7 elements of design in photography every photographer should know

If you’re anything like me you need to know why you need to know something before you can see the value in either learning or using a skill. So, because I want you to understand how important it is to know about photography composition, here’s an introduction to the elements of design in photography composition and how to use them.

The elements of photography are the “rules” of photography composition, the building blocks of design that help us construct an image. They’re as relevant to photography as they are to:

  • Painting
  • Sculpting
  • Architecture
  • Boat building
  • Graphic design
  • Web design
  • Fashion design
    etc etc etc

color design elements in photography

I could go on, but you get the picture. All creatives use these elements according to the principles of design.

Wait. What?

The elements of composition in photography are the bricks, but the principles of photography are the blueprints – how to use the bricks. Put simply:

  • Do you want an edgy, exciting image? Then use the elements of design this way.
  • Do you want a peaceful, relaxing image? Then use the elements of design that way.

This knowledge makes our lives so much easier!

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to achieve a particular look, atmosphere or convey a message or feeling. Just know how to use the same building blocks in different ways – as you’ll see in the two examples at the end.

So what are these building blocks?

What are the 7 elements of design in photography?

There are many design elements in photography composition, but the most important and the ones you’ll use the most are:

  • Line
  • Tone
  • Texture
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Color
  • Space

Below is an introduction to these elements of composition in photography. I’ve written articles on each and will link them below each element so that you can really go deep and explore for yourself.

leading lines design elements
Diagonal and vertical lines feature strongly in this image, leading to, framing the subject and conveying energy and vibrancy.

LINE element of design in photography

It’s impossible for a photograph to have no lines. What lines and how you use them are where the design power lies.

Lines, specifically leading lines, direct the viewer to the focal point of an image. This is probably the first way we learn to use lines as an element of design in photography.

But there’s much more to lines than just using them as a pointer.

Lines, like all elements of design, also convey a message and affect the mood of an image. It all depends on the type of line and how it’s used.

For example:

  • A curved line creates movement by leading the eye in a meandering pattern through the image. They are gentle and flowing, so feel more peaceful.
  • A diagonal line create the opposite feeling. They’re energetic and dynamic. A diagonal leading line starting at the corner of an image heading to the center demands our attention and adds depth to the image.
  • A horizontal line feels stable and dependable, just like the horizon. Nothing is going to slide off a horizontal line.
  • A vertical line shows growth as it reaches upwards. However the thickness of a vertical line will also impact the composition of the image. Thin vertical lines feel more vulnerable than the stability of thick vertical lines.

TONE element of design in photography

Tone contrast is the contrast between light and dark in an image, the dynamic range. It’s particularly obvious in black and white photos, because the eye is not distracted by color.

Shadows evoke emotions in photography, which is why there seem to be two camps of portrait photography – the light and airy style versus the dark and moody style.

  • Many family photographers use the light and airy style, particularly when photographing families with young children. The brightness and lack of shadow feels carefree and happy.
  • On the other hand, many couple photographers shoot in a dark and moody style to add deep emotion to the image.

Matching the tonal contrast to the mood and message of an image helps the viewer to better understand it.

TEXTURE element of design in photography

Texture serves a couple of purposes in photography. It gives an image what I think of as touchability. Texture in an image helps us to forget that a photograph is two dimensional, adding depth and helping to make it appear more three dimensional.

It allows us to feel what we see.

So, bearing that in mind, it makes sense that a:

  • Silky smooth texture feels serene and light
  • Rugged texture feels challenging and vibrant

SHAPE element of design in photography

When composing an image you need to look at the world as shapes, rather than as objects.

Shapes are a language in themselves. For example, if I ask you to think of a happy shape, it definitely won’t be pointy or jagged.

  • Circles bring a sense of movement and energy, because they have no end and the viewer’s eye constantly travels around the shape.
  • Squares and rectangles convey stability and if they’re large feel solid.
  • Triangles are dynamic, because of the diagonal lines, so add energy to an image. If they’re upwards facing it also adds a sense of stability, because of the solid horizontal base. On the other hand, downward and sideways facing triangles bring tension, because they don’t feel stable.

When a shape is photographed purely for it’s shape, like a silhouette, the lack of light and shadow play makes it two dimensional.

shape and form design elements
On the left she is lit from the side to create form with deep shadows and on the right the model is lit from behind to create a shape.

FORM element of design in photography

Form is similar to shape, except that by adding light and therefore shadow, it makes a shape feel three dimensional.

So form adds depth to an image.

However the type of shadow that creates the form is important for setting the atmosphere of an image. For example:

  • A photo of a newborn baby should have soft, faint shadows, because a baby is soft, vulnerable and adorable.
  • A dramatic headshot of a “captain of industry” portrays energy and strength, so would have darker shadows for greater tonal contrast and possibly harder edges to the shadows.

SPACE element of design in photography

The space in an image is determined by the presence of the subject.

Where you place the subject in the space and how large the subject is affects the feeling of an image and so can convey different messages.

The easiest example of the impact of subject placement is when using the rule of thirds. If your subject is positioned on the rule of thirds looking:

  • Into the frame, they have space to breathe, room to move and the image feels comfortable.
  • Towards the edge of the image, they are boxed in, which adds tension.

If your subject fills the frame, they’re dominant in the image.

However, if they’re small with a large amount of space around them they appear vulnerable.

line elements in composition
The colors and shapes in this image add to the energy and feeling of movement introduced with the fluttering material and windswept hair. The dancer is dominant in the foreground, which is highlighted by the small buildings in the background.

COLOR element of design in photography

Color is such a powerful element of composition in photography. Not just in photography. Brands spend a huge amount of time and energy on color, because they’re so aware of how color affects our emotions.

However, using color in photography composition isn’t just about dominant warm tones such as red, oranges or tranquil blues and greens. It’s about how the combination of colors in color schemes impacts an image.

The balance of an image can be created or smashed by the choice of colors, as well as the size of the color.

In other words, if a color is dominant, such as red, its visual weight is heavier than blue.

So a small area of red can be balanced out with a large area of blue.

If you had a large area of red and small area of blue the composition would be unbalanced, which is fine if you want to create tension in an image.

Examples of how to use elements of composition in photography

If you recall, at the start of this article I mentioned that while elements of design are the building blocks of an image, the principles of design are the blueprint.

So, bearing this in mind, using the principle of unity in photography as an example, you want all your elements to form a cohesive message.

For example, here are two similar images (a woman walking away) that have very different feelings…

curved lines in design

1. Lighthearted, happy image

Line – delicate verticals of the trees, curved leading line of the road
Tone – light and airy
Texture – soft
Shape – her pose creates a dynamic triangle
Form – defined by rim light on her arm to camera left and hat with flat light on her face
Color – warm, earthy colors
Space – room to move and breathe, moving into the image and inviting the viewer along

tone as a design element

2. Gritty, tense image

Line – diagonal, converging lines that end out of shot
Tone – deep, hard shadows on subject creating contrast
Texture – rough texture on subject
Shape – solid, repetitive rectangles in the background echoing her shape except for one arm creating a triangle
Form – hard light causing hard, deep shadows on the subject
Color – dark, minimal use of color
Space – she’s moving into the image leaving the viewer behind

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If you have any questions about using elements of design in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my design elements tips have helped you to understand how to use elements of composition in photography, share that too.

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