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 photo in this article is a perfect example of how shape photography makes you think differently.
Types of shapes in photography and their meaning
Shapes in photos fall into two categories:
- Geometric shapes
- Organic shapes
Let’s take a closer look…
These are what we think of when we think of shapes, such as:
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 are 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 will mostly be man made, because of the hard edges. They’re also easy to spot once you start looking for geometrical shapes.
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 as shapes instead of as individuals
Organic shapes in photos are curved and irregular shapes as they appear 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.
On the left she is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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