Previous: Principles of Composition
Symmetry is from the Greek symmetria, meaning, “…agreement in dimensions, due proportion, arrangement“.
So while the original intent seems to be more about proportion–how a part relates to the whole– today many have come to think of it more in terms of its mathematical meaning, which is exact mirroring.
Symmetrical balance is when an image is divided midway (horizontally or vertically) and both halves are identical.
Mirror symmetry occurs rarely in nature and is more likely to be found in manmade objects.
Horizontal symmetry is less common and usually achieved through reflections in water. However, if you examine the image closely, you can see that the reflection is not truly symmetrical (see the hill behind church) due to the angle of view of the camera.
Simple and effective–and although ideally in a round frame–practically, radial symmetry works best in a square frame. Radial symmetry requires “…the condition of having similar parts regularly arranged around a central axis”. Because we are talking about image composition, not the symmetry of the subject, the following two images are not strictly ‘radially symmetrical’, it is the extension of the subject that is near-radially symmetrical.
Most artists and photographers are not mathematicians, and will still describe items that are not exactly mirrored as symmetrical. To allow for a descriptive transition zone between symmetry and asymmetry, some use the term ‘near symmetry’ — symmetrical balance but with imperfections.
A face photographed directly from the front is described as asymmetrical, but I think most photographers and artists would see it as near symmetrical…
Asymmetry means ‘without symmetry’, but it has come to mean “informal balance” or “asymmetrical balance”.
You can balance without symmetry, but you can’t be symmetrical without balance. Asymmetrical balance can be understood as giving the impression of equal weight on either side, ‘weight’ that can be measured–for example–in quantity, area, colour, mass, shape, texture and/or contrast. This is sometimes difficult to gauge because the ‘weight’ often relies on the perception of visual interest, on how some parts of the image draw our eye more than others.
Balance can also be achieved when we perceive the centre of interest to be a fulcrum around which balance takes place. The centre of interest need not be centred and placing the focal point at an (unfortunately named) ‘rule of thirds’ point can act as the visual fulcrum to create balance. In the photo above you are drawn first to the bright side of the image, to the woman and her face, but then the eye begins to explore the darker side to see the details in the shadows. The light side takes up about one-third of the image that balances with the dark. If there were no details in the shadow, if there was nothing for the eye to seek, this autochrome would simply be asymmetrical and unbalanced.
Man with book. Color plate, screen (Autochrome) Listed as “no known maker”, but probably another Dr. L. Silberstein work, 1915 (George Eastman House Collection)
This autochrome (above) is asymmetrically balanced, however, if the book were removed, the image would look distinctly unbalanced.
Above, both asymmetrical and balanced, but so unbalanced …
And to liven things up a bit, the following completely discordant image, which also is asymmetrically balanced.
Asymmetry means “without symmetry”. As shown above, you can achieve balance without symmetry, but there are times when deliberately avoiding symmetry and balance can add visual direction as well as tension, mystery or drama.
Subtly unbalanced. Above, the boy’s direct stare into the camera and the position of the chair balance the image, but the woman’s weight on the right and her distant, disconnected gaze, makes this image unbalanced and somewhat uncomfortable.
Finding symmetry and creating balance are natural and comfortable for us when we create compositions, however, deliberately creating imbalance and asymmetrical images can contribute a sense of tension, dynamism and even an enigmatic touch to an image.
Next post: Composition Principles: Dominance/Emphasis