How to Photograph Patterns in Nature

Moss on forest floor

Last Updated on February 8, 2021

Moss patterns, Saskatchewan
Moss on forest floor in northern Saskatchewan

The patterns of nature are all around us. We find them in ice, snow, rocks, sand, water, leaves, lichen, spider webs, the texture of tree bark, to mention only a few. It’s a type of photography that is very accessible and easy to do. While we certainly can find great opportunities in grand landscapes, we can find equally compelling compositions by simply going for a walk in the forest, through a garden, or along a river.

Stones on beach, Lake Athabasca
Stones on the beach on the shore of Lake Athabasca. Though natural, it almost looks as if someone had carefully placed paving stones into the sand.
Yellowstone National Park
The edge of a thermal pool in Yellowstone National Park.

Isolate part of the scene

Rather than looking at the big picture and trying to get it all in, we isolate a part of the scene and eliminate distractions for a more intimate interpretation of the landscape. This also helps to cut through the chaos, since nature is often quite messy. The forest floor, for example, might have a hodge-podge of different plants, sticks, dead branches, and assorted debris scattered around. But if we zoom in to a group of similar-looking mosses growing together in a cluster (such as in the opening photo), it makes a more pleasing image.

Churchill River, Saskatchewan
Isolating a small section of waves on the Churchill River.
Snow banks
Mother Nature’s snow sculpture.

Repetition

Including repeating shapes is one of the most popular approaches to pattern photography. This could be moss on the forest floor, seams in the rock, a series of stacked mountain ridges or sand dunes, and thousands of other possibilities. A variation to this is to have mostly repeating shapes but also something that breaks the pattern and provides a surprising element.

Great Sand Hills, Saskatchewan
Sand dunes in the Great Sand Hills, Saskatchewan.
Stony beach on Lake Superior.

It’s all about the light

Strong light, especially when the sun is low in the sky, is essential to accentuate patterns in many images. For example, photos such as sand ripples are mostly about patterns of highlights and shadows and wouldn’t work nearly as well in flat light. But in some cases, flat light is exactly what we need. Photos of plants, such as the opening image, need soft, even light in order to bring out fine details that would otherwise get lost in harsh, contrasty light.

Sand ripples, Saskatchewan
Sand ripples just before sunset.
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, USA
Badland formation in Death Valley just after sunrise.

Get up close – though not always

In most cases, it’s easier to find interesting patterns when we get up close, such as on the forest floor or lichen covering a rock. Many photographers go a step further and use a macro lens to really focus on fine details. But don’t overlook larger vistas. The next image covers a series of fairly large sand ridges, but we took the shot using a telephoto lens to isolate just the areas that we wanted.

Sand dunes, Namibia
Red sand dunes in Namibia.
Kaskawulsh Glacier
Aerial shot of the Kaskawulsh Glacier in Kluane National Park, Yukon, taken from directly above.

Abstracts

A great part of photographing patterns is that we can decide to keep it real or to add a bit of mystery. The photos of moss or rocks are still recognizable as moss and rocks. But sometimes we can frame an image so that viewers are intrigued or wonder what the heck they’re looking at. The following photo is a section of the William River in northern Saskatchewan where it flows through the Athabasca Sand Dunes. The river bed is clogged with sand, with the different colours indicating different depths of sand under the water surface. But when we look at this scene for the first time, it isn’t immediately obvious that this is a river.

Sand in the William River, Saskatchewan
Sand in the William River, Saskatchewan
Slims River Delta, Yukon
Aerial shot of the delta of the Slims River in Kluane National Park, Yukon. The extremely shallow conditions give the river an abstract look.

Getting the shot

Many pattern shots are fairly straightforward and can be taken hand-held, though using a tripod is always best. For larger landscapes, a telephoto lens is handy to help you zoom in to a specific part of the scene. When you get in close, it’s usually best to use a wide lens or use a small aperture (such as f/16 or f/22) opening to maximize the depth of field and get sharp focus throughout the scene. Another way to help sharpness across the frame is to try to get directly over the subject as much as possible rather than taking the shot at an angle. Above all, try different things and have fun chasing patterns.

Sand circles
Circles in the sand made by a small blade of grass being whipped around by the wind in the Athabasca Sand Dunes.
Lichen on rock
Lichen on a rock.
Spider web
Spider web. They usually have wonderfully intricate patterns. Try photographing them with some backlighting when the sun is low in the sky or on a morning when there’s lots of dew.

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