Perfect your photography using the seven elements of art
Photography is an art, and like all art forms, seven basic elements make up our images. Although I dispute that number, I think there are eight. Understanding these elements helps us take our creativity to the next level.
The first of these elements is the line. Most of our photographs consist of lines. We use them to guide our gaze around the image, what we call leading lines. They are often confused with introductory lines that lead us to a topic in the frame.
Lines can also act as blockers, preventing the viewer’s eye from moving past a certain point. Horizontal lines across the frame can do just that, and it’s generally considered a bad thing. However, when used intentionally, it can prevent the viewer from noticing a feature beyond the line, thus adding an element of surprise to the photograph. Such images are less pleasant to look at. Personally, however, I like photographs that are thought provoking and require a little thought to be understood.
Shapes are formed by the borders of closed two-dimensional spaces created by one or more lines. We probably learned the basics – circles, triangles, squares – when we were toddlers. As an aside, my favorite name for a shape is the chiliagon, which has a thousand sides. It is not the named shape with the most sides; the myriagon has ten thousand sides and the megagon one million. However, most of us would probably recognize up to an octagon without having to count the sides.
Shapes can give meaning to an image. For example, the circle can be used to represent equality and unity, as well as the ideas of wholeness and infinity. Triangles, on the other hand, are sometimes used to represent strength. This is why triangles are used a lot in construction.
In photography, we can use shapes for symbolism, as artists and designers have done through the ages. However, the meaning of the shapes can be influenced by cultural differences. Five- and six-pointed stars will have very different meanings in different cultures, depending on nationality, ethnicity, and political or religious beliefs. Step back in time before the 1920s and there was a form that had been used for millennia by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains. In Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, this form was synonymous with well-being. Then he was irrevocably hijacked by the most evil regime in human history. It was, of course, the swastika.
Shape refers to a three-dimensional shape. To represent form in a photograph, which is two-dimensional, we rely heavily on the nature of light and its ability to illuminate and cast shadows. Therefore, we refer to gray, overcast daylight as flat, because everything in a photo appears to have no depth due to this uniform lighting. Under flat light, form returns to form, and so the separation of subjects can be lost.
In the photos above, you can see that even a little diffused light adds shape to the posts in the second image. The first is shot in even light and the entire image appears flatter. Compare that with the very first photo at the top of this article. There, the light is even stronger and more inclined. Therefore, the posts to the left of the frame show more form.
The clarity and darkness of subjects are at the forefront of most photographers’ minds. This element is known in the art as value, but in photography we usually call it luminosity. We give brightness numbers, with black being 0 and white being 255. Medium gray is 127. Contrast occurs when areas of the photo have different brightnesses.
You’ll see the luminances applied to the letters RGB, which represent the colors red, green, and blue.
So, color is the next element. By mixing red, green and blue in different proportions and with all available luminosities, we get a wide range, or range, of colors. 256 (red) x 256 (green) x 256 (blue) = 16,777,216 possible combinations, or shades. We have named just over 9,000far too many for me to remember, so precise numbers are essential.
Colors can also vary in intensity or saturation. Therefore, HSL (hue, saturation, and lightness) adjustments are available when we develop and edit photos.
Like shapes, colors can also have symbolic meanings, and sometimes these can be contradictory.
Red can be the color of love and war. Red lips and red eyes evoke very different feelings. A day in red letters is very different from the letter you receive in red for an unpaid bill. We may be green with envy, but we want companies to have strong green credentials. Second, the emotions evoked by a blue sea and sky are not what we would associate with having the blues.
Let’s move boldly to the element of space. This falls into two categories: positive and negative.
Photographers talk a lot about negative space, that is, the space that is around and between the subject. Sometimes the negative space forms a more interesting shape than the subject itself. Therefore, it can be used to challenge the understanding of a photograph and, like the blocking lines I mentioned earlier, can be used to delay the realization of the image’s purpose. It can also be used to juxtapose two different ideas within the same photo.
Positive space is the opposite of negative space and is where the area of interest is in the photograph.
Together, positive and negative spaces are usually positioned consistently with one of several rules of composition. Unwarranted criticism sometimes targets photos with too much negative space. However, used correctly, it can be a powerful compositional tool.
The final recognized artistic element is texture. In our mind, we can design how an object feels by its texture. Softness reflects light evenly, while rough textures do the opposite and scatter reflected light. Between these two are matte surfaces.
All of these often work best in photos when contrasts are present: light and dark, complementary colors such as orange and blue, curved and straight lines, simple and complex shapes, small and large shapes, positive space and negative, and rough and smooth textures. These are just some of the contrasts proposed by Johannes Itten, the famous tutor of the Bauhaus school, whom I wrote about in an article last May.
But what about the other artistic element that I think was wrongly excluded from the list. That’s the only point. It is the basis of all visual elements, a singularity in space and, geometrically, the place where two lines meet. It is something that stands alone in its category and therefore cannot be contrasted with other points like lines, shapes and forms can. Nevertheless, it can create contrasts with any of the other elements.
As usual, this is just a brief introduction, just scratching the surface of this topic. If you wonder about the use of this knowledge, integrating the ideas of these elements into our subconscious will help us discover new compositions. To achieve this, I encourage photography students to treat each element as a subject for a practice photoshoot. This will help you become aware of how artistic elements can impact the structure of photographs.
I hope you found this useful, and I’ll expand on this further in a future post. It would be great to hear your thoughts on this topic below.