Elements of Design for Photographers

For many years there was an argument as to whether or not photography could truly be considered an art form. Ambrose Bierce went so far to describe a photograph as “A picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.” He was not alone, but through the hard work of pioneers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Margaret Bourke-White, Ansel Adams and many, many others, the world slowly embraced the fact that photography was capable of expressing the same thoughts and emotions expressed in other, more traditional art forms. For that reason, I think that photographers that wish to rise above the crowd and make images that are more expressive than the average snapshot owe it to themselves to study the things that make for effective art works and learn to use these elements in their image making.

Six Elements of Design

There are six fundamental elements of design. The first five can be found in every design, the sixth is optional. They are Line, Shape, Space, Texture, Value, and Color. Your success in creating a meaningful design hinges on your ability to use all of these elements in a meaningful way. Not all have to be prominent; for instance some designs may feature texture or quality of line, but the first five have to be present in all designs and the sixth may or may not.

Principles of Design

In working with the design elements above there are also principles at work that will be beneficial to those striving to design great images. They are Harmony, Contrast, Repetition, Variety, Dominance, Proportion, Proximity and Quality of Light. Over the next few pages we will talk about all of these and how they may be applied to the way you use your camera. Trust me when I tell you that mastery of these concepts is the road to much better images. These are the soft skills of photography, unlike the hard mathematical skills of focus, exposure, lighting, etc. Great photographers are masters of both; choose to ignore one or the other and your work will always be limited.


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