oil paintingswatercolor paintingsdrawingsphotographyarticlescomposition and designphoto books
homeaboutcontactphotoartbooksarticles

Understanding Shapes and Forms

excerpts from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

by Gloria Hopkins

The shapes and forms in your images are important because they incite emotions, influence mood, and serve as the building blocks of your photographic structure.

Shapes and Forms as Structural Elements

When shapes or forms are situated in relation to each other, they usually define the structure of the composition. To see this, throw your image slightly out of focus, you will be left with blurred shapes of varying colors and tones. At this most basic stage, you can see the main shapes that underlie your composition.

If these shapes are organized in a way that exhibits asymmetrical balance or a partial degree of predictability or order, the composition is generally considered informal. Most nature photographs have this kind of composition. If the elements are not well defined but are organized into an emotion generating composition, then the structure is generally considered abstract. If the composition is patterned or comprised of shapes and forms of equal size and distance, such as a honeycomb, it is generally considered formal.

Texture of Forms

In the capture of detail, photography is unrivaled as a medium. Great satisfaction and a richer visual experience can be had by closely studying the various details and textures of the elements in a photograph. Try to imagine how they would feel to the touch. Do the textures give a certain overall feeling? Are they abrasive? Soft? Do they support the overall mood and message of the image? Are the textures lit in a way that best reveals their detail?

Side light is often used to emphasize texture and give a three-dimensional feel. Backlighting can be used to highlight texture and add an element of translucence.

Spatial Organization and the Relationships of Forms and Shapes

Spatial organization is concerned with the positioning of the objects in the scene, their relationships with one another and the frame, how they affect the overall structure of the image, and how viewers respond to the image. For example, in an image where the forms and shapes constitute a visual balance, these objects can be considered harmonious and complementing one another thereby imparting a sense of rightness and balance.

While visual balance is a goal in many nature photographs, often there is a desire to arrange the shapes and forms in a way which causes the image to appear unbalanced thereby creating tension and throwing off the viewer’s sense of equilibrium. If you understand the relationships of the forms and shapes in your images, and how they affect each other and your images, you will have more control over the emotional reaction your viewers are likely to have.

Shapes and Forms and Balance

Achieving a visually balanced composition where the weight of objects is distributed throughout or skillfully placed so that no area is uncomfortably ‘heavier’ than another, is done through distribution of the shapes and forms.

The majority of people know how it feels to walk in balance: everything on the left compliments everything on the right and it feels natural. People are affected visually when viewing an unbalanced image. They feel that it is unbalanced. They sense something is askew, off kilter, or they intuitively want to bring it back into balance. This sense of balance can have a tremendous affect on the comfort level of your viewing audience. The image may feel incomplete, have tension or otherwise seem ‘not right.’ This is not an unplanned reaction I want to have in my photographs.

This is not to say you must always strive to balance your images. Often photographs are purposely composed out-of-balance and are well conceived and received that way. The point is that photographers should be aware of the effect of compositional balance on their viewers.

* * *

excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

Revised August 2011
Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins