If you've ever studied art, you probably have at least some understanding of form. It's one of the six classic design elements, and knowing how to use it will help you take photographs that have a creative edge and an artistic quality that greatly exceeds the common snapshot. Form is very similar to its cousin, shape, and it is important to understand the difference between the two, so you can start to develop an eye for how to use both elements to your advantage.
The differences are actually quite simple: form is an object as it exists in three dimensions, which includes both volume and shape. Shape is simply the two dimensional version of form, the outline without the volume. Form is interesting to a viewer because an image that looks three dimensional evokes feelings of presence. If you can make a viewer believe that she can reach into the photo and touch the subject, then you have effectively captured the form of that subject.
Since almost everything that exists in our world has form, the tricky part is knowing when to highlight an object's two dimensional shape, and when to focus on its (three dimensional) form instead. Strictly speaking, you should always ask yourself what makes an object interesting - is it the object's outline, or is it the way the highlights and shadows interact on that object. If the answer is the latter, then the dominant design element in your photograph is form rather than shape.
Using Form Effectively
Of all the six design elements, form is, by its nature, probably the most challenging one for photographers to effectively capture. After all, photography is a two-dimensional medium. Photographers, like other artists working in two-dimensional mediums, lack the ability to physically recreate an object in three dimensions, so we must rely on visual clues to make our images look as if they are three dimensional.
The most obvious way to capture and highlight form is to use the correct lighting. A strong, overhead light such as that produced by the sun at noon on a cloudless day is undesirable. That kind of light makes an object look flat and uninteresting, or worse, lost in black shadows and blown-out highlights. The type of light that brings out the form of an object is that ever-lauded "golden hour" light, the kind that only exists in the early morning or late afternoon. Magic hour light is softer and warmer, and the shadows are both longer and less stark.
Choosing the correct light is almost as important as choosing the correct angle. Light that comes directly from in front of an object, diffused or not, will make it look two-dimensional. Light coming from behind will make it a silhouette, which will also eradicate its three dimensional qualities. But light coming from either side creates subtle shadows, which will expose the object's contours. Diffused light such as that found during the magic hour will enhance this effect even more by producing a greater range of tones between the highlights and the shadows.
You can play with perspective in order to change an object's form - at least in the eye of your viewer. Shooting from below or at ground level can make an object appear larger than it actually is. Conversely, shooting that object from above will make it look smaller and more diminutive. Angle is a good way to communicate an object's importance, and though it may have little impact on the actual outline or shape of that object, it can have a profound effect on how the viewer sees the object in terms of form and the way that object exists in three dimensions. Angle is also important for the reasons we discussed above; changing the angle can change the way the light falls on the object, which will in turn make it seem more or less three dimensional.
Form can also be highlighted through your subject's relationship with other objects. Placing objects on different planes, or different points in the scene from foreground to background, will reinforce your subject's existence in three dimensions. For example, placing one in-focus flower in the foreground while flowers in the background fall out of focus can help create depth--and depth enhances form. You can achieve a similar effect by placing your subject in the background and letting the objects in the foreground fall out of focus. This is called "selective focus," and it can be a powerful tool to bring volume and depth to your photographs.
Putting it into practice
Form is accentuated in black and white, because there aren't any colors in a black and white image to distract the viewer from the contours of the subject. To get a better eye for form, try converting your photos to black and white. Compare the black and white images to the original color images to see how well the object's form comes across. Look at the highlights and shadows as well as all the tones in between, and ask yourself if the object appears three dimensional or if it seems flat and without contour.
Now take what you've learned with you into the field. Try to view each scene in black and white, whether you intend convert the final photo or not. This will help you find the correct lighting and angle and to bring out the contours of your subject in a way that enhances its form. You can also experiment with times of day - chances are, photos taken in the morning or late afternoon are going to be vastly better than those taken at mid-day, but having one from each time to use as a comparison will help you get a better idea of what you should be avoiding and what you should be striving for.
Successfully conveying all three dimensions in a two dimensional medium is a great artistic accomplishment, so keep experimenting and make sure you study each photo you take (both the successful ones and the unsuccessful ones). Ultimately, you'll discover that you have developed a natural eye for form, and your photos will reflect this as well.
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