Composition :: Symmetry

Symmetry is sometimes a rather controversial composition, especially in Leica M street photography.

The rangefinder system of Leica M cameras allows for focusing in the center of the viewfinder. One can of course focus and recompose but with subjects of strangers moving at will on the streets, photographers are tempted to just snap the photos while the focuses are spot-on in the middle instead of venturing for recomposing.

This means that many of the Leica M photos of human beings that one could find on line are exactly focused in the center of the frame. Artistically, this leads to symmetrical composition being a norm.

But effective story-telling with symmetrical composition is very difficult. Unless one is as talented as Wes Anderson in his masterpiece movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, symmetrical composition usually dulls the viewers’ spirit.

Family time at Palais Royal © 2019 Jerry Yang

One way to breathe life into otherwise boring symmetrical composition is to also have living subjects flanking the main subject symmetrically. I took the photo above at Palais Royal on a cloudy spring afternoon in 2019. As the parents jostled joyfully for the attention of their toddler, who’s screaming and running around out-of-control, I knew there would be chances for me to effect a lively symmetrical composition.

Thanks to the drawn patterns on the ground of the famously photogenic Palais Royal, I was able to pre-focus without the boy actually in the center of the frame. Then I carefully watched as the naughty one bounced front and back, left and right, and clicked my shutters a few times. The selected result (with a bit of cropping) is a symmetrical composition that’s lively and engaging.

Young philosopher © 2012 Jerry Yang

One of the most popular among all my works brought the aforementioned methodology of symmetrical composition to a different level, partly unintentionally.

The photo above was taken at Jardin du Luxembourg, which is 2 minutes from where I live and has been one of my main shooting spots naturally for the past 7 years I live in Paris. When I was preparing for the photo at a more distant position, I knew flanking the young boy with the two groups of 4 adults would already be effective, especially given the equally symmetrical background of the carefully pruned trees. It’s a bit heavy on the right but it should work. I then metered off the white-yellow sand on the ground in front of the subjects, moved into position, quickly focused and took the shot.

What surprised me afterward while post-processing this photo was: despite none of the subjects looking straight into my camera, the communication was tangible. The relaxed and “all-me” stance of the boy along with his seemingly light clothing compared to the other 4 heavily clothed adults gives him a naïvely invincible aura. The backlit condition further gave him an actual hair glow.

I have never been able to capture a symmetrical shot more loved by viewers than this one.