John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche


Symmetry involves a close or exact correspondence between opposite halves of an image on the facing sides of an axis or center. One half appears to be the mirror image of the other. Usually in photography we see such symmetry across the horizontal plane, which some call “bilateral symmetry.” But the symmetry also could be vertical in that the top and bottom portions of the image are reflections of each other. In both cases, horizontal and vertical, the halves appear equivalent and the image achieves “symmetrical balance.” It is a balance achieved by similarity.

Symmetry can also be achieved by a single element centered in an image, with space on two, three, or all sides.

How symmetry "feels"

We associate a variety of psychological qualities with this type of symmetry. The image may feel peaceful, calm, stable, harmonious, or grounded  - especially in bilateral symmetry. Such designs might remind us of geometry and the aesthetics of Renaissance classicism. Think of those perfectly symmetrical European gardens and palaces. Images with symmetrical balance tend to create feelings of order, tradition, classicism, formality, and constancy.

While perfect symmetry satisfies the mind that loves precision and stability, it sometimes can look static, artificial, and boring. Subtle differences between the two sides add interests, allowing the eye at first to appreciate the overall balance of similarity and then move on to explore the intricate differences between the halves. Sometimes one or two obvious discrepancies between the two sides add tension that offsets the sense of order and predictability in an interesting or even surprising way.

Subtle asymmetry adds "character"

Subtle and more obvious differences between the halves adds “character” to an image. For example, the human face is not perfectly symmetrical. If you’ve ever seen a manipulated image in which half of someone’s face is duplicated and flipped horizontally to create a perfectly symmetrical face, it looks odd. The subtle differences between the two sides of a person’s face creates more psychological depth, realism, and character. The same is true of a not-quite symmetrical image. If you look carefully at this photo of a tree taken through the skylight of a car, you'll notice that the two sides are not exactly symmterical, which adds interest and even some mystery to the image.

Horizontal and vertical reflection

A horizontally symmetrical image emphasizes the horizontal dimension. A vertically symmetrical image emphasizes the vertical dimension. However, in both cases there is an invisible axis that marks the boundary between the two halves. In the horizontally symmetrical image, it is a subtle reminder of the vertical dimension. In the vertically symmetrical image, it is the hint of the horizontal. In both cases it is the mysterious boundary that marks the reversal of the image, the concealed surface where the reflection begins. Some symmetrical images, most noticeably those involving mirror and lake reflections, tend to possess this self-reflective, introspective quality. In fact, on the Rorschach inkblot test, individuals who notice and talk about the symmetrical aspects of the inkblots tend to be self-reflective and introspective people.

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