THE ELEMENTS AND PRICIPLES OF DESIGN, PART 1
by Dan Farmer
All of the highest-quality equipment in the world
cannot guarantee that you take great pictures. Even
knowing how to use the camera effectively, setting
exposures, depth of field, etc., will not necessarily
give your photos the description that all
photographers strive for: art. Certainly, these things
help, but capturing that elusive artistic quality
requires special skills that every photographer worth
his tripod must possess. For this, we turn to what are
called the Elements and Principles of Design. These
are a few basic concepts that anyone can learn and
will allow you to lay out your photos in an
eye-pleasing way, or even snare that rare beast we
The six Elements of Design are the more basic set, so we will start with those. Within the Elements we have Line, Shape, Form, Space, Value, and Texture. Remember, each of these, or several used together, can help improve your photos. Still, it requires an experienced eye to put these ideas to their best effect. Don't get discouraged if some photos you take, even those containing these concepts, still don't look quite right.
LINE - Line is one of the simplest concepts to describe. Basically, it is including things with strong, defined lines in your photo. Examples are things like the edge of buildings, train tracks, road lines, and sidewalks. Line is usually used to either portray a sense of Movement (One of the Principles of Design), or to lead the viewer's eye to the subject of the photo, though it can also imply Shape. It is not limited to simply solid objects like buildings, or even to straight lines. Light and shadow, with a clear edge between them, can create Line. Many photos have curved lines, such as roads as they bend to the right or left, or a footpath that winds between the roots of large trees, as well.
SHAPE - Shape refers to including things that appear two dimensional, and have a specific form to them. The most common Shape used is the circle. We can see that in tapestries, or in arched doorways. The wave is another strong shape, found in almost any coastal photograph. Other shapes include the triangle, and square, though those are less commonly used in photography. Shape can also lend to other Elements and Principles, just as line does. Usually, Shape is used to create a sense of Space (Again, arched doorways are a good example), though it works well with Form, Value, and Line.
FORM - Form is very similar to Shape, but different enough to create a different feeling in your photographs. This is also probably the least used of the Elements of Design. Basically, Form is a 3-dimensional object. Spheres, cubes, and cones are good examples. It's difficult to portray a 3-dimensional object with film, which is by nature 2-dimensional. Still, Form used well creates a very interesting photo. The idea behind Form is to show each indentation, each curve, each bulge, and each edge - the object's Form. Space is the most commonly used Element in conjunction with Form, allowing us as viewers to recognize the different objects as being in different places, instead of overlapped right on top of each other. Line and Value play a large part in Form, as well.
TEXTURE - Perhaps the most self-evident Element, Texture is simply the tactile quality of an object. This ranges from glass-smooth to as rough as sandpaper. Texture is an extremely good way to capture a viewer's interest, as it invokes more than simply their sense of sight. It appeals to the sense of touch very easily, thus adding another dimension of interest to the photo. Texture can also be easily used with Value and Repetition (A Principle of Design), with very good effect. When taking photos where Texture is the main concept, you should light the object from the side or from the back. These positions will emphasize the Texture. Axis lighting, or lighting the object from the front, will produce the least Texture. Some ideas of things to photograph with good Texture would be a wrinkled cloth, a piece of wood, the bark of a tree, or a pitted stone such as pumice.
SPACE - My personal favorite, Space refers to the area of unused or unoccupied area in a photo. Basically, the space between objects. In general, Space helps lend a sense of 3-dimensionality to a photo. By itself, Space can create beautiful photos, such as a photo of clouds, but its real strength lies with using it in combination with Line, Form, or Value. Perhaps the most stirring example of using Line or Value with Shape would be a photo looking down a long road, with tall buildings on either side. This is not to say Space must be a large, open expanse. A set of carefully arranged small objects, such as pebbles, can use both Space and Form very effectively.
VALUE - This element requires a somewhat practiced eye to implement successfully. Basically, Value is the organization and magnitude of light and dark in your photo. The deep shadow, the bright whites, and all the gray tones in between are what make up Value. It can be used to highlight certain aspects, such as a bright subject against a dark background, or to obscure unpleasant features in dark shadow. In most photos, the Value is roughly balanced. The number of strong white areas and strong dark areas are about equal. We do this by instinct. However, Value can be tipped out of balance in order to provide meaning and visual interest. A photo taken by Harry Callahan is a perfect example of this. It is simply a person standing at the bottom of a long well of bright light, while everything around them is near black.
That's it for the Elements of Design. Keeping these in mind while you take your photos will hopefully improve them quite a bit. Remember to examine your subject from every possible angle to find that fitting composition. Good luck, and I hope this article has been helpful. I will cover the Principles of Design in a future article. Have fun with your photos! --Dan Farmer
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