Dynamic Symmetry for Photographers
Learn How the Masters Apply Dynamic Symmetry in Photography
I received an email the other day that I felt was worth addressing in an article. 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 studying all aspects of their designs. Start with the artist's earlier works and compare their progression throughout their career. Document their improvements, shifts in subject matter, technical approach, etc. Try to recognize repeated patterns, consistency in quality and specific artistic style. 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're intuitively looking for specific qualities that make a photograph a work of art and responding to them quickly. Martine Franck talks about this in her essays on the art of photography.
By taking the time to study drawings, paintings, and photographs your 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. In fact, it was standard practice for an artist to copy another master's work. And even though this approach is frowned upon by most modern art teachers (because they aren't classically trained), in the past, it was a way for the student to learn all of the techniques of value, color theory, design and so on.
Overlay Dynamic Symmetry Grids in Post-Processing
Every time you've completed a photography session, overlay design grids on your photographs 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 take this additional step in post-processing, your visual skills will improve each time you pick up your camera.
Download Your Free Grid Pack Below!
Click here to download a free 1.5 grid pack for Lightroom and Photoshop.
Work the Scene
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, etc. 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."
Improve Your Knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry
To improve your knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry, my suggestion is to read the books The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry by Michel Jacobs and The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist by Dynamic Symmetry Art. These two books will help the contemporary artist and photographer learn more about the art of composition.
Click here for a complete list of recommended books on composition in art and photography.
Learn How Master Photographers Approach Design
Because of the many Dynamic Symmetry examples available online, far too many beginners are under the impression that master photographers previsualize the design grid before shooting. This, of course, has no basis in reality. The truth is, it's highly unlikely that any photographer can visualize the full armature of the rectangle while trying to concentrate on the scene or subject they are photographing and I would be skeptical of those that claim they can. With this in mind, the goal of the photographer shouldn't be to memorize the Dynamic Symmetry grid but instead develop the necessary skills to be able to recognize a masterful image intuitively.
*Design Grids for Cameras
A Beginner's Design Tool
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.
Historically speaking, 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 compositions is dependent on many variables that include the armature of the rectangle, figure-ground relationship, proper overlapping, balance of individual elements, etc. With that said, there are several points that every photographer should consider before using this method.
For example, 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 visual distraction limits the photographer's 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.
Furthermore, 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. Simply stated, taping design grids to your camera's LCD screen is far too limiting to be considered a professional approach for applying Dynamic Symmetry in photography and is a technique best suited for the beginner student.
*Photographers that want to try this method, click here to download a printable 1.5 grid for any LCD screen. See finished product here. Click here for a Dynamic Symmetry grid for your iPhone and iPad (no tape required). To learn more about the pros and cons of using camera grids, please see my user's guide.
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
"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