Six Classic Design Elements for Outstanding Photographs :: Digital Photo Secrets

Six Classic Design Elements for Outstanding Photographs

by David Peterson 4 comments

What's the difference between a snapshot and a photograph? Between an ordinary photograph and a great photograph?

It may surprise you to hear that even in modern photography, the answer to those questions can be found in design principles that are centuries old. All great photographs contain at least one of six elements that great works of art also contain. Keep these design principles in mind, and your snapshots will become great photos almost without effort.

No photography rule is set in stone, but for the most part, chaos does not make for good photography. I'm not saying you can't photograph a chaotic scene, but you must be able to find some order in it, or the typical viewer is not going to enjoy looking at it.

So the trick is to bring a sense of order to chaos, or to find order in the ordinary. If you remember this, you will be able to turn any scene into a visually striking photograph.

Find the lines

Line is one of the most important photographic elements. Line draws the viewer's eye into the image. It gives a photograph a sense of depth and distance and a feeling of potential. Lines don't have to be straight, nor do they have to vanish (like those seen in the classic road or fence image). Lines can be curved, parallel or crossing, they can be long or short or thick or thin. Different kinds of lines convey different emotions--straight, vertical lines like those in a skyscraper convey power, while curved lines like those found in the path of a river are soothing.

Shape and Form (they're not the same thing)

Shape is basically the two-dimensional version of form. When you focus on shape, you are primarily concerned with the outline of your subject and its two-dimensional qualities. The subject itself doesn't have to be two-dimensional, of course, but its outline is typically more important than its depth. Form, then, is the three-dimensional version of shape. When you focus on form, you are more concerned with the subtle variations in light and shadow that make an object stand out from it environment.

There are countless ways to use shape in your images. For the most pure form of shape, you can use backlighting to silhouette your subject (also see my video on the Golden Hour which also talks about silhouettes), which will remove all of its three dimensional qualities. But you can still focus on shape when three dimensional elements are present, simply by looking for the geometry in your composition.

Almost everything you see can be broken down into a series of geometric shapes. The next time you photograph a flower, see if you can find the circles in it. Look for the squares in a skyscraper, and then point your camera towards the top that building to find the triangle.

Photographs are two dimensional, but skillful use of form will make a photo appear to have depth even when it doesn't. When shooting an object for form rather than shape, pay attention to light and shadow and how they give that object a sense of depth. Move around the subject so that you get a better sense of it in three dimensions, and shoot from different angles until you find the one that best captures the object's form. You will often hear photographers talk about the "magic hours;" shooting in the early morning or late afternoon will give you the best light for capturing form, because the shadows are longer and objects are more defined at those times.


Space can be either positive or negative. The area within a shape can be referred to as space, but in photography we generally think of the negative version of space. Negative space is the area that surrounds a shape or form. You can find geometric shapes in the negative space just as you can find them in the positive space. Space is also a useful tool for creating drama; you can use a small negative space to make an object appear towering or overwhelming, or you can use a large negative space to make it seem smaller than it actually is. For example, with careful use of space an otherwise large boat photographed against a vast ocean can be made to look diminutive or even vulnerable.


Texture is generally associated with touch, which is not something you can convey literally in a photograph. But the right lighting conditions can highlight texture in a way that will make your viewer feel like she might be able to feel the texture if she touched the image. Like form, texture depends on shadow, so shoot your subject at the right time of day, when light and shadow combine to best recreate the object as it appears in three dimensions. Many of the best texture-based images are shot at close range in order to reveal the detail in the surface of the object. Contrasting smooth objects with rough ones is another way to make an impact using this principle of design.


Color conveys emotion. Vibrant colors make a viewer feel energetic and happy, while muted colors are more soothing. Blues and greens are relaxing, while reds and yellows are more emotionally intense (and stimulate hunger, if all those fast food restaurant logos are to be believed). Careful placement of color in an image can add a lot of impact. Have you ever seen a black and white image with one colored element in it? It's hard not to be drawn to that type of photograph, because color tends to bring the eye into an image. So too will a splash of bright color on an otherwise muted scene.

Color is one of the best ways to create mood in photography; images shot at dusk, for example, will convey a sense of calm and relaxation by virtue of their cool color palettes, while those shot just after sunrise will feel warmer and more exciting.


Pattern is not one of the six classic design principles, but it is one of the more important visual elements in modern photography. Finding a compelling pattern is almost a guaranteed way to capture an amazing photograph. Patterns appear everywhere in our world--in the bark of a tree, the honeycomb in a bees' nest, or in a neat row of products on a store shelf. A pattern is any repeated object, color or shape - which sounds pretty basic until you start paying attention and then realize that you've been looking right past them for most of your life. Whenever you're out with your camera, start training yourself to find patterns. In many cases, simply zooming in on a pattern will create the illusion of infinite repetition. You can also add interest by breaking up a pattern; a neat row of oranges, for example, will look much more interesting if you place a single lemon at one of the "rule of thirds" intersections.

Of course photographs don't need to contain all of these elements--if they did, they'd fall right back into that trap of chaos we're trying to avoid. But using at least one of them in each of your photos will go a long way towards improving the overall quality of your photography. Train yourself to look for these design elements whenever you are in the field, and whenever you are studying the work of other photographers. Before long, your quest for line, shape, form, texture, pattern and color will become second nature, and your ordinary photographs will become great ones.

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  1. Raymond says:

    Your articles are simply fantastic. They are so important to a new photography enthusiast, look simple and yet difficult to understand, if not for the way you presented them in simple terms and explanations with visual examples. Thank you very much.

  2. sweggy steve says:

    anything about form?

    • David Peterson says:

      Yes, I covered Form along with Shape. See the "Shape and Form (they're not the same thing)" heading.


  3. malick elias says:

    I have been following your articles for well over a year. I am now at the stage of using a dlsr camera. I find your work stimulating.

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