Ho Yu, Ph.D.
Published in PSA Journal
(2003 August), Volume 69, No. 8, pp.
Human perceive vertically and horizontally symmetrical
compositions differently. I would like to offer an explanation why
the latter is more acceptable than the former in an aesthetical
sense. I am a psychometrician rather than a cognitive
psychologist. What I discuss here is based upon my personal
opinion rather than empirical substantiation.
In the last century quite a few British photographers such as
Edward Fox and Robert Hewlett liked to place the subject at the
center of the picture. However, when I was an art major, one of my
art professors warned that centering a tall subject on a picture
would divide the space into two symmetrical halves. Consequently,
the two equal sides would generate competing interests.
Without a dominated portion or a tension created by contrasting
elements, the picture would not be aesthetically pleasing.
For example, in Figure 1, the tree cuts the space into two
pieces. This photo is definitely uninteresting. However, when the
sun appears on the right (Figure 2), it breaks the symmetry and
makes the right portion dominant. This is exactly what Ansel Adams did to the
photo entitled "Oak tree" taken in Sunset city, CA (1962).
Figure 3 is another good example.
Although both the sun and the plant are located at the middle of
the composition, another slightly shorter plant on the right
breaks the symmetry. Many photographers simply avoid a vertically
symmetrical composition. While including a tall subject such as a
tree in a picture, many photographers tend to put it at the side
of the photo.
The problems associated with a vertically symmetrical
composition do not seem to appear in a horizontally symmetrical
composition. For instance, when I zoom out from the same picture
of a tree shown earlier (Figure 4), the pavement divides the
composition into two halves. Although the composition is
horizontally symmetrical, there are fewer competing interests in
this photo than its vertical counterpart. You may argue that the
tree is a dominant subject and therefore it draws the interest of
the viewer. However, some readers may find the shadow of the tree
and the tree itself equally interesting.
Probably Figure 5 is less debatable. In this photo the bridge
and the two virtually empty spaces above and below the bridge form
a horizontally symmetrical composition. Nothing above or below the
bridge makes either part dominant. However, in this case the
effect of competing interests is still much weaker.
Perhaps this result is due to our built-in perceptual principle
that the upper portion of a composition draws our interest first,
even in a perfectly symmetrical composition divided by a
horizontal line. On the contrary, in the case of vertically
symmetrical composition, there is no built-in cognitive rule
telling us whether the right or the left is more important.
Some may argue that objects on the left would draw our
attention first. This is why newspaper editors put important news
or high-priced advertisements in the upper left of the newspaper.
It is true only in Western culture where readers read articles
from left to right. In Chinese-speaking regions where people read
sentences in the opposite direction, editors put big stories in
the upper right corner instead. Therefore, the concept that "the
left is more important or more interesting than the right" is not
Nevertheless, there is one common ground of the two cultures:
The upper part seems to attract more attention. This can explain
why the problem of competing interests does not happen in a
horizontally symmetrical composition, which has no dominated
subject in either portion of the picture. There is a universal
cognitive principle driving us to look at the upper portion
For photographers and artists of other media, the preceding
hypothesis has these practical values:
- Avoid a vertically symmetrical composition, but not one
that is horizontally symmetrical.
- If you really need to place a tall subject at the center,
try to break the balance by introducing another element on
either the right or left half. Another way to break the
symmetry is to tilt the angel to make the tall subject a
- In a horizontal symmetrical composition, try not to
allocate outstanding elements in the lower part. By doing so
you may create competing interests because the viewer tends to
put more weight on the top.
- If you really want the subject or some outstanding element
reside in the lower part, move the horizontal line up. For
example, in Figure 6 the window makes the lower portion bright
and eye-catching, therefore the horizontal line of the cross
was moved up.
In physics "symmetry breaking" is crucial to "phase transition"
of physical materials. Whenever water transitions to another
phase, such as snow or steam, the symmetry of the original water
content in the subatomic level is broken. If not for broken
symmetry, things would remain status quo and the world
would be uninteresting. This analogy from the physical world could
illuminate our understanding of the perceptual/psychological
world. In short, if you want to produce an interesting picture,
break the symmetry!