Once you know a number of composition techniques you can start to think about how to fit them together in an image. Planning an image with these techniques in mind will take your photography up a level, and to do this you need to understand the principle of unity in photography.
What is unity in photography?
Unity is a principle of visual design in photography that involves the repetition of certain elements in an image to make it visually pleasing. Employing unity when creating a photo brings all the elements together to make a cohesive, strong image that feels like they all fit together.
Unity as a design principle is not just for photography – it applies to all aspects of design from art to architecture, graphic design and home interiors to name a few …and of course photography as well.
How do you use unity in photography?
When you use unity in photography, you create an image where everything within the image works together to convey a particular message, vibe or atmosphere.
To understand how to use unity in photography, you need to know the elements of photography. If you’re familiar with photography composition techniques, you’ve probably already come across several. They include:
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Then it’s a matter of taking these elements, repeating and combining them in an image so that they fit together, without competing for attention.
If that sounds like gobbledygook, don’t worry, I’ll explain with examples of unity in photography as we go through this tutorial. Like so many things in anything to do with art, you’ve already seen this photography principle in action and you will have felt the impact of good use of unity in photography.
I’ll break it down and you’ll see exactly what I mean so you can start creating images with unity. It’s way less complicated than it sounds!
Two examples of unity in photography that explain better than words
These two photos were taken in the same location, 4 months apart and in very different weather. I also processed them differently in Lightroom to add to the atmosphere.
They have completely different vibes!
Helen’s image is dark and moody while Andreea’s image is more light and airy.
In the first photo you’ll see that:
- The pillars have figures painted on them
- There are puddles of water on the ground, because it was a very wet and windy day
- You can’t see the storm, but you can see how dishevelled Helen’s hair is
- There’s a lot of contrast, because of shadows on Helen caused by light coming from camera left and behind her
- Helen’s expression is tense, confrontational
In the second image:
- The pillars and ceiling have been freshly painted white
- It’s a warm, sunny day and although Andreea’s hair is dishevelled, you can see it’s styled that way rather than blown that way from a storm
- There aren’t a lot of shadows on Andrea, because light is entering the walkway from camera right and behind me
- Andreea’s expression is lighthearted
What elements are affecting the feel of these two images?
If you were to take Helen and place her in Andreea’s photo it just wouldn’t work, and vice versa.
Helen – cool blue tones, emphasized in Lightroom, add to the cold feel in the image
Andreea – warm peachy tones, emphasized in Lightroom, add to the carefree summer feel
Further reading: Why an analogous color scheme in photography works so well
Helen – the black painted figures on the pillars feel like they’re adding texture, added to the discoloration on the ceiling and dark shadows at the base of each pillar. Her features are more defined, because of the light on her face.
Andreea – smooth, bright white pillars and ceiling and no shadows on the pillars. The flat light on Andrea’s face ensures her features are evenly lit.
That is unity in action.
Combining elements for unity
Feel more familiar now? Okay. Let’s take a closer look at how to use elements of composition to create unity.
We won’t look at all the elements that you can use in unity photography. We’ll concentrate on just four:
How to use color, texture and shape to create unity in photography
I get excited about photographing redheads, because of the wonderful color possibilities for composition.
In the photo above of Helen, her hair color worked beautifully as a complementary color to the blue tones of the image. It added a little variety to the color palette. Below, I went all out with warm tones and the image is essentially oranges and black.
I wanted to create an image using the color of Olivia’s hair as a starting point for a very warm toned image.
To add to the fiery orange of her hair:
- I photographed her during the golden hour to maximize the warm orange colors
- We used a beat up old orange bulldozer as a prop
- The orangey brown trim on her jacket picks up the same warm colors
The color and texture of the bulldozer, Olivia’s hair and her jacket trim all match. That’s not to say that they’re exactly the same, but they’re not smooth.
The door handle of the bulldozer ties in with her jewellery – both silver in color, the only smooth textures in the image and with similar shape.
Speaking of shape, there are mainly round and curved shapes in the image. These feature heavily in nature and create a sense of movement.
In the next image the photo is largely black, except for Sophie’s face, framed by the white collar of her shirt, and her reflection. Her dark hair made her perfect for this location and the black leather jacket tied it together.
The sleek texture of the tiles and her leather jacket also add to the unity.
The geometric shapes of the tiles are echoed in the frill of Sophie’s collar and the detail on her jacket. They’re small touches, but add to the tidy, structured feel of the image.
How to use line to create unity in photography
Because color can be distracting, I converted the next two photos to black and white, to emphasize the lines in the image.
The wonderful thing about photographing dancers is that they’re flexible and you can ask them to mimic the lines present in a scene.
While Rochelle looks very elegant in the first photo, in the second photo I really like the way her pose ties in with the architecture, which creates unity between subject and background through line in two ways:
- Diagonal lines on the bottom left are repeated in her arms and legs
- Curved lines of the structure are echoed in the bend of her left arm and leg, the curve from waist to hip to right thigh, and her jawline
Below is the color version of the curvy photo to show the impact of color. Which do you prefer?
Don’t overcomplicate using unity in photography
Using unity in photography doesn’t have to be a big planned effort, you just need to be aware of elements of a scene that can be used to tie the image together.
This is why a thorough understanding of the rules of composition… aka composition techniques… is so important. They give you the building blocks to create an image, rather than just putting someone in nice light in a pretty location and then taking a photo.
So let’s compare two very different photos to demonstrate how quickly you can change the feeling of photo when you’re thinking about unity in photography.
These two photos were taken 8 minutes apart. Same model, same styling. Completely different lighting, backgrounds and colors, which results in very different feelings to the photos.
However, the same elements are used in each photo to create unity: color, texture, shape and line.
- Color – warm tones of the bricks and the golden sun lighting the scene from the front brings out the gold in her hair
- Texture – high contrast of the hard light brings out the rough texture of the bricks and her jacket
- Shape – rectangular bricks
- Line – three lines of dark bricks leading to Jade, as well as the less obvious lines of mixed orange and brown bricks
- Color – cool tones of the shade, the weathered wood and her clothing
- Texture – flat lighting smoothes the texture of weathered wooden slats, as well as her jacket
- Shape – long, thin, rectangular slats
- Line – repetition of nails forms a horizontal line leading to Jade and the slats form alternating broad grey and thin black vertical lines
The first photo feels energetic and the second more serene.
Unity and variety in design
Unity is great, but variety adds interest and prevents monotony. So it can be good to throw a little something into the mix to make a photo more interesting. Just like a red apple in a row of green apples breaks the pattern and draws the eye.
Did you notice the one thing that stood out in the two photos above?
Although the photos feel very different, the impact of the red lipstick is exactly the same in both. It stands out, draws the eye and makes the photo more interesting. If her lips weren’t a lovely shape, the red lipstick would not have been a good idea.
Also, be careful not to add in too much variety as this can then feel a bit chaotic and ruin the unity of the image. Photography is all about balance.
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