pasting multiple images together to create a composition) applying Dynamic Symmetry is used in the same manner as the artist that draws and paints. In other words, the composite photographer is not limited by the amount of time for creating their final design.
Also, it's important to point out that composite photography and the application of Dynamic Symmetry should not be restricted to one design scheme - meaning the use of camera grids becomes even less relevant. Much like the artist, the composite photographer will use the angles of their subject to dictate the rectangle they choose for their design and also have the ability to move individual elements around the frame as they see fit.
Learning the Rules of Composition and Then Breaking Them
As the saying goes, if I had a dime for every article I've read about learning the rules of composition and then breaking them, I could retire a wealthy man. In fact, the phrase "breaking the rules" in art has been repeated so many times by artists and photographers that it's become a cliche. As I mention in the Frequently Asked Questions section of this website, there isn't anything wrong with breaking the rules of composition. The problem with breaking the rules in art and design is that far too many artists and photographers don't know what the rules are.
Unfortunately, when most photographers talk about rules in composition, they are referring to Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Rule of Space, and Leading Lines. These rules, which have been repeated and debated ad nauseam on every photography website, actually have little to do with art or real design. In other words, just because a photographer understands how to apply the Rule of Thirds grid to their images, and then occasionally "breaks the rule," this is in no way a clear indicator that they are thoroughly trained in classical skill-based art techniques.
"Design rules must be actively sought out, learned, and applied. There are rules for drawing, there are rules for color, and there are rules for composition. In fact, the rules or limits of any discipline help define it and give the participant in that subject freedom to create and express himself. Jacques Villion (the brother of Marcel Duchamp) put it well when he said, “In the artistic chaos of these last years, when the absolute liberation of the individual instinct has brought it to the point of frenzy, an attempt to identify the harmonic disciplines that have, secretly, in every period, served as foundations for painting may well seem folly. Yet the framework of art is its most secret and its deepest poetry.” The time has come for the modern master painter to begin to reconstruct the skills and unearth the lost traditions of this secret framework."
Photograph above by Henri Cartier-Bresson intuitively applying Dynamic Symmetry
Henri Cartier-Bresson A Master's Ideology on Camera Grids and Composition
“Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move.
In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes. Any geometrical analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed – and then it can be used only for a post-mortem examination of the picture.
I hope we will never see the day when photo shops sell little schema grills to clamp onto our viewfinders, and the Golden Rule will never be found etched on our ground glass.
If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there.
There is a lot of talk about camera angles; but the only valid angles in existence are the angles of the geometry of composition and not the ones fabricated by the photographer who falls flat on his stomach or performs other antics to procure his effects." - Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Dynamic Symmetry and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Marketing Nonsense)
Currently, there are advertisements circulating the internet implying that Henri Cartier-Bresson etched the Dynamic Symmetry grid into the ground glass of his camera to create his masterful compositions. After ten years experience in design and analyzing hundreds of Cartier-Bresson's images, I can say with absolute certainty that these advertisements and implications are 100% false.
In the past, Henri Cartier-Bresson has mentioned unequivocally that the use of camera design grids is not a professional practice for a master photographer and is firmly against using any design grid apparatus to create compositions while in the act of taking pictures. He states "I hope we will never see the day when photo shops sell little schema grills to clamp onto our viewfinders, and the Golden Rule will never be found etched on our ground glass."
The fact is, photographers that use a Leica rangefinder or M series camera know it's virtually impossible to carve the armature of the rectangle in the viewfinder with any degree of accuracy nor can I imagine any sane person doing such a ridiculous act.
Creating masterful art, whether you draw, paint or photograph requires years of training and knowledge across many disciplines. And even though taping camera design grids to your electronic LCD screen might seem like a quick and easy approach for creating Bresson-like-images, implying that Henri Cartier-Bresson used this beginner level technique to create his lifetime body of work is no different than claiming Leonardo da Vinci painted "The Last Supper" using paint-by-number.
Most importantly, because Dynamic Symmetry is a new concept to a lot of artists and photographers, any credible teacher of design should make an effort to present classical skill-based art practices as accurately as possible and respect the achievements of masters that have come before them. In other words, writing misleading articles with the sole intent to sell camera grid products should not be the educator's end goal.
The Decisive Moment video by Henri Cartier-Bresson
"James Cowman's user's guide on composition and Dynamic Symmetry, in particular, was one of the greatest milestones on my journey of becoming a better artist. Dynamicsymmetryart.com is undoubtedly the best resource on the subject out there, which I keep recommending to anyone interested in taking their compositions to a new level. It shocks me that even otherwise excellent artists today often know nothing about these old systems and rely mostly on their intuition to create their compositions. It's time that artists rediscover and revive the lost knowledge of the old masters and bring art back to its former glory. Jame's user's guide is a unique and invaluable resource in this effort." - Storm Engineer
"Jim offers something that is almost impossible to find online: a truly one-of-a-kind resource. His information about Dynamic Symmetry is meticulously researched and comes from a place of knowledge and genuine interest, not sales, as so many educational sites do. Reading his surprisingly accessible work has helped me to grow artistically in a deliberate and satisfying way. I return to Dynamic Symmetry Art regularly and always learn something new." - Rebecca Isenhart
"The information provided in The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist has been a tremendous resource for me as an artist and photographer. My photography work has improved tremendously, and all of my clients agree! I'll continue to share this user's guide with all of my peers and other creative artists." - Zine Massey
"I just graduated from the BFA in Graphic Design at the Federal University of Pernambuco, in Brazil, and one of the chapters of my monograph was about composition. As a motion designer, the proper layout of elements is a very important phase in my creative process, so any tool that helps with making decisions on that is very valuable. What I love about your studies is that it's full of images and resources, it's a gold mine in my opinion. Thanks for providing so much information at an affordable price." - Eveline Falcão
"The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist deserves to be a physical book in Barnes & Noble & on my coffee table!" - Elliot McGucken
"The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist is, without a doubt, one of the most comprehensive e-books ever written on the topic of design in art. Whether you're a beginner, intermediate, or advanced art/photography student, this user's guide is indispensable. I recommend it to all of my artists and photographers and have it linked to my website The Artist Angle." - Jennifer Finley "Though I am not a newcomer to photography, I am far from being a professional. So too, it has only been in the past few months that I discovered dynamicsymmetryart.com. I was transformed from being concerned with camera equipment, f-stops, shutter speed, ISO to considering how I would apply the principles of classical art training to my photography.
As I began reading about the old world masters, including da Vinci, Degas, Rembrandt, and Renoir, I learned that Dynamic Symmetry structurally changed paintings from being passive to active and dynamic. Furthermore, I didn’t realize that a small, yet renowned, group of photographers were well known for using Dynamic Symmetry in their photographs of city life and people. My journey began by reading. The Dynamic Symmetry Art website has numerous resources that gave me a crash course in art and composition. I had to learn about the visual properties of different kinds of rectangles and how each can be divided into compositional elements. Then I began using the Dynamic Symmetry grid overlays in Lightroom to analyze and crop my photos. I have found dynamicsymmetryart.com extremely beneficial, and it has contributed immensely with my efforts to improve as a photographer. Thank you for your commitment to art and art education." - Warren Wish
"With the passing of Myron Barnstone, we lost a great resource on the application of the Rectangles of the Masters and the Golden Section in creating art. But the website dynamicsymmetryart.com is carrying on that work Myron so thoroughly believed in and taught. Dynamic Symmetry can be used in the simplest of ways as well as being infinitely complex if one desires. Great minds such as Leonardo da Vinci recognized the power that this compositional tool offers. Dynamicsymmetryart.com is an amazing reference for artists who are open to exploring the benefits of using Dynamic Symmetry in their work. It applies to all the arts and resonates at a primal level of understanding harmony and beauty. Much thanks to James Cowman for his dedication to furthering this information to the public." - Master Artist and Teacher, Dot Bunn, Red Stone Farm Studio