Understanding shape and form is one of the pillars of photography composition, and it can make even the most mundane objects appear to jump off that flat surface.
Grab the object closest to you and run your fingers over the surface. Does the object have a texture? What about a shape? Are the edges rough, or smooth? Straight, or curved?
A photograph will teleport that same object into a two-dimensional world — but despite the absence of a sense of touch and dropping a dimension, that same photograph can still manage to exemplify that object’s shape or even the texture. How?
Line, shape, and form make up half the classic design principles that migrate over into multiple art fields, photography included. But how can a simple shape, a line or a form make an impact in your photography? Understanding the design basics can create stronger compositions, no matter what the subject is.
This article will take you through everything you as a photographer need to know about line, shape, and form in photography composition.
The Classic Design Elements Photographers Should Know
There are six classic design elements — and shape, form and line make up half of them while influencing two more. Here, we’re focusing on three of them, but seeing the big picture of where line, shape and form fit creates a deeper understanding of how everything works together. So what are these six design elements?
Shape: A shape is two-dimensional. Yes, a photograph itself is two-dimensional, but a shape in a photograph doesn’t have any appearance of depth. Often, to make a 3D object appear to have no depth, front or back lighting is used. An object that appears to have depth either through lighting or perspective, is not a shape, but a form.
Form: Objects that appear to have depth, despite being part of a two-dimensional image, are part of the design elements of form. Forms usually appear to have depth through lighting that creates shadows, or by looking at the object from an angle, rather than straight onto one of the edges.
Line: Lines form the edges of shapes, but they also form shapes of their own. Lines can lead the eye in a photograph and serve as a powerful compositional tool.
Pattern: When lines, shapes or forms repeat, they create a pattern. Patterns can create a sense of calm, or, when broken, a sense of unease.
Texture: Texture creates a sense of depth in a two-dimensional image. Texture in photography can also be accentuated by light.
Colour: Colour may not be among the geometrical design elements, but colour is still important. Colour can draw the eye or create a mood.
Types of Shape in Photography Composition
Shape in photography has several different elements — and not the different shapes you learn in elementary school. In photography, shapes can be categorized a few different ways:
Geometric: Geometric shapes have straight, defined edges. In photography, these types of shapes are most common in man-made structures, such as architectural photography.
Organic: Organic structures are full of curves and may not be geometrically perfect. These types of shapes are often most found in nature, the curve of a flower petal, for example.
Positive: A positive shape is what we think of first when we think of a shape. A positive shape is the shape made by an object.
Negative: A negative space is the space leftover — or where the objects in the photo aren’t. A negative space is the crack in a canyon wall, for example, or a shape created from the outline of two positive spaces.
10 Ways You Can Actually Use Line, Shape and Form in Photography Composition
All these concepts and ideas are great, but how do you actually put them into practice? The first step is to understand that the objects that we often just see as their object names aren’t just an object, but a shape, a form or a line.
Recognizing that is the first step — and examining your earlier work and the work of other photographers you admire for line, shape and form is the second step.
Then, to continue building on those foundational concepts, here are a few tips to integrate as you shoot for stronger photography composition.
Understand How Shapes and Form Affect a Photo’s Mood
Just like a certain colour can spark different feelings, shapes, forms, and lines can all contribute to the photograph’s overall feel. Understanding how each element can contribute to a photograph’s mood allows you to adjust the composition, exposure and other elements to exemplify that emotion.
Rounded shapes, like circles and ovals, create a sense of movement because of the lack of corners and edges.
Squares and rectangles and those straight edges and sharp corners, on the other hand, tend to create a felling of stability.
Triangles in photography direct the eye to the point of the triangle. Flip the triangle upside down though, with the point down, and the way the shape doesn’t sit on a proper base creates a feel of being off-balance.
Irregular shapes, where sides are different lengths, can also create a more tense feel in a photograph.
For lines, the direction the line is headed in plays a role in the emotion of the image. Diagonals appear to be going somewhere, so they create a greater feel for movement within the frame. These types of lines also lead the eye towards wherever that line is pointing at. And a leading diagonal line that heads into the distance will give a photograph a sense of depth.
A vertical line, on the other hand, tends to build a feel for strength or stability, while a horizontal line is more generally associated with a calm or peaceful image. Curved lines will create a similar feel as circles and ovals, building a sense of motion.
There Are Elements of Shape and Form You Can’t Change — and Some That You Can
Photographers can’t just say, “I don’t like the stability of that square there” and move the brush to create an entirely different shape. Unless you are dabbling in both photography and graphic arts with some extreme Photoshop manipulation, you can’t exactly change the shapes you see.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t change the role the shape plays in a composition. For example, you can choose to photograph the broadside of the barn to create a rectangular shape, or you can choose to stand at a corner and create diagonal lines and switch from shape to form.
You can choose to photograph a ball as a shape by backlighting the sphere into a dark circle, or you can use side-lighting to switch from shape to form to give the sphere a sense of depth.
When Capturing a 3D World for a 2D Image, Perspective Can Be Everything
From different angles, a 3D form will appear to take on different shapes. A coffee mug, when viewed from the side, is a cylinder, probably with a curved line as a handle. That same cup, from the top down, is a perfect circle. Adjusting your perspective, for many objects, will allow that object to take on more than one shape.
Explore the object from every angle, then choose the shape that intrigues you the most, or perhaps the shape that creates the mood you are working for in the shot.
Again, perspective will also allow you to choose between photographing a shape or a form — shoot straight on for a shape, or move until you can see multiple sides at once for a sense of depth.
Use Light to Create a Greater Sense of 3D Form in a 2D Image
The second way photographers can switch back and forth from shape to form is through light. If you want to emphasize shape, move the light, the object, or your feet until the light is either directly behind or directly in front of the object. That will create either a silhouette or a front-lit shape.
If you’d rather give the object a sense of depth as a form, move instead so that the light is coming in from any angle at the side of the image. The side-lighting will create shadows that help give our brains depth clues when looking at a two-dimensional image.
Play with Shape by Using Different Focal Lengths
The lens you use will play a significant role in the way the shapes look in your image. Wide angle lenses tend to distort straight lines, tilt-shift lenses correct that distortion. But lens choice goes beyond the distortion. The focal length of the lens will either amplify distance or minimize it.
Wide angle lenses will make the distance between objects, or the distance between each of the shape’s edges, appear larger than they really are. A telephoto lens, on the other hand, will make the different shapes appear closer together. That means, if you want two objects to look closer together without actually moving the objects, use a longer lens. To create more distance, use a wider lens.
When working with form, the same concept applies to parts of the same object. If the form includes parts that are closer or farther from the camera — like when posing a person leaning their torso towards the camera — a wide-angle lens is going to make that distance appear much longer, while a telephoto will minimize that difference.
Learn to See Lines
Shapes and forms are strong compositional tools — but that doesn’t mean a single line has any less power. As you look for shapes, look for lines. Look for lines that could lead the eye towards the subject. Learn to spot straight lines that go into the distance and give the viewer a sense of the depth of the scene.
What’s going to portray the feeling of the scene the most, a shape, or a line? The answer will help you determine whether to adjust the composition based on the line, or based on the shapes the line creates.
Don’t Stop at Single Shapes
Chances are, you’re not photographing a single shape on an empty background. While you should certainly consider the subject’s shape, don’t ignore the rest of the shapes in the image.
Are there additional similar shapes that you could use to create a pattern? Are there opposite shapes that create more contrast?
Looking at the shapes, lines and forms in the rest of the scene can help guide your decision on how to frame the shot and what objects to leave out of the image.
Don’t Ignore the Shape That’s Not There
Negative shapes often aren’t as common because they are harder to spot — but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them entirely. When the empty space between two objects creates a similar, instantly recognizable shape, the composition becomes not only stronger, but stands out more from other images of the same subject.
As you are looking at the shapes the objects in the scene creates, look at what’s left in the background too.
How does the line, shape or form balance with the rest of the scene? Is it a small part of the image, or is it the entire image?
Balance is all about what space you leave around that shape, or what space you don’t leave. Experiment by zooming in or switching to a wide angle. How does the feel of that shape change?
A wide-angle shot of a simple geometric shape can create a sense of minimalism, while a close-up of the same shape could bring out both the shape and texture of that item.
Balance can help determine which aspects of the shape or form we’re most drawn to. To exaggerate the perfectly spaced shape in a piece of architecture, for example, try leaving space around the object that’s equivalent to the size of the shape itself.
Build on the emotion of a curvy form by using the rule of thirds, or exaggerate a shape’s perfect symmetry by centring the composition.
Every shape has a role in photography, but because triangles create a point that leads the eye, pay particular attention to them. The viewer’s eye will move towards wherever that triangle is pointing.
Because of that movement, portrait experts often suggest posing a group of people into a triangular shape because the eye will move through the entire group.
Practice Finding Shape, Line, and Form in Photography Composition
As humans, we have a tendency to see things for what they are — not the shape they make. The composition will always be partially influenced by what inspires you as an individual, but learning how to spot and use line, shapes and form in photography can help you adjust that scene that first inspired you in a way that brings the viewer the same sense of awe.