Photography is more than an art. It’s a skill. Professional photographers take time to study and learn their art, learning exactly what is required to take an eye-catching photo. There are seven elements of photography that break down each of the things a true artist should focus on, and they are line, shape, form, texture, pattern, colour and space. Each brings its own unique quality to a picture.
Table of Contents
Elements of Photography
The seven basic elements of photography refer to the way you set up your photo. Composition helps you represent any of these elements in the way you choose.
In contrast to points, which draw a viewer’s attention, lines are more like a path for a viewer to follow. Or, they are a boundary: the division between sky and ground, for example.
Like points, lines in photography are not defined as rigidly as lines in geometry. Photographically, anything that connects two parts of a photo or stretches across your composition is a line. That includes a curved road or a jagged mountain ridge, for example. Even the fuzzy, lightly defined edge of a cloud is usually a line.
Lines also serve an important function of connecting two different elements of your photo. They can give an image structure, which is a crucial part of making an image feel deliberate and intentional. A path leading from foreground to background has a way of making the image feel connected.
Sometimes, lines in a photo are imaginary, but they’re still there. Imagine a portrait of a child looking at a toy truck. The space between the child and truck might be “empty,” but the viewer knows it is important anyway. There’s a line – a connection between the two elements of the photo that makes each one more impactful.
Lines don’t have the same weight as points. Instead, they connect points, or divide them, or guide a viewer’s eye toward the one you want. This makes them some of the most important elements of composition.
A line can mean a few different things. Leading lines can move your viewer’s eyes throughout a photograph – diagonals are great. Repeating lines that fade into the background will bring the viewer’s back into the picture. Lines aren’t always straight; the “line” of a model’s body can create an “S” shape that will lead the viewer’s eye all along her body.
The line is the most important element of all and also the most strongest in its meaning. Your eyes follow the line, whether it is visible or invisible. Based on its character and direction, lines communicate emotions, making it one of the strongest elements of design.
Horizontal lines suggest a feeling of restfulness or calmness, vertical lines suggest a feeling of power, and diagonal lines suggest a feeling of movement and direction. Soft curved lines represent a relaxing or soothing feel, whereas acute or jagged lines suggest frenzy or chaotic feeling and so on.
Objects in your photo such as a rectangular door, around a tree, or square tiles add “shape” to an image. These can be used as “frames” for your subject or just to add an interesting piece to your art.
The shape is a two-dimensional representation of an object. Kids draw primarily using shapes like an outline of a farmhouse, a tree, sun, etc. The outer line of an object forms the shape.
In photography, you can represent interesting shapes of the objects by using a silhouette effect due to backlighting. Silhouette photographs make an impact when the shape of the subject (object) is clearly defined in contrast with the background.
Now, we move from the simple elements of composition to the complex. Shapes can be anything, from the crescent moon to the shape of a smiling face. Each variety of shape has its own emotional impact on a photo, and it’s impossible to generalize. A circle might be peaceful, a heart evocative, a triangle dynamic, and so on – but the only thing to be said about every shape is that they have the power to attract our attention.
Sometimes, shapes are just the object itself. If you’re photographing the sun, it makes a circular shape. Other times, shapes are more conceptual, like a curved cloud over a curved valley that gives the entire photo a circular composition. Both types of shapes matter. The first attracts attention; the second gives the photo its structure.
In photography, keep an eye out for shapes in your photo, either obvious or abstract. Remember that they are very powerful in drawing our eye – particularly simple shapes, as well as those of humans and animals. Compose your photos accordingly.
The form is what takes your two-dimensional photograph and makes it appear life-like and three-dimensional. This is usually achieved by controlling the light on your subject. There are many different lighting setups for portrait photography that will give form to your subjects in varying degrees of shape and intensity.
The form is a three-dimensional representation of an object. A third dimension (thickness) to the Shape yields form.
Photography (and art) is a two-dimensional form lacking the depth which poses a challenge to you as a photographer to somehow represent the third dimension by creating an illusion of depth.
By using light and shadow, you can create an illusion of depth in your photograph.
The texture is pretty self-explanatory – finding things that have interesting textures and including them in your photograph. For portraits, a textured background such as a worn, rustic barn can make your subject stand out and give you a creative background. Textured skin adds character to interesting people, giving them a story.
Texture represents the details that are present on the surface of an object. You can use texture to create visually interesting photographs.
The texture of an object plays an important role in determining its emotional impact, as well as the amount of attention it draws.
What mood do you capture when you photograph smooth pebbles and mist from long exposure of the sea? What about jagged, rough mountains in high-contrast light?
Sometimes, textures themselves may be the subject of your photo, like patterns in the sand or waves of water. More often, though, textures are individual elements of a larger photo – either giving your subject some dimension or filling in the spaces between subjects.
Areas with more texture tend to draw extra attention. Sometimes, too much texture in “unimportant” areas of a photo can be distracting, making the overall photo appear too complex. In other cases, the texture gives your subject a crucial sense of dimension, such as filling out the shape of a mountain landscape.
The direction of light plays an important role in bringing out the textures. Based on the mood you want to convey in your photograph, you will either wait for the light that will emphasize the roughness or softness of an object.
Patterns are a repetition of Shapes or Textures that are organized in a rhythmic way.
In photography, patterns are everywhere. This isn’t just something small like a texture that repeats itself throughout the photo, but really in any repeating element at all. Even the reflection of a mountain in a pool of water is a pattern – one which should not be underestimated since it ties the photo together.
That’s what patterns do. They tie photos together. They give photos a reason to exist – a strong statement for why the photographer took this photo and not some other.
Patterns are arguably more obvious in human-made scenes, like architectural photography. But even natural scenes and living creatures have patterns, like feathers on a bird or waves crossing in the sea.
Not every photograph you take will have an obvious pattern, and that’s not a problem. But when you do see some sort of repetition or interconnectedness in the world, take note. It could make for a very strong photo, indeed.
If you carefully look for patterns, there are everywhere in nature and also in human-made things. By using these patterns, you can compose a visually compelling image that keeps the viewer engaged.
Sometimes breaking this harmony or rhythm in pattern yields much better results by yielding a dynamic composition.
The pattern makes sense of the visual world through regularity. From human-made objects to organic material and abstraction.
Elements of design can be organized in a predictable manner to form a pattern. Put simply, and patterns are repetitions of the elements of art and design. These work in unison within a single frame.
The human eye is calibrated to seek out patterns. This can evoke surprising emotional reactions from a viewer.
Patterns are an active principle of art and design, and they lift an image off the page. Incorporating pattern into your photography is as much about exploring as it is about photographic technique.
Try looking out for architectural and urban features or organic subjects like flowers. Once you start looking, you will be amazed by the abundance of patterns around you.
Colour is a major design element that we love. Colours play an important role to set the mood of the photograph.
Colour is a very basic element. The primary colours of red, blue, and yellow can be mixed to create secondary and tertiary colours, eventually creating the “colour wheel.” Colours opposite each other on the colour wheel are complementary and work well together. This is why you always see red with green (Christmas), blue with orange (sports team), and yellow with purple (Lakers).
The colours can be broadly classified as warm colours and cool colours. Red, Orange, and Yellow are the warm colours that suggest the feeling of warmth, liveliness, and energetic. In contrast, Blue and Green are cool colours that suggest the feeling of calmness, tranquillity, and sad/gloomy.
Other than black and white photography – a creative choice of its own – colour makes a big difference to the composition of a photo, as well as the mood.
Each colour brings its own emotions to photography, a topic that could fill far more than the small space here. Nevertheless, the most important distinction you need to know at the moment is that of warm versus cool colours.
Warm colours are red, orange, and yellow. They are active, jumping to the front of an image and conveying more movement and excitement. I don’t just mean that they metaphorically jump to the front; if you put a vivid red dot against a vivid blue background, many people genuinely perceive the red dot as nearer to the viewer, almost casting a shadow behind it.
Cool colours, then, are the opposite: green, blue, and violet. These are calmer colours, with a bit more gentleness to their nature. Blue and green in particular are the most common colours found in nature; a blue sky or greenfield convey a reassuring and comforting message. But cool colours also appear in lower light environments, even shadows on a sunny day, so they do have a sense of darkness to the – one which can be particularly powerful in photos of a storm, for example.
When you’re composing your photos, recognize the colours contained within, and try to use their strengths to your advantage. Often, pairing a warm colour with a cool colour creates an interesting sense of contrast, leading to an eye-catching image. Similarly, photos with just one or two dominant colours present a very unified message – a message that can be highly successful if created with care.
Space is another element that gives depth to your image. All images should have some kind of foreground, middle ground, and a background. This is a simple way to move your viewer’s eye all around your image and even back in space. Space also can refer to a positive and negative space in your photo. Positive space is taken up by something such as your subject. Negative is an “empty” or “blank” space, which may still have something in it. Negative space is what is in between all the positive space.
Space is another important element of design that suggests the distance between the objects, perspective, and proportions of objects.
A subject represents the positive space in an image, and the background represents the negative space. Negative space is as important as the positive space in defining the shape of the subject.
Space makes a subject feel comfortable in the image is composed using the rule of thirds.
Islands and water; clouds and sky; ink and paper. Positive and negative space.
Positive space is any part of the photo that attracts attention. Areas with significant visual weight are usually positive space. The same is true of areas with high levels of texture.
Negative space is the “filler” between regions of positive space. It doesn’t necessarily fade into the background like cool colours tend to do, but it isn’t the portion of the photo that attracts the most attention.
Photos with high amounts of positive space feel crowded, while photos with high amounts of negative space feel empty. Neither of these sounds like a particularly good emotion, but both can be very powerful in a photo. I’ve taken cityscape images with a sense of business and urgency because of their high positive space. I’ve also taken the opposite – photos of a tiny subject in a grand scene to convey a sense of isolation and immensity.
Positive and negative space depends on quite a bit on other elements of composition, such as visual weight and distance. But even a photo of a single subject – say, a portrait – can have different ratios of positive and negative space depending on your composition. Just change the size of your subject in the frame, surrounded by greater or smaller amounts of background. The emotions of the photo will change significantly.
The Rule of Thirds
The best way to illustrate one of the most popular photography composition techniques, the rule of thirds, is to put a nine-square grid over a photo. You would break an image into thirds both horizontally and vertically, arriving at nine segments total. If you place the most interesting element of your photos along with one of those lines, your photo will naturally be well-composed, based on the general rules of form photography.
Lighting and Composition for Photography
The seven basic elements of photography all come down to lighting and composition. New photographers focus on these two items most. There are many photography composition techniques in addition to the rule of thirds, including symmetry, which utilizes tricks like reflections to make an otherwise ordinary photo more interesting, and depth, which combines the foreground and background in interesting ways to bring an image to life. Another important form in photography is “shooting light.” That means looking for the way the light hits objects and featuring that in your photo. As you begin to play with these seven elements of photography, these professional techniques can take you from photographer to photographic artist.
Using the seven principles allows you to take greater control of your photographic practice. This will lead to better photos and more photographic opportunities.
The elements of the design described above form the foundation of good composition for photography. Next articles will discuss each of these elements in detail to enable you to understand them in depth.
Do you use these elements of design consciously in your photographs? What elements of design do you think makes a photograph more compelling than the other?