The 7 Elements Of Photography You Need To Know

Taking great photos almost always comes down to how well you understand and incorporate these 7 elements when you’re behind the camera. Every time you compose an image you’re either in control of these elements or you’re not—and that is usually the difference between basic photos and better photos. In this article, we’ll describe each of these elements and share some common ways that they can be used in photography.

Image by Jesse Hebert © All Rights Reserved.

What is composition?

As one of the main pillars of photography, composition is the process of arranging elements within an image. Effective composition enables an image to tell a story, captivate a viewer, direct the eye and so much more.

In order to harness composition in photography you must acquire the ability to “control” the elements in your image. Without control, there is no order—only randomness and disorganization.

If control is the precursor for good composition then you certainly don’t have to be a naturally-gifted artist to master photographic composition. You simply need to understand how to control the elements within your frame.

It’s incredibly useful to name and break down exactly what types of elements can be found in photography. This vocabulary forms a foundation or a toolkit for you to use when composing your images and engaging in creative problem-solving.

Where did the Elements of Photography come from?

The Elements of Photography are adapted from the generally recognized Elements of Art. These elements consist of:

  1. Shape (Two-dimensional, enclosed space)
  2. Form (Three-dimensionality of objects)
  3. Line
  4. Texture
  5. Colour
  6. Value (Also known as tone, refers to brightness)
  7. Space (Positive and negative space)

The 7 Elements of Photography

1. Shape

“Shape” in photography refers to any two-dimensional, enclosed space. Since photography is a two-dimensional medium, shapes are found everywhere in photographs. Shapes are most often found as objects in an image but they can also appear as light and shadow.

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

When we discuss shape, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a geometric shape:

  • Circles
  • Squares
  • Rectangles
  • Triangles
Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash

There are also organic shapes that do not follow any certain geometric proportions. These shapes are commonly found in nature, in things like:

  • Trees
  • Flowers
  • Rocks
  • Etc

Shapes can also be classified as positive or negative. A positive shape is what we commonly think of when we think of a shape. It is the object itself. Negative shapes are created in the areas “between” positive shapes. Consider the arrow found within the FedEx logo.

Source CNN

Shape is one of the more foundational ways to break down a composition. By understanding shape, you can start to visualize your scenes as an arrangement of many different shapes. From here, you will likely find it easier to alter relationships between different objects in a scene.

For instance, by changing your perspective, you can alter how objects overlap. Objects that overlap will visually combine to create one larger area or object. By separating objects, you will create distinctly separate shapes and can begin to make shapes out of the negative space surrounding them.

Photo by Nick Night on Unsplash

This is just one example. When composing our images, shape can be used in many ways. Below is a list of just a few of the most popular ways:

  • Rigid shapes will typically evoke a sense of structure and order
  • Curved shapes will typically evoke a sense of harmony and balance
  • Overlapping shapes will often create one larger visual area or shape—elements such as colour, texture and light can further separate overlapping shapes
  • Contrast a shape against a plain background to emphasize its edges
  • Use open shapes (such as windows or doorways) to create a sub-frame in your image
  • Shapes can be used to create a sense of scale for objects in a scene

2. Form

“Form” refers to the apparent three-dimensionality of objects. We use the word “apparent” because photographs are two-dimensional representations of the three-dimensional world. Although photographs are flat, objects in them are “perceived” to have three-dimensions or, in other words, form.

Often regarded as one of the most influential American photographers of the 20th century, Edward Weston, was a master at capturing form in his still life photography. Image Title: Pepper, no. 30 (1930) by Edward Weston

Form is primarily manipulated with lighting where highlight and shadow gives objects the perception of three-dimensionality. However, form can also be manipulated with composition. Consider you’re capturing a photo of a coffee mug. If you shoot the mug from a top-down perspective, the mug will look like a perfect circle—lacking form. Whereas, if you shoot the mug from an eye-level perspective, the mug will look like a cylinder—emphasizing form.

Photo by L.D.I.A on Unsplash

When shifting your perspective, you can also look for ways to cross objects through the layers or planes in your image. For instance, taking a picture of a flower where you can see its stem crossing into the foreground will introduce more depth and ultimately contribute to the perceived form of the object.

Photo by weston m on Unsplash

Distance-to-subject also plays an important role in capturing the form of an object. When you photograph an object from a close distance, you will elongate that object and emphasize the distance between other objects in the frame. When you photograph objects from a further distance, you will “compress” that object (make it appear flatter) and give other objects the appearance that they are closer together.

3. Line

Lines in an image perform several powerful functions for the photographer. They can be used to elicit a variety of emotional responses from viewers. They can also lead the viewer’s eye along a path through the image or direct the viewer’s attention to a specific object or point in an image. Lines that direct the viewer’s attention to an image’s point of interest are known as leading lines.

Photo by Subhasish Dutta on Unsplash

Lines can vary significantly in shape, direction and size—with each giving way to a different mood or energy.

  • Straight lines can give a sense of rigidity, structure and tension. If your image’s message is one of starkness, harshness, brutality or urgency, the use of straight lines will help to convey that message.
  • Lines curved in one direction can give the impression of force in the direction of the bend. The greater the arc, the more force is implied. A slight bend is often associated with grace and beauty.
  • S-curved lines that begin at the bottom of the frame draw the viewer into a photograph, taking the eye from the foreground through to the background. These wavy lines imply a gentle movement that is unhurried and graceful.
  • Jagged and broken lines may suggest tension or urgency.
  • A horizontal line signifies rest. It is the least dynamic of all lines. It can evoke a feeling of stability and permanence.
  • Diagonal lines evoke a feeling of force, energy and motion. The feeling of action or tension created by diagonal lines can be emphasized if they intersect. Diagonals that are parallel still imply action but can signify greater order.
  • Converging lines draw the eye into an image. Straight lines that become narrower as they move away from the foreground have the strongest and most immediate effect on eye movement, and can create a sense of urgency in the viewer. They also lend depth to an image.
  • Intersecting lines have the power to stop the flow of any given line in an image. This can be used as a tool for the photographer or it can work against the photographer. If your intention is to direct the viewer’s eye along a path, you may want to avoid intersecting a line along that path. If you intend to stop the flow of the eye or create tension for the viewer, you may want to employ intersecting lines. These lines can also be useful to draw attention to your focal point if you, for instance, placed the focal point in front of the point of intersection.
  • The impressions of each line are fortified when the lines are thicker. Vertical lines can imbue a sense of excitement and power. Heavy vertical lines, such as columns and stately trees, can signify dignity or greatness.

Lines do not have to be obvious. They can be suggested or imaginary. For example, object placement and repetition can infer a line. Through repeating objects, the eye can be drawn from one to the other as if they were connected by a line.

4. Texture

Texture communicates to the audience how an object physically feels.

  • Smooth, gentle textures will evoke a softer feeling
  • Rough, hard textures will evoke a harsh feeling
Photo by Rue S on Unsplash

Like many of the other elements of photography, texture is an element that is found everywhere. The photographer primarily uses light to emphasize the texture of an object but composition can also play an important role.

In abstract photography, texture can be the main subject of an image. In this case, composition plays a vital role since, in most cases, the photographer will want to exclude textures that compete with their main subject.

Photo by Tim Johnson on Unsplash

Smooth and rough textures can also be contrasted with one another. It’s common to photograph images of rough rocky terrain with smooth water. In this scenario, the photographer can use their composition to give one of these elements more or less visual weight or they can exclude one entirely. These little decisions will make a big impact in the way an object or scene is perceived.

Even when texture is not at the forefront of an image, it plays a vital role and should be considered in composition. Each texture is a new piece of visual information and contributes to the overall feeling of the image.

5. Colour

Colour is a powerful element that can be used to create visual contrast, direct attention and evoke certain moods. Colour itself can be used to create lines, shape, form, pattern and space. “Colour” is an extensive topic that we will only briefly touch upon in this article.

Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash

Each individual colour can evoke a different mood or energy that contributes to the perception of your image. Generally speaking, colours fall into one of two categories:

  1. Advancing colours (warm colours)
  2. Receding colours (cool colours)
Advancing colours (warm colours)
Receding colours (cool colours)

Advancing colours stand out and demand attention. Reds, yellows and oranges are considered advancing colours.

Receding colours appear to fall into the background. Blues, greens and violets are considered receding colours.

This understanding forms the basis for colour contrast and can assist with colour combinations in many different ways. Generally speaking, cool colours will make for great background elements and warm colours will make for great, attention-grabbing subjects. It’s also important to remove any advancing colours in a composition that are pulling attention away from your point of interest.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

Again, colour is an extensive topic and one of the most powerful elements in photography. But to get you started with colour, here are some tips and tricks::

  • Get familiar with the colour wheel. See how the relationships between colours are theorized and how certain colours/hues are grouped together.
  • Use colour contrast. The most simple form of colour contrast is to use colours opposite of each other along the colour wheel. (e.g., blue and orange)
  • Use colour combinations such as monochromatic, complimentary, analogous & split-complimentary. These colour combinations build upon the idea of colour contrast but allow for more colours to be used in a palette.
  • Reduce and refine the colours in your composition. Learn to control the colours within your frame. You can think of every new colour as a whole new element in your composition. Practice simplification and reduce!
  • Use the 60-30-10 rule for colour proportions. This principle of colour proportions recommends that you allow the main colour in your image to take up 60% of your composition, the secondary colour—30% and the accent colour—10%.

6. Value

Also known in photography as ‘tone’, value refers to the lightness or darkness of a colour. Value essentially refers to the light in our images. In photography, light is “everything”. In fact, the word photography, derived from the Greek words “photos” and “graphos,” literally means “light drawing”.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

It’s useful to think of value in terms of a spectrum or a range. On the one end you have the brightest value of white and, on the other, you have the darkest value of black. In between these two values you have varying intensities of brightness that can be considered the “tones” of your image.

You can break any image down into a range of tones:

  • An image that has a larger tonal range will have more detail
  • An image with a smaller tonal range will have less detail
Photo by Nikolay Loubet on Unsplash
Photo by Hongmei Zhao on Unsplash

This tonal range is valuable when it comes to using the incredibly important element of “contrast” in photography. Contrast means difference and, in photography, often refers to the difference in either tones or colours.

If your image has a wide range of tones with deep blacks and bright whites, it is considered a high-contrast image. Your image is considered low-contrast if it is mostly composed of mid-tones and there are little bright highlights or dark shadows.

Photos can also be classified as either high-key or low-key:

  • High-key images are mostly composed of bright tones
  • Low-key images are mostly composed of dark tones
Photo by Hayley Maxwell on Unsplash
Photo by Birger Strahl on Unsplash

Light is another one of the main pillars of photography which makes it a rather extensive topic. In order to get started with light consider the following:

  • The eye is naturally drawn to bright elements
  • High contrast can make for a more dramatic image
  • Low contrast can make for a soft, muted image
  • Capture the widest spectrum of tones possible in your camera in order to effectively manipulate contrast later in editing

To learn more about this key pillar of photography, read our in-depth series starting with: Mastering Light in Photography: What is Light?

7. Space

In photography, space can be regarded as either positive space or negative space.

You are probably most familiar engaging with positive space. Positive space is the object in a photograph whereas negative space is the empty space surrounding objects.

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

When composing an image, you are typically negotiating with both positive and negative space and trying to create a balance between the two.

Often, not enough consideration is given to the negative space that surrounds positive elements. Negative space has the power to:

  • Control scale
  • Provide context
  • Isolate your subject
  • Bring order to a composition

In most cases, you will use both negative and positive space in a composition to create a balanced image.

However, you can also create images that predominantly use one of the two to create certain emotional responses:

  • Images that use a large amount of positive space may feel busy, active, and focused
  • Images that use a large amount of negative space will feel isolated, calm, and subdued
Photo by Robert Gramner on Unsplash
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Putting It All Together

Understanding the elements of photography is a conceptual practice. Any time that you take a photo, you are engaging with these elements whether you are aware of it or not.

In order to develop as a photographer, at some point it will become imperative for you to break down and understand photography from a more theoretical level. The elements of photography are a wonderful place to start this journey.

As you move forward with this new vocabulary, consider how you can put these elements to use in your photography. It may help to purposely seek out lines, for instance, and then move on to a different element until you learn to utilize each element effectively. From here, you can develop your ability to use these elements together in your images which will create much more complex arrangements.

Which element of photography do you find most effective? Let us know in the comments below.

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