How to use shape in photography composition

Shape is one of the elements of photography that we use to construct an image, so is very important. What’s more, the shapes you choose to use in an image have an effect on the viewer, even if they’re not aware of it.

When you start to see shapes to photograph, instead of objects, you open the door to creativity.

The last 2 photos in this article are perfect examples of how shape photography makes you think differently.

Portrait pose for shape in photography composition

Types of shapes in photography and their meaning

Shapes are an element of photography composition that, like lines in photos, can have different meanings and therefore create different feelings in photos depending on their appearance.

Shapes in photos fall into two categories:

  • Geometric shapes
  • Organic shapes

Let’s take a closer look…

Geometric shapes

These are what we think of when we think of shapes, such as:

  • Circles
  • Squares
  • Triangles

Geometric shapes, like buildings, are generally man made and each shape creates a different type of atmosphere in an image.

Because circles never end, they introduce energy and movement to a photo. The eye is constantly directed around the image.

Squares and rectangles in photos give a feeling of stability and solidity, especially if they’re large.

Upwards facing triangles also convey stability, because of the solid base of the triangle. Downward and sideways facing triangles however don’t, they bring tension, but do still direct the eye in the direction they’re facing.

Like diagonal lines, triangles in photos are dynamic and introduce energy to an image.

Hard and soft geometry in photography

A clearly defined geometrical shape in photos, like a building, is considered hard geometry.

These sorts of geometrical shapes are mostly man made, because of the hard edges. They’re also easy to spot once you start looking for geometrical shapes.

Examples of posing shapes in portrait photography composition
I directed the dancer to reflect the shapes of the environment in her posing… the joy of photographing dancers is their ability to mould their bodies.

Soft geometry in photography is a roughly defined geometrical shape, like a trimmed hedge.

The edges aren’t as stark as hard geometrical shapes. So, of course, you’ll find more soft geometry for photography in nature. Because the shapes aren’t as obvious, you have to look more carefully, until you get used to thinking in shapes rather than objects.

For example, start seeing:

  • Mountain peaks and the converging edges of roads as triangles
  • Doorways, arches and an alley between buildings as a rectangle to frame a subject

To help with posing groups of 2 or more people think of the group in terms of shapes instead of as individuals

Organic shapes

Organic shapes in photos are curved and irregular shapes as they appear in nature.

Leaves example of organic shapes found in nature
Backlit leaves form organic shapes in the roughly rectangular window of light between two branches

Curved shapes in photos, like a meandering road or river, create a calm feeling. The S-curve composition you can create when posing a woman draws the viewer in, leads the eye through the image and encourages it to linger on the way.

Examples of different poses to create shape in composition
On the left she’s posing in an s curve and the eye is slowly drawn into the image. On the right her body forms a diagonal line, which combined with the leading lines of the pier in the distance and curved lines of the boat, directs the viewer’s eye straight to her face and then follows her gaze.

Photography composition ebook

What is shape in photography?

While shape in photography isn’t complex, there’s more than one way to include shapes in photos. Two ways of looking at shape in photography composition are:

  • The actual precise shape of objects
  • The general shape formed by an object or group of objects in an image

To explain this, think of a bunch of grapes hanging on the vine. The hanging bunch of grapes forms a rough triangle shape, but it’s not an actual triangle. The bunch of grapes, however, is made up of circle shaped grapes (or ovals, depending on the type of grape).

But it doesn’t end there. If you were to draw a grape, you’d draw a circle and color it in. When you photograph something, you can capture its shape or its form.

The difference between form and shape in photography

Form and shape are often confused in photography composition, because they seem so similar. 

The difference between shape and form is light, specifically the impact of light on the subject.

Difference between form and shape in photography
On the left she’s lit by my off camera flash, creating form, and on the right I used natural light only from the setting sun behind her, creating a silhouette shape

A silhouette is a shape in photos because it’s two dimensional.

There’s no light shining on the subject from the front or the side to create shadows in the dips and highlights on the bumps. A silhouette photo is either a backlit object, or a dark object against a lighter background.

As soon as the direction of light changes, so that it skims across the surface of a shape from the side, it starts to create definition and form. The play of light and shadow makes the shape three dimensional and it takes on form. It’s no longer a silhouette.

In portrait photography, how you light a person impacts their form, because the shadows created by facial features, the nose in particular, alters their appearance. Changing the lighting from flat lighting to, for example, Rembrandt lighting will define a subject’s features, as well as add depth and interest to an image.

Repeated shapes of bikers form a pattern
There are three layers of shapes in this image. Circles of helmets, rectangles of torsos and triangles of the back of motorbikes. It’s a very busy image, but the repetition of the shapes forms patterns, which establishes a sense of order

How to use shape in photography composition

An image with lots of different shapes feels busy and chaotic, even overwhelming for your viewer.

A collection of different objects with the same shape, however, feels calming. With enough repetition of a specific shape, pattern forms, which in itself is visually interesting and engaging. For example:

  • A silhouetted cityscape of skyscrapers
  • A field dotted with round bales of hay
  • Mountain ranges vanishing into the distance

Examples of using shape in portrait photography

Framing people in photos with rectangle or square shapes in an image creates a sense of order and directs the viewer straight to the main focal point

Even circles can be used to frame people and give an image a sense of motion and energy.

Circular shapes of swings frame the child

The background is also very important in photos, so make sure you take note of it for incorporating shapes in photos to affect the composition feeling.

For example, look for triangles in the background to dissect a photo and create a dynamic feeling.

Example of geometry in photography composition

Posing techniques in portrait photography rely heavily on using shape in composition.

For dynamic composition in portrait photography, arrange a family group into a triangle shape. On lifestyle family photoshoots, keep an eye out for naturally forming poses that are triangular.

Informal family lifestyle pose with triangle composition

For shape photography pay attention to shadows.

Sometimes the shadow of an object is more interesting to photograph than the object itself.  Sometimes it’s just a fun alternative and tells a story.

Couples shadow on the beach creating shapes for photos
I took a typical scene on a British beach and gave it a twist to create a more interesting photo by photographing the subjects’ shadows rather than the subjects themselves
Family pose with triangle composition
A fun moment in a family photoshoot as they made shadow puppets

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3 thoughts on “How to use shape in photography composition”

  1. Hi Jane! This post helped me a lot to understand this concept, because I’m a beginner photographer and sometimes things doesn’t make sense so easily. Thank you!


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