Understanding the 7 formal elements of photography

First published:
September 9, 2020
February 6, 2024

Understanding the 7 formal elements of photography

First published:
September 9, 2020
February 6, 2024

Cover image from Tomáš Hudolin

There are several design elements, known as formal elements, that all photographers should be aware of when thinking about their image compositions

Formal elements are visual features that, when applied, have the potential to transform simple subjects into great shots.

The seven formal elements are commonly known as:

- Line
- Shape & Form
- Pattern
- Tone
- Colour
- Texture
- Space

Paying attention to the formal elements will bring order to your compositions and help you emphasise the most critical aspects of the shot.

Many of the world's most successful photographers base their images around formal elements, and understanding them is essential to developing your photography skills.

This guide will help you familiarise yourself with the formal elements. And together with stunning visual examples from the Picfair community, will show you where and how to use them in your image compositions.

So let's get started:

1 Line

Lines are a great starting point when thinking about formal elements, as they are almost everywhere.

Start by looking for lines in your composition that can guide the viewer through your shot or to a specific focal point. These are known as leading lines.

Your lines don’t necessarily need to be straight, horizontal or vertical; they can be curved, angular, or random too.

Angular lines that converge into a central point, commonly known as a vanishing point, will add perspective to your image. Think of how a straight road or railway line naturally disappears to a central point on the horizon - this is a classic example of a vanishing point.

You can also add lines to your scene by creating entirely new ones. For example, when photographing moving traffic, you can use a slow shutter speed to create a light trail. Learn more about this technique with our dedicated guides to long-exposure photography.

Montage of images showing how line is used in composition
Here are some beautiful examples of prominent lines within a scene. See more here

2 Shape & Form

Regarding shape in photography, this usually means a 2D subject outline. In contrast, form refers to a shape with a more 3D appearance. We've put these two together for this video as one formal element.

Effectively representing shape and form in your compositions can turn objects, landscapes and figures into defined, striking focal points. Using various lighting techniques, such as backlighting, silhouettes, and paying attention to shadows, will help elevate the shapes and forms in your shot.

Montage of images showing how shape and form is used in image composition
These stunning examples all pay attention to shape and form in one way or another to amplify the subject of the scene. Click here for these images and more visuals

3 Pattern

Symmetry and repetition make interesting photographic subjects. And when you start looking, you’ll see a surprising amount of patterns around you in the natural and built environment.

Often flat, even light works well for patterns as it emphasises its repetitive nature equally throughout the shot. But for some patterns that are more 3D in nature, you may want to experiment with a range of lighting setups to help bring them out.

Some of the most striking patterns, such as aerial shots or extreme macro photography, can be those not usually visible to the human eye. But you don’t need to invest in a drone or a fancy macro lens to shoot patterns. Just go out and explore - you’ll be amazed at what you can find in your everyday surroundings!

Montage of images showing how pattern can be used in photography
So many gorgeous patterns to be found - as seen with these examples. More here

4 Tone

Focusing on tone in your image means using variables of contrast and light and dark areas to bring depth to your image.

The tone is fundamental in black-and-white photography, where it should be used to guide the viewer through your image where there is no colour present to focus their attention.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to tone, and we recommend trying different lighting scenarios and contrast levels for your preferred aesthetic.

Montage of images showing different tonal ranges in black and white photography
Click here to see more

5 Colour

A prominent colour in your image - whether it’s a concrete colour block or a set of similar colours that form a palette can make a bold statement in your shot.

Colours can also convey a mood to your image that will be emotive to the viewer. And you could also single out one particular colour to make a striking statement and have it ‘pop out’ of your shot.

Montage of images that feature prominent colours
Images with a particular focus on colour. Click here to see more

6 Texture

Texture in your composition can bring your image to life by giving the viewer a tangible connection with it, and is particularly popular in macro photography. You can draw textures out of all kinds of surfaces and environments. And to do this, you can use a wide range of lighting setups and shoot with a variety of depth-of-field.

Textures are ideal for experimenting - try different setups and see what you like. You can use flat light with the camera head-on to bring out the surfaces of a weathered wall. Or, use backlighting for ripples in dunes, shallow depth-of-field for intricate materials, and long-exposure to get the silky-smooth look of flowing water.

Montage of images that feature an element of texture
Click here to see more stunning texture shots from Picfair photographers

7 Space

Building space into your compositions creates a sense of scale and brings added depth to your shot. It can also provide breathing room for your image's main subject, allowing the viewer to focus on the scene's primary features.

Adding space to your compositions is particularly useful with outdoor photography, where you may want to emphasise the scale of geographical features - such as mountains and bodies of water. However, you can add space effectively when shooting almost any photographic subject.

Montage of images that feature space in their compositons
Click here to see more

A combination of formal elements

Once you've got a good handle on the formal elements and how they work, you can begin to apply them to your shots across many image subjects. And you can enhance your photographs even more by combining multiple formal elements into a single frame.

Montage of images that feature a range of formal elements in their compositons
Click here to see more
Get the hang of formal elements by trying these simple exercises: 

1 Browse the image collections on the Picfair Blog and see if you can find 5 examples of each of the formal elements, and another 5 images where several formal elements make up the composition. You'll be amazed at how quickly you'll be able to spot them!

2 Identify formal elements in your local environment. Explore your home for hidden textures and patterns, or search out interesting shapes outside in your local area. Once you start looking, you'll see the formal elements everywhere.

3 Learn from the Masters of Photography. Pioneering photographers such an Ansel Adams and William Eggleston based their most famous works around the formal elements. They set the bar for some of the world's most compelling images. Many world-famous art institutions such as the V&A and the Met house works from these artists and have online photography collections that you can browse.

Next steps

Now you've reached the end of this video; it's time to get out there with your camera and get familiar with these formal elements around you. Remember to have fun with it!

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