How form in photography brings subjects to life

Form in photography is where light and shape collide to create images with depth and what I like to think of as touchability. Form makes an image lifelike, so the photo stands out, because the viewer feels that they can reach in and touch the person or object.

To create depth in a photo, you need form.

What is form in photography?

Form is an element of design in photography composition, along with shape, color, line, space and texture.

Like all elements of design, it works to get the viewer’s attention, then helps them understand the photo.

Hard light casting hard shadows reduces form

When a shape in a photo takes on form, it becomes three dimensional. The magic ingredient of form is light – specifically the highlights and shadows it creates when it hits an object.

Our eyes are used to deciphering objects by the way light falls on them, because whenever light hits anything it creates shadows.

Sometimes the shadows are longer, deeper or harder. Sometimes shadows are barely noticeable, which is when form is less pronounced.

Lack of form in a photo makes an object appear as flat as it actually is on a two dimensional piece of paper or screen.

Difference between form and shape

To really understand form, you need to understand the difference between shape and form – how a simple shape takes on form.

Shape in photography

Shape in photography is two dimensional. There’s no depth to the object.

A perfect example of shape in photography are silhouette photos. The subject is backlit, and all you can see is the outline of the subject – the shape. They have no tonal range (light and dark areas) defining their features, they’re simply a solid, blacked out shape.

Silhoutte shape of pregnancy bump

Silhouette maternity photograph showing shape. The only depth in the photo is where the light falls on her hand and arm.

Form in photography

Form appears three dimensional, even in a two dimensional format (i.e. a photo).

It’s shape with light added so that we can see curves and contours brought out by the tonal range. Because of this the subject/object has depth, which is what makes it appear three dimensional and touchable.

Side lighting accentuating form of pregnant woman

The light coming from the side and slightly behind her accentuates her bump by adding form. The fall off of light to shadow around the curve of her belly makes this image three dimensional.

Form and shape in a nutshell

It’s as simple as this…

  • a circle is a round shape
  • add light, from the side in particular
  • and it becomes a three dimensional sphere, a ball
  • which is form

How to see form for photography

If you convert an image to black and white it’s easier to see the fall off of light on a subject, because your eyes won’t be distracted by color. In other words, you’ll see the transition from light to dark better. For this reason black and white is ideally suited to minimalist photography that concentrates on bringing out the form in a subject.

I always think it’s better to learn by doing. So, to learn how to control form in photography, it’s helpful to:

  • Set your camera to photograph in black and white
  • While you shoot, refer to the LCD screen on your camera to see how the light affects form
  • Make adjustments to the position of your subject as you go

On the other hand, with color removed from a photo, there’s a lack of information to help us decipher the image. So, for beautiful black and white photos, you have to pay extra attention how light hits your subject to bring out tonal variation.

Golden hour light accentuates form with soft shadows

Scroll down slightly to see this photo in color. You’ll notice that the shadows are less obvious than in this black and white version.

How quality of light affects form in photography

Quality of light refers to how soft or hard light is, not whether it’s good or bad. It’s the same for both natural light and flash.

How soft light affects form

When the sun is blocked by clouds, your shadow becomes fuzzy around the edges. This is soft light, which is perfect for creating form in photography. That is, as long as it isn’t so soft that it becomes flat, like on those heavily overcast days when you have no shadow.

With soft light the transition from light to dark is gradual, and this gives visual clues to help use identify the object. Just like when drawing, the shading is what makes the form three dimensional.

To soften flash light, create diffused lighting by adding layers of diffusion, with light modifiers such as softboxes instead of bare bulb flash. A handheld diffuser is also great for softening natural light if there’s no shade nearby in which to place your subject.

Tonal range of golden hour light in color photo less visible

Clouds were blocking the low sun, so the diffused light caused a gradual fall off from highlight to shadow.

How hard light affects form

Hard light is not at all diffused. So when it hits an object, it casts hard shadows with very definite edges, like your shadow on a cloudless day.

Because the shadows are so definite, hard light is not as effective at bringing out form in photography.

Tonal range is more visible in black and white photos

Moments before the clouds blocked the sun. Here the direct sunlight has caused hard shadows.

Direction of light to bring out form

I mentioned that backlighting a subject creates a silhouette. Well, when you light a subject from the front, it also doesn’t create form, because front lighting doesn’t result in many shadows from the subject’s features (in portrait photography this would be nose, cheekbones, brow etc).

The best direction of light for lighting subjects to accentuate form in photography is to use various degrees of side lighting. In other words, the light should be somewhere off to the side of the subject.

Download the lighting clock cheat sheet to help with using side lighting.


When light skims over a surface, it creates shadows in the dips and it’s these shadows that help the viewer to see the subject in three dimension.

So, as long as the light is to the side of the subject, it can come from slightly behind or slightly in front of the subject. How far round the light is positioned will determine the direction and length of the shadows, and also add to the tonal contrast of light and dark in the image.

Flat lighting with minimal form

This photo was taken on a very overcast day, just after sunset. As a result, the light was very flat and shadows were almost non-existent.

Using natural light and flash for form in photography

If using natural light, photographing in the golden hour is ideal for form in photography. The soft, low light creates softer shadows that’ll wrap around your subject’s contours and therefore accentuate form.

Just turn your subject so that the sun is to their side to take advantage of the low angled sunlight.

If using flash to light a subject, mimic the low position of the sun in the sky at golden hour. This will light your subject from slightly above at a good angle for side lighting to create form in photos.

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If you have any questions about what is shape and form in photography, let us know in the comments.

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