Rhythm, a critical component of music, dance, and poetry, is also a quality of great significance in the visual arts. Rhythm may affect the quality of the viewing experience for your audience and help to draw and keep the eye within the frame. Pattern can be thought of a subset of rhythm in that patterns always have rhythm, but rhythms don’t always have pattern.
Let’s take a look at a variety of rhythms in the visual arts and the ways they can be applied to photographic composition:
This standard rhythm involves the same or similar elements repeating at regular intervals — think of equally spaced light posts extending from left to right across the frame, the slats of a crib, or a series of windows on the side of a city apartment building. In music, this might be the same key played once every 1/4 second on the piano.
Alternating rhythm usually involves “AB” elements, like the stripes on a man’s two-colored tie, the black and white keys on a keyboard, or the alternating squares of a checkerboard. Alternation might also involve “AB” intervals — with the same or similar elements repeated across long-short-long spaces. This every-other pattern of visual rhythm is less common than repetition in the general world around us, but it is very common in the design world and may be utilized to create a strong graphic aesthetic when orchestrating a shot. A musical example of alternation is the F/F-sharp theme from Jaws. Duh nuh. Duh nuh.
Like musical scales, progressive rhythm can be perceived as a series of elements that change slightly and predictably with each iteration. This may involve the same elements we might see in standard repetition, but if we change perspective, the repeated elements appear to change gradually — so rather than standing in front of an equidistant series of light posts extending from left to right, we might position ourselves so that one light post is closest and the others appear gradually smaller and smaller as they progress towards a vanishing point. Ripples on water also exhibit progressive rhythm, with their concentric circles appearing larger and larger as they extend outward.
Undulating rhythm involves a smoother, continuous progression of elements that rise and fall or weave left to right. Each undulation is not necessarily equal in size or intensity to that of the previous or subsequent undulation, nor is it necessarily predictably progressive. Wavy hair, rolling hills, billowing clouds, softly blowing grasses, a dancer’s graceful extensions, waves rolling up onto the beach, a snake’s winding body, wind-swept sand dunes: all of these often showcase undulating rhythm. In music, undulation might be nicely exhibited by the tremulous tones of the violin.
Rhythmic elements can themselves be the sole subject of your composition (think of a closeup of zebra stripes or three simple apples in a row). A general rhythm throughout the frame can also be used to establish an overall atmosphere or mood — the regularity of the rhythm may envelop the viewer in feelings of peace or serenity. To take this back to music, think of how soothing we find sounds that are nothing more than rhythm: a heartbeat, water lapping, the gentle and consistent sounds of the ocean. But is that itself an artistic creation? Some might argue the rhythm is just what the metronome would play; it’s not the song itself.
DISRUPT THE RHYTHM!
With this in mind, visual rhythm is often most powerfully used as a vehicle to or backdrop for your central story or primary subject. Try placing your subject amidst a scene with great background rhythm or seek out variability in the rhythm itself. Your viewer will identify as a point of interest this distinguishing quality amidst the rhythm. Imagine, for example, the one black sheep in a line of six white sheep. Or imagine twelve fence posts equally spaced, with a bird atop one of them; that single point of disruption makes an impact. The rhythm in the scene can also be a simple backdrop, such as undulating waves that lead us to a boat in the water. It doesn’t have to be complicated; the key is that while the rhythm can lull and guide the viewer on a journey through the frame, you usually want to offer something in the way of a visual destination, a focal point, or something that otherwise grounds the rest of the scene. Deliberately interrupting a predictable, soothing rhythm is a compelling way to introduce your subject to the audience.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.