In photography, there are several essential design elements, commonly 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 in composition, have the potential to transform simple subjects into great shots.
The 7 formal elements are:
- Shape & Form
Paying attention to the formal elements will bring order to your compositions - and will also help you emphasise the most critical aspects of the shot.
Many of the world's most successful photographers base their images around the formal elements, and having a good understanding of 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 you can use them in your image compositions.
So let's get started...
Lines are a great starting point when thinking about formal elements as they can be found almost everywhere.
Start off 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, you can use a slow shutter speed to create light streaks when photographing moving traffic. You can learn more about this technique with our dedicated guide on long exposure photography.
2 Shape & Form
When referring to shape in photography, this usually means a 2D outline of a subject. Whereas form is referring to a shape that takes on more of a 3D appearance. For the purpose of this article, we've put these two together as one formal element.
Effectively representing shape and form in your compositions can turn objects, landscapes and figures into defined, striking focal points. By using a range of lighting techniques, such as backlighting, silhouettes, and also paying attention shadows, will help elevate the shapes and forms in your shot.
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 can be those not usually visible to the human eye - such as aerial shots or extreme macro photography. 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!
Concentrating on tone in your composition is to use variables of contrast, and light and dark areas to bring depth to your image.
The tone is fundamental in black and white photography. It should be used to guide the viewer through your image where there is no color present to focus the attention of the viewer.
Practice makes perfect when it comes to tone, and for inspiration, take a look at some of the visuals below.
These photographers have used a variety of contrast levels and lighting techniques to bring out a tonal range in their image subjects. We recommend trying lots of different lighting scenarios and contrast levels to see what aesthetic you prefer.
A prominent color in your image - whether it’s a concrete color block, or a set of similar colors that form a palette can make a bold statement in your scene.
Colors can also convey a mood to your image that will be emotive to the viewer. And you could also single out one particular color to make a striking statement and have it ‘pop out’ of your shot.
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.
These can be drawn out of all kinds of surfaces and environments. And to do this, you can use a wide range of lighting scenarios and varying levels of depth-of-field.
Textures are ideal for experimenting - try lots of different setups and see what you like. You can use flat light with the camera facing head-on to bring out textures of a weathered wall. Or, use backlighting for ripples in sand dunes, shallow depth-of-field for intricate materials, and long-exposure for the silky-smooth effect of flowing water.
Building space into your compositions creates a sense of scale and brings depth to your shot.
It can also provide breathing room for the main subject of your image, and allow the viewer to focus on the primary feature(s) of the scene.
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, space can really be added effectively to almost every kind of photographic subject, as you'll see with these examples from Picfair photographers.
A combination of formal elements...
Once you've got a good handle on each of the formal elements and how they work, you can begin to apply them to your shots across a multitude of image subjects.
With practice, you'll be able to enhance your photographs even more by combining multiple formal elements within a single composition.
Just take a look at how this can be done to dazzling effect with these examples from the Picfair community.
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.
Now you've reached the end of this article, it's time to get out there with your camera, and get familiar with these formal elements around you.
Remember - don't forget to have fun!