Using Patterns in Nature to Create More Interesting Images
By F.M. Kearney
Photographing patterns is a great way to add interest to your photography. If you live in an urban environment, it’s easy to find patterns in a concrete jungle, i.e., a row of steps, a line of street lamps, a group of buildings… the list goes on and on. But, what do you do if you’re a nature photographer and are seeking patterns in the natural world? Unlike a symmetrically designed, man-made city, nature is totally haphazard and completely devoid of any type of structured order … or so one might initially think.
The opening photo of this article is an urban nature image I shot last winter in New York’s Central Park. An overnight ice storm coated every tree and bush in the city in a sheet of ice. I captured this scene around the reservoir as a fog bank was lifting above the skyline. The razor-straight shoreline really emphasized the row of trees and their reflection on the calm water – a common pattern often seen near lakes.
Whether viewed collectively or individually, flowers are probably one of the best subjects in nature to yield intriguing patterns. Tulips, in particular, are prime candidates. Tulip gardens are often planted in rigid formations and are great locations to photograph wonderful designs. I shot the photos below in the Central Park Conservatory Garden. Comprised of just six acres, it’s the only formal garden in the park.
The Conservatory hosts an absolutely spectacular tulip display in the spring each year that changes every season. The photo above was taken one year when the entire garden was color-coded in an eye-catching, diamond-shape pattern. It was the most amazing design I had seen at the time, and I’ve yet to see a better one since. This was a pattern that was most clearly seen from above, but it’s important to look at all angles of a subject.
During another spring when I visited the Conservatory, all the tulips were the same color. At that time, the most interesting pattern could be seen by viewing them from below. Holding my camera just inches above the ground, I used a 16mm fisheye lens to emphasize the pattern created by the endless columns of stems.
One of the great things about shooting patterns is that you don’t need any special equipment. In fact, it doesn’t even matter what type of lens you use. I used a normal (50mm) lens to shoot the diamond-pattern tulip garden and a 16mm fisheye to shoot the low-angle view. I photographed the two images below with a 70-200mm zoom lens, outfitted with an extension tube for higher magnification. If you’re not familiar with these useful devices, you can learn more about extension tubes in my last month’s article.
The extension tube was definitely needed in order to come in tight and emphasize the repeating patterns. The more of the surrounding distractions you can eliminate the clearer the pattern will be seen. Each of these images conveys a different feeling. The pattern of the dahlia petals (left) creates the illusion of movement toward the camera, while the Pride of Barbados buds appear to recede into a multi-colored abyss.
A pattern doesn’t always have to consist of a large collection of items. Of course, a large group of objects that are similarly colored and/or shaped is very noticeable. But, in actuality, an interesting pattern can be created by only as few as just two objects.
Years ago, I was shooting waterlilies in the New York Botanical Garden. I noticed two large, red lotuses at the edge of the reflecting pool (right). When I took a closer look, I also noticed two yellow waterlilies beneath them. Their positions, and the way that there were both partially hidden by lily pads, created an intimate pattern – almost as if they were deliberately placed.
On another trip to the garden, I came across a couple of lily-flowered tulips that were leaning together at a similar angle (right). Once again, an intimate pattern was created by the unique positioning of this pair.
As you may have guessed by now, there are no rules when it comes to patterns. Not only do you not have to have a large number of items, the items don’t even have to be situated an orderly formation. Sometimes, it’s the very randomness of a formation that can create an good pattern shot. The next image is a perfect example. The vivid yellow/green colors of this variegated-plaintain lily’s leaves created an unusual design and formed a sort of organized, but chaotic pattern.
Sometimes, a pattern can be found in something that’s not even tangible. I was once shooting fall foliage in Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island, NY, when I came upon a stand of trees atop a small hill. At first glance, one might be attracted to the line of trees. Although a pattern was definitely created by the straight row of vertical trunks, it was actually the shadows they cast on the hill that initially caught my attention. The abrupt rise of the tiny hill seemed to elongate the shadows in a strange way – creating a picturesque pattern of highlights and shadows on the ground.
Most patterns in nature are fairly easy to detect, however, that isn’t always the case when it comes to water. Flowing water can create a lot of interesting patterns, but you might not see them right away with your naked eye. A slow shutter speed can reveal things you might otherwise overlook.
I captured the first image of flowing water many years ago in Robert H. Treman State Park in Ithaca, NY – an area known for its beautiful waterfalls. It’s impossible to tell from this angle, but this waterfall was only about four to five feet tall. Most photographers would have probably bypassed it en route to more impressive displays. But, what caught my eye was the pattern of the rock – specifically, the pattern the water created as it cascaded over the tier-like section. I shot this in 1997 on film, so I have no record of the exact shutter speed, but I would guess it was somewhere around two or three seconds – long enough to smooth out the water to create this unique pattern.
Patterns in free-flowing water can be very difficult to spot. Sometimes, you may have to study the water flow for a while in order to detect a distinctive pattern – like a swirling pool at the base of a waterfall. The second photo is a section of the Bronx River, which flows through the New York Botanical Garden. After observing it for some time, I noticed this area that appeared to exhibit two different patterns. A shutter speed of 0.8 seconds clearly revealed a straight pattern at the top and a wavy pattern underneath – something that wasn’t immediately evident to my naked eye.
Most photographers don’t like to admit their mistakes – much less show them in public. But I thought this was a perfect opportunity to illustrate a point. I shot (more like, accidentally happened to take) the photo above in the New York Botanical Garden, along the aforementioned, Bronx River. I normally don’t walk around with my camera around my neck, because it’s just too cumbersome and I feel that it could be easily damaged. However, that’s exactly what I do when I’m actively shooting photos at my chosen location. While high-stepping over rocks along the river bank my camera began swinging wildly back and forth. When I reached out to steady it, I accidentally tripped the shutter and took this picture. Something compelled me not to hit the Delete button. Rather than a jumbled, blurry mess, there was a distinctive swirling pattern – almost as though I had applied a digital effect. So, the next time you take a photo that you think should go straight into the Recycle Bin, take a closer look… an artsy, creative pattern image might be within your midst.
As you can see, the natural world is full of beautiful patterns. From flowers to landscapes and from water to trees, amazing patterns can be found just about everywhere and in any quantity. Once you’ve become accustomed to noticing them, you might find more in nature than in the city!
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).