Take Better Photos Using the Elements of Design

There are six elements of design in photography—line, shape, form, texture, pattern, color. They all work together, and without one, you can’t have the other. Using these elements you can create powerful compositions and images from everyday subjects. First up line.

1. Line

Lines can be short, thick, and long thin. They move the viewer forward or use lines to direct attention. If you want to create movement and speed, look for diagonal lines. In the image below the lines of the lights and railings on the escalator lead you into the children riding up on it. Knowing how lines affect your audiences’ perception can compose the photo to evoke certain emotions.

Is the line rough, calming, or threatening? Lines can evoke an emotion. Think of the lines you see in landscapes like rivers, sand dunes, or the surf they’re soft and flowing, but the jagged lines of mountains (like the image below) are rigid, treating, and sharp warning of danger.

Brown Palace, Denver Colorado, Lines Example
Snowy Mountain Range, WY, Lines Example

2. Shape

Shapes help you identify objects. Horror movies playoff this with shadows and the unseen. Knowing the shape of the monster would reduce anxiety because it’s identifiable. Not knowing makes it more frightening.

Shape is best defined when it’s front or backlit. There should be contrast between the shape and its surroundings. Silhouettes are great examples of shape.

One of the best times of day is to shoot shadows and silhouettes during sunrise and sunset. You’ll want to set your exposure for much brighter light surrounding your subject. This underexposes the shadows, turning them into a darker black, like the sunset photo below, even though you can’t see the details of the tree you still know it’s a tree.

Experiment with combining other shapes and forms like in the side walk photo of the kids and their chalk drawings.

Elements of Design in Photography - Shape
Elements of Design in Photography - Shape Kids
Elements of Design in Photography - Shapes, Carhenge at Sunset

3. Form

What is the difference between Shape and Form? Form is 3-D, where Shape is 2-D. 

Form gives depth to your subject. Sunny skies and sidelight help reveal form and create contrast. Sidelight is essential to defining form since its light and shadow. The combination of shifts of light brings out the form. Remember that sidelight can also come from the top or bottom, not just the left or right.

Notice how different shapes will evoke different emotional responses. A circle can symbolize wholeness and be reminiscent of the human form. Whereas squares, rectangles, and triangles are more man-made, not found in nature. The forms can also be abstract.

4. Texture

Texture evokes strong emotional responses since it’s related to the sense of touch. We feel like we can reach out and touch it. Sand in your fingers, a hot mess, a sticky situation, we use texture in our daily language for this reason to describe how it feels.

Textures aren’t always the most apparent elements and are best photographed using a low angled sidelight during sunny days, early mornings, or late afternoons. Rotate your camera, try horizontal and vertical to see how it affects the subject and your composition.

Rusty Pickup Texture Example
Stump or Wood Photography Texture Example

5. Patterns

During the pandemic, I constantly looked for patterns when going on walks around my neighborhood. Looking back, it seems a tell-tale sign of what was going on at the time. Patterns are tied to the emotions of stability, belonging, and consistency. Predictable, safe, secure patterns make order out of chaos. Background patterns can help support your main subject.

It can be hard to identify patterns. One has to pay attention to what’s going on around them. It’s not just about photographing a display pattern but an overall pattern of subjects. When you find one, fill the frame edge to edge, top to bottom, and side to side. The photo below was taken at the Boulder Farmer’s Market.

Design Elements in Photography, The Boulder Farmer's Market - Patterns

Pro Tip: Get in the habit of looking up or down to increase your chances of noticing a pattern. Sometimes a pattern will be right in front of you. Step back instead of focusing on a single subject, notice how it fits into the bigger scheme of things.

6. Color

Color as a subject is so obvious, but it’s often overlooked because it is obvious. Color has so many different nuances and meanings. You’ll want to become familiar with them, so here’s a quick and dirty breakdown.

Red: is known for love, passion, and power. It’s the color of rage. Think of the phrase “seeing red” or blood. Red also pushes forward when placed against other colors making it stand out in a crowded space.

Blue: Where red demands your attention, blue recedes into the background. A cool color, it’s calming and refreshing. It’s a stable and secure color, dare I say true blue. And pairs well with yellow.

Yellow: Cheerful, energetic, warm, optimistic, and creative. But it can also be used to warn. Triangle warning symbol or the black and yellow stripes on a bee.

Orange: With orange, you can evoke the feelings of fire, warmth, health, happiness, and adventure.

Green: One of my favorite colors and the most dominant color in nature. Green is a symbol of harmony, luck, and hope. It revitalizes, balances, and encourages but can also mean jealousy— are you green with envy?

Purple or Violet: Purple’s regal color demands respect and implies wealth and spirituality. Purple dye was hard to come by in ancient times and was extremely expensive to produce since it was made from the shell of a mollusk. This meant only kings, royalty, or high-ranking society members could afford to wear it, thus linking it with Christianity and sovereignty.

Compose your photographs to shoot color first and foremost by starting with a macro lens and looking at things up close. It’s everywhere.

Play with complementary color combinations such as blue and yellow (like the tree and sky below) and red and green. When next to each other, they’ll intensify each other. Study the color wheel to get inspiration and learn the relationship between colors and how they affect one another. Checkout Adobe’s Color Wheel Generator to experiment with different color combinations from analogous and complimentary to monochromatic.

Try shooting a yellow leaf against a blue sky and then a red leaf. Which one is more intense? Or try photographing the leaves with a shallow depth of field and blurred the background of the same color leaves to give it a monochrome effect.

Design Elements in Photography - Color Example - Monochrome
Design Elements in Photography - Color Example - Monochrome

Summary

Using these six elements of design in your photography will help you create more striking images when it’s your kids’ hockey game, a walk around your neighborhood, or while you’re on your next Hawaiian vacation. Your image will also communicate more effectively and put some purpose behind them. All you need to do is just pause, look around, and click. Oh and have fun y’all!

 

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