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How to Use the 7 Principles of Art and Design in Photography

Have you ever wondered how elements of a photograph come together to form a successful image? In this article we’ll look at how to use the 7 principles of art and design. These principles of design will help you create better more interesting images.

What Are the 7 Principles of Art and Design?

The 7 principles of art and design are balance, rhythm, pattern, emphasis, contrast, unity and movement. Use the elements of art and design – line, shape/form, space, value, colour and texture – to create a composition as a whole.
The elements of art and design are the tools of visual artists. The principles of art and design represent how an artist uses these tools to create visual art.
By applying the 7 principles of art and design, photographers can create a cohesive image grounded in the foundations of art theory.
Let’s take a closer look at each principle.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam - using the principles of design in photography
Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam demonstrates a keen understanding of the 7 principles of art and design. Image from Wikimedia Commons

7. Balance

Balance is used to illustrate the visual weight of an image. It can either unite a photograph or create division. A carefully balanced image lends a sense of stability to a photograph. An unbalanced image creates disunity or unrest.
Both applications are okay, depending on the desired outcome.
You can achieve balance in three ways:

  • Symmetry – both sides of an image reflect the same subject matter, like a mirror image.
  • Asymmetry – contrasting elements balance the image. For example, a highly textured surface on one side of an image, counterbalanced by a smooth, matte surface on the other.
  • Radial symmetry – elements spaced equally around a central point, like spokes on a wheel.

Balance is sensual in that it ‘feels’ wrong or right. If you’re looking to emphasise balance in an image, try moving your camera to achieve different perspectives.
You can also try photographing different fields of texture and colour. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little.

A black and white photograph of a bridge which demonstrates using the principle of art and design in photography
The symmetrical balance in this photograph of a bridge creates depth and leads the viewers eye through the image. Photo by Michael Drexler on Unsplash

6. Rhythm

In many ways, composition in music is very similar to composition in photography. The photographic concept of rhythm borrows heavily from music theory.
Just like a musician reading the notes on a sheet of music, subjects in a space regulate the way we view a photograph.
Rhythm dictates the recurring or organised/disorganised distribution of visual elements throughout a image.
To introduce a sense of rhythm to your photography, try visualising musical notation.
A still life photograph of flowers which demonstrates the principles of design in photography
The spaces, correlations and differences between subjects in a photograph like this one reflect notes on a sheet of music.

5. Pattern

Pattern makes sense of the visual world through regularity. From man-made objects to organic material and abstraction.
Elements of design can be organised in a predictable manner to form pattern. Put simply, patterns are repetitions of the elements of art and design. These work in unison within a single frame.
The human eye is calibrated to seek out pattern. This can evoke surprising emotional reactions from a viewer.
Patterns are an active principle of art and design, they lift an image off the page. Incorporating pattern into your photography is as much about exploring as it is about photographic technique.
Try looking out for architectural and urban features or organic subjects like flowers. Once you start looking, you will be amazed by the abundance of patterns around you.

Pastel colored patterned tiles - principles of design in photography
Pattern lifts an image off the page, transforming a 2D image into 3D work of art. Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

4. Emphasis

Emphasis shapes the centre of interest in an image. Colour, space, texture and line work together to determine the focus of an image.
There are many ways to create emphasis in a photograph. Spacial emphasis involves the orientation of a subject within the photographic frame.
A lone subject located in the centre of an image will attract attention. It is the most readily available component of the photograph.
For a photograph with a number of subjects, selective grouping guides the viewers eye to particular focal points.
The size of a subject also dictates the way the viewer will ‘read’ a photograph. A larger subject suggests a closeness to the surface of the photograph. It commands greater attention than that of a smaller subject in the background.
Incorporating size tells a story about the physicality of the subjects in a photograph, adding depth and perspective.
Colour is another tool that can cultivate emphasis. A brightly coloured subject within a dark scene gives a sense of vibrancy and life to an image. It draws the viewer’s eye.

A small yellow flower in a dark forest - using the principles of art and design in photography
Photo by Matthew Smith on Unsplash

3. Contrast

Contrast is created when two or more opposing elements are present in a photograph. Light against dark, warm against cool.
But contrast includes physical elements too. Texture is another way to utilise the principle of contrast in photography. Including two or more textures in a photograph not only introduces tactility, it creates a sense of place.
A round water droplet resting on the fuzzy tendrils of a plant is an example of textually contrasting subject matter.
Contrasting subject matter brings narrative to a photograph. You can also try juxtaposing attributes like sharpness and softness, old and new or curved and straight.

An abstract street photography shot demonstrating contrast - principles of design in photography
Photographing contrasting attributes plays with our understanding of the world around us. Photo by Alex Rodríguez Santibáñez on Unsplash

2. Unity

Unity describes the visual relationship between elements in a photograph. It helps create a cohesive image.
Using similar colours or tones, concepts or elements cultivates a sense of unity.
Disunity is the opposite. Bad cropping, awkward perspectives or over and underexposure disrupt an image and can cause disunity.
Another aspect that underlies a unified image is the clear idea of a photographic outcome. A photographic outcome, or goal, is the idealised mental image of a photograph before it’s taken.
By pre-visualising an outcome, a photographer can develop a clearer idea of the purpose of a photograph. This in turn allows a photographer to take greater control of the image.

A pile of rocks outdoors, demonstrating unity in photography - principles of art and design
Totally Zen. Unity in photography is achieved through the conscientious use of the principles of art and design. Photo by Sean Stratton on Unsplash

1. Movement

The term ‘movement’ in photography often describes the relationship between the camera’s shutter speed and a subject. When it comes to art and design, movement refers to the path the viewer’s eye takes while reading a photograph.
Movement is shaped by the elements and principles of art and design. A photographer can take control the way a viewer absorbs a photograph.
For example, the use of line in photography creates ‘visual highways’ that guide a viewer’s eye.
Jagged lines create excitement, shifting the viewer’s gaze from one point to the next. Curved lines are more subtle. These reduce the speed at which a photograph is viewed.
Understanding the nature and psychology of human sight is an important part of controlling movement. For example, the human eye is more sensitive to certain colours over others.
Red is attention-grabbing. Soft blues are gentler and more subtle. Movement can be directed through the selective use of colour and saturation.
There are a lot of different ways to guide the viewer’s eye through a photograph. Movement studies the nature of the eye as well as the psychology behind how we absorb visual information.

The eye of a female model looking through a gap in a large green leaf - principles of art and design in photography
Shaped by the principles of art and design, movement is the path the eyes travel around an image. Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

Conclusion

The 7 principles of art and design in photography; balance, rhythm, pattern, emphasis, contrast, unity and movement, form the foundation of visual arts.
Using the 7 principles allows you to take greater control of your photographic practice. This will lead to better photos and more photographic opportunities.

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