Line and shape are two essential elements of composition photographers employ to create great photos. Here's why!
Take a look at this photo. It’s a classic view of the Hohensalzburg Fortress made from the iconic Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg, Austria.
But there’s more to this photo than a pretty postcard view encompassing some of Salzburg’s most iconic tourist locations.
While looking to make an interesting photo I became aware of the underlying structure upon which the garden was created.
I decided to make a straight documentary photo that showcased that design.
How To Use Line And Shape In Your Photos
You’ll notice the proliferation of shapes throughout the image.
- The slightly semi-circular bed of yellow flowers in the immediate foreground.
- The rectangular, square and circular shapes within the buildings and trees.
Now take a look at the rectangular shape formed by the otherwise nondescript path.
It’s not just a vacant space. The path has a critical role in moving people through the landscape in a safe and orderly manner.
But that’s only the beginning of the important role this seemingly humble path serves, both to the garden and to this photo.
It acts as avisual pathway that leads the eye through the image. In doing so it helps to create the illusion of three dimensional space within the bounds of the two dimensional photograph.
It separates the lawn and flowerbeds on either side of the space, adding a nice sense of order and symmetry to the garden.
But it also functions as a line that leads the eye from the bed of flowers in the foreground to the fountain in the centre of the image.
The function of the fountain, from the point of view of composition, is to lead the eye upwards to the distant fortress on the hilltop overlooking Salzburg.
It’s amazing how an otherwise banal feature, like a simple garden path, can be so important to a formal garden and also to a photo.
Now that, my friend, is composition.
Introducing Composition Into Your Photography
Here’s how to make a photo that’s underpinned by good composition.
- Be aware of the most common elements of composition like color, line, shape, texture, balance and repetition.
- Identify these elements in the work of your favorite photographers and see if you can find them in some of your own photos.
- From now on try to incorporate one or more elements of composition into your photos.
People often talk about discovering a simple, actionable tip that will take their photography to the next level.
Well, here it comes.
It’s a super tip that I know works a treat. I didn’t event it, but I figured it out many years ago and have used it in my own photography ever since. As a result the composition in my photos has improved dramatically.
Let’s image you’re photographing a family portrait. When working with people it’s critically important that emphasis be placed upon them.
In a family portrait it’s the people’s faces that are important. That makes you work hard to ensure the following:
- They’re well lit
- They’re looking at the camera
- Their eyes are open and they’re displaying a pleasing expression
Ultimately it’s all about achieving a pleasing likeness of the people you’re photographing. There’s lots of things you can do beyond that. But, in most cases, if their faces don’t look good you’re in trouble.
Okay, but beyond those fundamental aspects of light and expression, let’s look at how you might approach the composition of that family portrait.
When it comes to composing the image inside my camera’s viewfinder I find it helpful, just for a moment, to stop thinking about who it is I’m photographing.
When I’m thinking about composition I’m thinking about those elements like color, line, shape and texture.
Heroic composition constructed around circles and triangles at the Arc de Triomphe.
For the sake of this discussion let’s replace the word face with head. Heads are, somewhat, circular in shape and the best way to organise a series of circles is into a larger triangular shape.
That’s right I’m suggesting that you compose a family portrait, or any other group shot, around the notion of circles placed into a triangle.
See how well this idea works in this photo of a group of statues at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It’s absolute full of circles that have been arranged into triangles.
Why don’t you see how many you can find.
The best thing is that it doesn’t matter if it’s an equilateral triangle or not. Either way it’s better than organizing those people into a straight line, which is what amateur photographers usually do. Right?
What you’ll end up with is a professional looking image that’s based around the notions of cohesion and harmony.
And this same composition tip works just as well when photographing flowers, similarly sized industrial parts or cup cakes.
Composition Underpins A Formal Garden
Next time you visit a formal garden, or a major city monument, look to see how pathways are used to visually connect important features within that space and beyond.
Such places are special. They neither contain the chaotic beauty of nature, nor the tamed beauty of a rambling English garden.
A formal garden has its own, unique beauty. It’s an ordered and constructed beauty, but it’s beauty all the same.
By paying special attention to composition, when photographing formal gardens, you can both celebrate and better appreciate the inherent structure that underpins their design.