Design elements are the basic components of visual design. These elements include line, shape, color, form, texture, pattern, space, scale and balance.
Often, one or more of these elements appear in images impacting their aesthetic appeal. Good use of design elements can turn a simple scene into a striking photograph. Based on your objective, you could focus on just one or more of these elements to achieve the aesthetic qualities you want.
In this guide, we discuss the nine elements of design and how you can use them to enhance your photography.
Lines are the most influential of all elements of design, without which there can be no shape or form. A line can be thin, thick, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or curved.
Different lines will convey different emotions. Thin lines tend to feel unstable and vulnerable. Thick lines, on the other hand, are experienced as dominating and stern. Therefore, viewers are likely to attach less importance to thin lines as opposed to thick lines.
The direction of lines is equally important in conveying emotions. Horizontal lines are associated with feelings of peacefulness and serenity. They are reminiscent of large landmasses and peaceful horizons which brings visual comfort.
Vertical lines, on the other hand, tend to appear more active or somewhat aggressive. They typically exude strength, as they denote size and height. Diagonal lines evoke feelings of activity, movement, and speed. They tend to indicate action and feel more dynamic than horizontal, vertical or straight lines. Diagonal lines can introduce a sense of action even for a scene that is otherwise dull or static.
Curved lines are usually perceived as soft, restful and gentle. They are typically soothing to the viewer. Conversely, jagged lines come across as forceful, chaotic, and sometimes even threatening.
Using Lines in Your Composition
Lines are what artists use to create outlines and edges in their works. As it is, a line at the edge of an object will indicate where it stops and where another begins. The ability to create these borders is what makes lines one of the most functional design elements.
Your task as a photographer is to identify these lines and capture them in an angle that best brings out your intended message.
If you are looking to register emotions of gentility, find curves in your subject. Natural curves can make even the hardest material, like the slot canyon below, appear soft and beautiful. These curvilinear lines can be found on rivers, dunes, surfs, and more.
To evoke feelings of restfulness, permanency, and stability, you’ll want to make the most of the horizontal lines. Consider shooting in locations such as beaches, lakes, and rivers.
To further accentuate the relaxing feelings associated with horizontal lines consider using horizontal framing in your photos.
Used in a photograph, vertical lines such as buildings, poles, and trees can convey moods ranging from growth to power.
Take a look at the images of trees below.
Though we know that the trees on the left are tall, we don’t quite get the powerful feeling of height that we should. The strong impressions of vertical lines are subdued by the broad horizontal lines present on the ground. If you look at the composition on the right, however, you get a better feeling of height and majesty.
Keep in mind that by altering the angle from which you capture lines, you can significantly change the overall mood and feel of an image.
As a photographer, being conscious of the feelings associated with various lines allow you to manipulate the emotional impact of any photo.
When you pay attention to the emotional value of lines, you can succeed in creating images that convey the message you want. Think of what you want to communicate and how the characteristics of lines can help you better tell your story.
Every object has a unique shape. Any of these shapes can be classified into one of three basic shapes – circles, squares, and triangles.
Of the three basic shapes, the circle is the most visually friendly. It tends to evoke a sense of comfort and harmony. Similarly, squares tend to be quite comfortable. Unlike circles though, squares generally have solidity and appear more visually stable. The triangle is the only shape that contains a diagonal line, which makes it the most dynamic of all.
Shapes are easily recognizable, even from just their silhouettes. If you squint, you can quickly analyze an image and recognize the shape(s) in it. Squinting simplifies a scene into a series of general shapes which allow you to make better compositional decisions.
Using Shapes in Photography
When capturing shapes, they should be familiar enough for the viewer to identify without additional information. You should also consider the outlines and positioning of your subject as key aspects of the composition.
Let’s use the photo above as an example. If you look at the cheetah on the right, you can see that its shape is well communicated. That is, it is easy to distinguish what it is simply by looking at its silhouette.
Now let’s look at the tourists on the left side of the image. Although we can deduce that we are looking at a group of men, their shapes are poorly communicated. Their overlapping silhouettes make it difficult for us to understand what it is we see at first glance.
Your work as a photographer is to identify the natural shapes in your scene and see how to apply them to your composition to support your message.
Form is how we refer to three-dimensional objects. It is realized when the light hits an object and puts a part of it in shadow.
The direction of light plays a crucial role in establishing form. Side lighting is excellent at accentuating the form of an object. This lighting angle emphasizes form by providing a gradual shift between highlights and shadows. This progressive shift gives a better illustration of depth.
Like shapes, different forms evoke different emotional responses. However, form is likely to communicate a stronger message than shapes. When the form of a subject is revealed, visual storytelling is amplified.
Different angles of light will change an objects form, aesthetics, and how we feel about it. When communicating form through your photo, you’ll want to pay attention to your light source.
Form is often best communicated when the sun is somewhere low on the horizon. For example, the low angle of the sun in the image below accentuates the three-dimensionality of the rocks formations.
Form is never fully revealed when the subject is front-lit. Neither will form be shown when your subject is backlit. Backlighting will not reveal your subjects three-dimensionality, but would only serve to reveal its two-dimensional shape.
Note that any slight change in light and shadows will alter the way volume and depth of an object are revealed. As such, when a composition lacks volume and depth, examine the light and make sure it’s being cast at the side of your subject(s).
The best way to put all these things into clear perspective is to go out and shoot. Study how different directions of light influence your subject and alter the general mood of your photo.
Designers use color in several ways to enhance their designs. Often, they use color harmonies to create color combinations that are pleasing to the eye. They also use color temperatures to emphasize depth and guide the viewer’s eyes to different objects within their design. Just like designers, photographers can utilize color to enhance their photographs.
Color harmonies are combinations of colors that when combined are said to be aesthetically pleasing and harmonious. Designers often use color harmonies to help them create attractive designs. Below are a few of the color harmonies you can use when working on your photo.
Complimentary colors are opposite to each other on the color wheel. In their nature, complementary colors are high in contrast and draw maximum attention. Complementary colors work well when pairing warm colors with cool colors. To use complementary colors effectively, one should be more saturated than the other for a balanced effect.
Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. When using analogous colors, choose one dominant color and one color immediately to its sides. The smooth combination of these colors is said to be pleasing to the eye.
Triadic colors are equally distant from one another on the color wheel. These colors are believed to create a balance of contrast and colors when combined. Triadic is hard to measure in real life but there are tools online and photo editing software to help you get the right distance.
Colors are generally classified into two temperature groups: warm and cool. Warm colors can generate feelings of excitement and happiness. Conversely, cool colors tend to create feelings of relaxation and loneliness.
You can use the color wheel to easily separate these two categories. The colors red, orange, and yellow are generally perceived as warm, while green, blue and purple are seen as cool.
To create a serene, calming effect, a designer would usually go for cooler colors. On the other hand, if they want to come up with a more lively and inviting feel, they would use warmer colors.
Applying the color theory in photography
Unlike designers, photographers are usually limited in the range of colors available to them. Often, photographers have to work with whatever it is that they have in the scene. Nonetheless, photographers can apply the same methods used in a design.
One of the most useful ways to implement the color theory in your photos is by using color harmonies.
Let’s look at the images below as an example. Though the content of these images is largely similar, they differ in the emotions they evoke. That is because the left image consists primarily of cool tones, while the right image consists primarily of warm tones.
Utilizing warm colors in your composition would make your photos feel much more inviting and lively. On the other hand, using images with cool colors will make them feel more calming and serene.
Color temperature and depth
Color temperature influences how we perceive depth.
Let’s look at the images below as an example. Notice that the hallway with a red (warm) wall appears shorter than the hallway with a blue (cool) wall. Objects with warm color palettes tend to advance, while objects with cool color palettes tend to recede in the background.
Color temperature also influences the order in which we look at objects in an image. Our eyes naturally gravitate towards warm colored objects before cool ones.
Shooting a cool colored subject against a warm colored background will distract the attention from the subject to the background. The warm colors of the background will naturally push the cool colored subjects back. It helps to place warm colors on or around desired focal points in your image to entice viewers to see them first.
Using color temperature can be a great way to use colors to guide the viewer’s eye across your image. Keep in mind, however, that the relative brightness and saturation of colors is just as important as their hue. Regardless of color temperature, the brightest object in an image will naturally grab the attention of the viewer first.
Texture is one of the most powerful design elements for evoking emotions. It tells us what an object might feel like. Texture can be smooth, rough, furry, sharp, prickly, and more. It can add depth, character, and realism to an object.
How well you see, and capture texture will be based on light. Overhead light or sidelight can significantly accentuate texture.
For example, bright sunlight will generally accentuate the roughness by revealing details and casting small shadows along surfaces.
Texture can also add depth to your image. Objects that have a lot of texture will appear closer to the viewers than objects that have less texture. Objects that have a lot of texture are also generally more visually arresting than objects that are lacking texture.
To create exciting compositions incorporate textures as a background. Alternatively, you could use a variety of textures to lead the viewer’s eye to different areas of the photo.
Pattern, like other elements of design, has emotional applications. Because patterns are predictable, it evokes a sense of consistency and reliability. The viewer is likely to feel safe and secure when looking at a photo with effective use of pattern in it.
There are two ways in which pattern are often used in design as well as in photography.
One is to emphasize the pattern(s) by letting it fill up the frame. You can achieve this effect by zooming in so that it is the dominant feature in the photo. A line of similar flowers, a group of trees with homogenous trunks, or a group of people with umbrellas on a rainy day would make for an excellent pattern to photograph.
Alternatively, you can use an object that disrupts the continuous flow of the pattern within a scene. This can be an object that contrasts from the characters in the pattern in terms of color, shape, form or texture.
One way to render a broken pattern is to alter your depth of field and place the contrasting object in sharp focus, letting what is around it slowly faint into the background.
The world is full of patterns; some are easily recognizable while others are not. It is the role of the photographer to identify these patterns in every scene to compose compelling images.
Designers use negative space to provide tension and breathing space for their viewers.
Negative space can encourage viewers to linger and explore more of a design. It also helps provide the viewer’s eyes room to rest. Too little negative space can result in a design being too being busy and distracting.
Photographers can apply these ideas in their compositions in the same way.
Less is usually more with regards to the use of space in photos. Too much crowding in a composition can overwhelm and confuse the viewer.
Including an open space around your subject would make it stand out even if it takes only a small amount of space within the frame. This would be a good use of space to guide the viewer’s eye to your focal point.
Space can also arouse the curiosity of the viewer and encourage them to examine more of the image. In this way, though designs with sufficient space are usually simple, they often prove to be quite rewarding for the viewer.
Designers use scale to emphasize and draw the viewers attention to specific elements. Large objects attract more attention than smaller ones.
By making an element within your scene appear larger than other elements you enhance its significance and make it the natural focal point.
Let’s take the images below as an example.
The image on the left has a building that is larger than the rest. Thus, your focus directly goes to that building before navigating the rest of the image. The image on the right, however, is lacking this feature; the focal point is not clear.
Though the same building is present in both images, they tell very different visual stories.
9. Symmetry and Balance
Placing your subject at the exact center of a composition is often discouraged in photography. This is because perfect symmetry often tends to make a photo feel static.
The symmetry has the overall effect of suppressing the energy in a picture, which makes the eye less likely to explore the rest of the image.
The opposite of that is an asymmetric layout which tends to feel more active and alive. An unbalanced composition is said to exude feelings of energy and movement, which makes the photo more appealing to the eye.
To create a sense of asymmetry, it is often encouraged to have the main subject of an image off the center.
The value of asymmetry in photography is represented in compositional rules such as the rule of thirds, golden ratio and the rule of odds.
Notice that asymmetry and the lack of balance are not the same. A balance should be present whether an image is asymmetrical or symmetrical.
Any glaring imbalance in an image disturbs the eye, giving the impression that everything is toppling over. Such an image can be unappealing to look at.
So, while composing your images, go for asymmetrical layouts while striving to achieve equilibrium through careful manipulation of elements – creating a rather dramatic form of balance.