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The Classic Elements Of Visual Design

by David Peterson 0 comments

A few weeks ago, we discussed all the elements of visual design and how to apply them to your photography. Think of each one of these elements as an assignment, a place to start when you need some inspiration. Now let's take a quick look back at each of the design elements and the ways that they can help you develop a better eye for a great photo.


As artistic concepts, these design elements have been around in some form or another for a long time. The first six of the classic design principles are shape, form, line, color, texture and space. Photographers often include pattern in the list as well, since pattern can be particularly compelling in a photographic image. Here's a quick rundown of each element and a few ideas to get you started.

Shape

Shape and form are cousins, with the third-dimension accounting for the primary distinction between the two. Shape can be thought of as the outline of an object, or that which gives it its two-dimensional appearance. A silhouette is the simplest example of shape--a flat, black object against a bright background. When looking for shapes to photograph, start by looking for silhouettes. Then branch out into objects that are more visually appealing because of their outline, rather than because of their three dimensional qualities. Good examples of shapes are spirals such as those found in seashells or plants and negative shapes, such as a heart shape made with two hands or the necks of two facing birds.

Further Reading: Visual Design: Using Shape in Photography

Form

Form is like shape, but instead of being concerned only with outline it is also concerned with the subtle shading that makes an object appear three dimensional. A sphere is a classic example of an object that is more about form than about shape. When you're out shooting, try to imagine each object you find as a silhouette. If it would lose much of its appeal as a flat, black object then you know you need to emphasize it in three dimensions when you shoot it. Pay attention to how the light falls on it, and how the shadows and highlights will, even in a two dimensional photograph, make it seem like you can reach out and touch it. Objects such as this are best shot during the "magic hours" at sunrise and sunset, when the light is softer and comes from the right or left rather than from directly overhead.

Further Reading: Visual Design: Finding Form in Photography

Line

Line is one of the most effective ways to draw your viewer's eye into an image. Line is also one of the easiest of the six elements to find, because it is everywhere - in both manmade structures and objects as well as in nature. Line is extraordinarily powerful because it can not only tell your viewer where to look, but what to feel. To make your viewer feel relaxed, for example, use horizontal lines, such as horizons. To convey a sense of power, find vertical lines like those in a skyscraper or in a redwood forest. Choose diagonal and converging lines like railroad tracks, fences and crops to create a sense of depth or a feeling of infinite space. And for a soothing, unhurried mood try using curved lines - rivers, sand dunes and country roads are good places to find this type of line.

Further Reading: Visual Design: Using Line in Photography

Color

Color is one of those elements that we notice on a subconscious level, which can make it a powerful expression of mood and emotion. Depending on the context, warm colors (reds, yellows and oranges) can make a viewer feel happy and optimistic or angry and irritated. Cool colors, on the other hand, create feelings of tranquility and peace. To effectively use color, know your color wheel, and try different color combinations. Complimentary colors (those that are opposite on the color wheel), can make a very striking composition, as can analogous colors (those that are next to each other on the color wheel). Monochromatic colors (varying shades of the same color) can also be used to good effect.

Further Reading: Visual Design: Using Color in Photography

Texture

Texture creates drama, and is also one of the most useful tools we have as photographers for making a two dimensional image look three dimensional. Like form, texture depends on light for its impact. You can take a photograph of a textured surface in a couple of different ways and get completely different results. A macro image of a texture, which removes the context of the image, is a great way to simply convey the interest of the textured surface itself. Zooming out will provide your viewer with context, which will help create an emotional reaction. Weathered wood is a great example of a compelling texture image. A macro shot of a rundown old barn is visually interesting, and the rundown old barn itself with a vast, empty field stretching off into the distance behind it is emotionally interesting.

Further Reading: Visual Design: Using Texture in Photography

Space

Space is important in photography for a couple of reasons. The first is because it is easy to confine or trap your subject within the four borders of a photograph, and your viewer is almost sure to at least have a subconscious objection to such a thing. Remember that if your subject is looking off camera or moving in that direction, you need to provide some extra space for him to look or move into. Space is also important because it adds drama to a photograph. A climber standing on top of a cliff is a dramatic subject, so she requires more negative space because the extra space creates extra drama. A less dramatic subject, such as a cat looking out of a window, requires less negative space because it is a less dramatic subject.

Further Reading: Visual Design: Effective Use of Space in Photography

Pattern

Pattern is an important design element for photographers because it creates a sense of harmony and rhythm, two qualities that can make human beings feel both comfortable and compelled. Pattern is similar to texture in that it can create a sense of drama, especially when you capture a pattern that the viewer can imagine might go on forever. Pattern can either be regular--such as the weave of a basket--or irregular, such as the stripes of a zebra. You can capture a pattern as a strict series of repeating objects or you can add extra interest by breaking the pattern--for example, include a single colored Easter egg in a group of plain white eggs.
The classic design elements are classic for a reason--artists have been relying on them for centuries to help them create beautiful images that people just can't help but stop and look at. By learning each of these elements of visual design you can do the same thing as all the old masters did--create compelling images that are worthy of more than just a glance.

Further Reading: Visual Design: Enhancing Your Photography With Patterns

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