For a photographer, pattern is a powerful tool—simply because it creates order and beauty from the jumbled chaos of everyday life. Pattern is the repetition of a shape, form, or texture—and can be found practically everywhere you look. From the repeated shapes of the leaves of a tree, to the stone blocks of a wall, patterns surround us.
The attraction of pattern is that we rarely even notice, let alone study, the repetitions that are under our noses. By picking out repeating elements with the lens, you can show them in isolation—allowing you to see and appreciate the pattern with new eyes.
It often pays to use a long telephoto lens setting and a distant viewpoint so that as many similar subjects as possible can appear tightly within a frame. This reduces the visual distance between the different elements of the pattern, making the image easier to read.
A close-up setting, or a macro lens, can also be used to reveal pattern on a miniature scale that would otherwise go unnoticed. Even a heap of nails, for instance, can appear interesting when the pattern fills the frame. Powerful patterns can also be created by hunting out identical items that are not usually seen in groups—such as dozens of cabs in line at an airport, or piles of mannequins in a warehouse.
Hunting out pattern with a digital camera can turn into something of an obsession—but try to avoid exact visual repetition. Often, shots work best when framed so that the pattern is not perfect. A close-up shot of a pile of white paperclips looks more interesting if there is one single red paperclip in the heap; this provides the focal point for the picture that would otherwise be missing.
Breaking up the pattern to some degree is particularly important because pattern has a flattening effect on any picture. Without a way of creating some form of visual variation across the frame, pictures of pattern can end up looking very two-dimensional.
Composition and lighting can be used to disrupt a pattern slightly—creating a more dynamic and interesting, three-dimensional image. Some items can be placed so that they are closer to the lens, making them look much larger within the frame than those that are more distant. Sidelighting can also be effectively used so that some objects are bathed in light, while others are plunged into shadow.