Principles of Design - Repetition

Close up of stacked lobster traps

As I briefly alluded to in my introduction to composition, the fundamental pieces of visual composition are about how an artist organizes the elements of design into a unified whole.

In other words, how an artist creates unity from the fundamental building blocks to express their intent, called vision by some, is what design principles are about. The organizing Principles of Design include Repetition, Rhythm, Balance, Proportion, Emphasis, Economy, and oddly enough, Variety. I’ve decided to deal with design principles before tackling the constituent parts like form, space, line texture, and so on simply because I will frequently need to refer to these ideas as part of an explanation of the individual elements.

With that said, let’s jump in and start with the organizing principle of Repetition. Repetition is the idea that some underlying design element, like a line or a form, is repeated throughout the image. Repeating elements give the viewer something to follow – it’s a way to recognize that one part is like another.

Using repeating elements can simultaneously be liberating and constrictive as it imposes a form while also offering the photographer the freedom to introduce features that break the repetition – thus making it even more profound.

A frequent occurrence in repetitive images is that the viewer unconsciously starts grouping the repetitions into separate parts.

Railway track going across a bridge

This image of the railway tracks is all about repetition. The ties repeat and move us up through the image in increments – one tie at a time. The rails and the two rows of ties along the edge create leading lines up through the picture and form perpendicular repetitions to the railway ties. Additionally, the spikes are repeated, like a string of pearls, further encouraging us to move up the image.

One of the more subtle repetitions is the three safety platforms further up the image. Not only do these repeat, but they are asymmetrically placed and, therefore, also help to break up the repetition in some minor way.

A further extension to this idea is to use repeating elements, which are more alike as a class than the same elements. This works well when there are a smaller number of repeating elements, as it will make us look at each of the individual components in the repetition. For example, an image of a forest does not work as well as a few trees. There are too many trees in the woods, and they are too different. However, if you do something like this;

four trees in the foreground with some foothills in the background

One starts to compare each of the trees to each other automatically. While the repetitions perhaps are not on a level where each tree is like the other - they are close enough in shape and colour so that we start comparing them with each other and have our eyes scan back and forth, much as we did in some of the previous pictures.

Connecting walkways in the Winnipeg Museum of human rights

While repetitions do not have to be symmetrical to be enjoyed, using symmetrical repetitions typically requires less involvement from the viewer and will, therefore, be discovered more quickly by most. We can take this a step further and make the repeats even more hidden, as in this example.

These are all repeating elements, and I think we know this intuitively, so we start to look for ways to make the repeat by mentally turning them in our minds to see if they are the same.

In the following example, I am taking things to the annoying level - but not for the reasons you might think. It is hard not to scan this image and look for similar houses to group together. I don't know about you, but right away, I noticed the top three rows of houses in the top left of the image, and I find myself starting to identify them as repeating groups.

Arial photo of rowhouses in the wintertime

What happens next is that I try and see if I can find other repeating groups within the image - which I don't have much success with. So I keep returning to the order imposed by the top three rows while also being subconsciously annoyed at not finding any more, no matter how hard I look.

Repetitions can be obvious and, therefore, sometimes also really obnoxious

Using repetitions can quickly become too much. However, if you can embed subtle repetitions in your images, it will subconsciously engage the viewer while trying to figure out what is happening. And, the more time your audience spends on your work, the better.

The Tear in the Fabric

As already mentioned, too many similar repetitions can become tedious and result in the viewer losing interest. For example, the bricks in this image consist

Picture of yellow brick wall

of three different repetitions, which can easily be grouped for added meaning. However, in this case, I feel interest will be lost almost immediately as this picture has no redeeming features - it is just a picture of a yellow brick wall.

So, to make this more interesting, and perhaps not repeatedly hit the audience over the head with a brick, you can introduce some other elements to distract the viewer and cause them to pause in exploring the image.

yellow brick wall with butterfly

Photographer Jay Maisel refers to the break in the repetition as the Tear in the Fabric.

In the original image of the brick wall, I framed it in such a way as to include the butterfly in one corner as a way to counterbalance an otherwise pretty dull image. The bricks by themselves are not the exciting part. Instead, it is the play between the repetitious wall and a very recognizable shape, the butterfly in the bottom right-hand corner. Suddenly, the repeating brick pattern is much less intrusive, and we spend much more time looking at the butterfly. The bricks have become the canvas instead of the subject matter. The other thing to notice is how quickly our eyes went for the butterfly, even though it takes up less than 1% of the image real estate. We see this so much faster than anything else because our brains are hardwired to hone in on recognizable shapes - such as a butterfly. I have much more to say about recognizable forms in later blogs - so stay tuned.

Putting the asymmetry together with a Tear in the fabric produces work that will require more of the viewer but is bound to keep them engaged for longer. This image from the Bellacenter in Copenhagen is repetitive but less symmetrical. If you look hard enough, you will begin to discover the symmetry embedded in the repetitions.

Facade of the Bella Center hotel in Copenhagen

Emphasizing the point about the “Tear in the Fabric,” The open window on the right side breaks up the image's repetitive nature by introducing a bit of humour. Rather than being a distraction, it makes us wonder how the break plays into the repetitive patterns.


To summarize, for the sake of repetitions, pure repetition can effectively convey a message in an image. However, you will find that making your repetitions more subtle or introducing a tear in the fabric in pictures with many similar repetitions will often make your composition much stronger. In the first case, it anchors the viewer for longer while trying to figure out what is going on. In the case of the Tear in the Fabric, you create a focal point, which simultaneously holds the viewer's attention while providing a break from the repetition.