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The 7 Formal Elements in Photography - A Picfair Guide

Tips and Inspiration

22 May 2020

Posted by Philip Mowbray


In the photography world, there are several basic 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 extraordinary shots.

They are:

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

Paying attention to the formal elements in your compositions will help bring order to your shot, and will also help you emphasise the most important aspects of the scene.

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.


Line


We’ve touched upon the importance of lines in composition in one of our previous posts here, and they are a great starting point when thinking about formal elements as they can be found almost everywhere.

You can use lines in your composition
 to 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.

Y
ou can also add lines to your scene by creating completely new ones. Use a slow shutter speed to create light streaks when photographing moving traffic at night, for example.

Click here to see more


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. And 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. And using a range of lighting techniques; most often backlighting, silhouettes, and also paying attention to shadows will help elevate the shapes and forms in your shot.

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Pattern


Symmetry and repetition make attractive 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 and even light works well for patterns as it emphasises its repetitive nature equally throughout the shot, but for patterns that are more 3D in nature, you may want to try a range of lighting setups.

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... Go out and explore, you’ll be amazed at what you can find in your everyday surroundings!

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Tone


Concentrating on tone in your composition is to use variables of 
contrast, and light and dark areas to bring depth to your image. Tone is particularly important in black and white photography and should be used to guide the viewer through your image where there is no colour 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 works for you.

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Colour


A prominent colour in your image, whether it’s a solid colour block or a set of similar colours that form a palette across your image can make a bold statement, and convey a mood for your image that will be emotive to the viewer. You could also single out one particular colour and make a striking statement by making it ‘pop out’ in your shot.

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Texture


Focusing on the texture in your composition can bring your image to life by giving the viewer a tangible connection with it. Textures can be drawn out from 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 experimentation, try lots of different setups and see what you prefer. For example, you can use flat light with the camera facing head-on to bring out the textures of a weathered wall, backlighting to draw out the ripples of sand dunes, shallow depth-of-field for intricate materials, and long-exposures to create the silky-smooth effect with flowing water.

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Space


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 hone in on the primary features of the scene.

Adding space to your compositions is particularly effective with outdoor photography, where you may want to emphasis the scale of geographical features, such as mountains and bodies of water. But space can be added effectively to almost every kind of photographic subject, as you'll see with the examples below.

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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. And 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 some of these examples from the Picfair community...

Click here to see more



Now it's time to get out there with your camera, and remember, don’t be afraid to experiment! A composition that you didn’t think would be good at the time could end up being your favourite photograph of the shoot!

We hope you've enjoyed reading this Picfair Guide! You can find more guides, tips and tutorials on how you can enhance your photographic skills in the Tips & Inspiration section of our blog, here.


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