The elements of photography and principles of photography are the fundamental building blocks of images.
If you don’t know how to use them, then your photos will fall flat.
But if you can master photography elements and principles…
…then you’ll be able to expertly work with light and composition for beautiful results.
Note that these concepts are far from new – photography borrows some elements and principles from classical art and design.
But though they’ve been around a long time, learning to use these photography building blocks isn’t always easy – which is where this guide comes in handy.
I’m going to take you through all the photography elements and photography principles you need to know. And by the time you’re finished, you’ll be well on your way to using these elements and principles for breathtaking shots of your own.
Let’s get started.
What Are the Elements of Photography?
Every image is made up of elements, no matter how simple. And here are 6 main elements of photography:
- Shape and Form
- Space (Positive and Negative)
For instance, every image includes lines. Every image includes shapes. Every image includes textures, tones, and more.
These are the elements of photography.
Whenever you look at a picture, no matter how good or bad or mediocre it may be, you should be able to easily separate it into its different elements.
Because all photos contain these elements.
And as I explained above, by learning what these elements are, and by learning to manipulate these elements, you can create stunning photos.
Now let’s take a look at each element in turn:
The line is the simplest of all photography elements.
It is what it sounds like:
Any line that appears in your photo.
Now, some lines are obvious, such as leading lines, which direct the viewer through the frame.
But other lines are less obvious, because they join with other lines to make shapes. For instance, a building is made up of many straight lines. A tennis ball is made up of a single curved line. A person is made up of many straight and curved lines.
Because lines are everywhere, it’s impossible to take a photo without them.
However, by making lines more obvious and discrete, you can lead the viewer’s eye through the frame; lines are natural “directors,” which means that the eye pretty much always follows a line, no matter where it goes.
On the other hand, by deemphasizing lines (by joining them together into a shape, for instance), you can create less flow in an image and potentially more tension.
Shape and Form
As I said in the previous section, lines make up shapes.
And you probably already understand what shapes are:
They’re two-dimensional items that take up space, like a rectangle or a circle or a square. In photography, though, shapes tend to be much more irregular.
You’ll find that people are made up of shapes. So are animals and trees and buildings.
(Of course, if you wanted to, you could take shapes and break them back down into lines; just because an item is made up of shapes doesn’t mean it’s not made up of lines, too!)
Circular shapes feel more flowing and dynamic, whereas hard-edged shapes feel tense and static. So choose your shapes wisely, depending on the mood you’re after.
When shapes start to become three-dimensional, they take on form, which is just shapes that have volume.
Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, form can only really be a trick, one that comes from light falling in particular ways on particular objects. But you can enhance or reduce this illusion depending on how you take your photos (and how you process them).
To enhance form, use lighting that shrouds some areas in shadow and lights up other areas nicely. To reduce form, keep lighting flat and even across your entire subject.
Space (Positive and Negative)
You probably already understand “space” on an intuitive level; it’s the area in a photo.
Space can be positive if it’s occupied by a line or a shape. Positive space feels heavy.
Or it can be negative if it’s unoccupied. Negative space is light and full of nothingness. Because of this, lots of negative space will make your images feel less crowded and more airy.
Generally speaking, a photo should contain a mix of positive and negative space. In a later section, I’ll talk about balancing out positive space with negative space, and vice versa.
But the take home message is this:
Try to include positive space in your photos (your main subject counts!).
And also include negative space in your photos to help the positive space breathe.
Texture refers to small variations on an object’s surface.
So if a rock is very rough and cracked, it’s full of texture – but if the rock has been smoothed out by the waves, it’s very untextured.
Every object sits somewhere along the texture scale. Manufactured objects tend to be less textured (think plastic and metal), whereas natural objects tend to be much more textured (e.g., boulders, trees, plants).
Now, when it comes to texture, you can use the light in different ways to either emphasize it or make it recede.
By using sidelight, you’ll bring out any texture present in your subject. But by using frontlight, you’ll reduce texture (and a backlit silhouette will lose texture almost completely).
Both of these are reasonable moves, depending on the type of photo you’re after. A textured image tends to feel tense and even chaotic.
Whereas an untextured image is calmer and even peaceful.
Color is, well, color. This refers to the hue, the luminance/value, and the saturation/intensity of each item in your photo, no matter how small.
Here, hue refers to what we often think of as color; examples of different hues include red, green, orange, blue, and pink.
Luminance or value refers to the lightness of a color. You can have light reds or dark reds, light greens or dark greens, etc.
Saturation or intensity refers to the color’s presence. High-saturation colors pop off the page, whereas low-saturation colors tend to recede.
It’s also possible to desaturate your colors entirely for a black and white effect.
Photographers often forget about the necessity of color, but color is one of the most important elements you’ll come across. By including colors that go well together, you’ll create a harmonious scene – and by packing in colors that clash, you’ll create lots of tension.
Tone refers to the level of lightness or darkness of different parts of a photo.
So a photo that’s taken at night will generally have a very dark tone overall, whereas a photo taken at noon may have a mix of dark and light tones, etc.
Note that tone differs from area to area in a photo. So a corner might be very dark-toned, but the center might be very light-toned, or vice versa.
You can do a lot through the careful manipulation of tone. For instance, you can reveal details by increasing the lightness of tones, or you can hide details by decreasing the lightness of tones.
And you can reveal form through careful tonal gradations, whereas you can create confusing compositions through sudden tonal changes.
Tone is one of the key areas photographers focus on in post-processing because of its effect on the overall photo. Tone matters, and by carefully selecting your tones, you can change the mood, the areas that are emphasized versus deemphasized, and the form of the subject.
What Are the Principles of Photography?
Here are 6 main principles of photography:
Photos are made up of photographic elements.
But how do these elements work together to create beautiful photos?
That’s where the principles of photography come in. These principles show how to arrange different photographic elements for a pleasing image.
So in this next section, I’m going to take you through the 6 principles of photography. I’ll explain what they are, and how to use them for the best results.
Balance is quite possibly the most important principle of photography, because it’s so crucial to good compositions.
Balance refers to the need for equally-weighted elements on both sides of a photo.
This works like a see-saw, except it’s visual.
So if you include a strong element on one side of the frame, like a mountain…
…then you’ll need to balance it out with a strong element on the other side of the frame, such as another mountain, a tree, a boulder, etc.
Those are all examples of heavy objects, which create positive space.
That said, it’s also possible to balance out the mountain with negative space – though you’ll often need a lot of negative space to balance out a little positive space.
So if you photograph a mountain, you can position it in the bottom right corner of the frame, then counterbalance it with a lot of empty sky off to the left.
While all this talk of balancing may seem a bit complex and difficult to apply, don’t worry. You see, artists have developed rules that allow for easy balancing without having to mentally weigh every element of the frame.
For instance, the rule of thirds, which states that you should position key compositional objects a third of the way into the frame, is an easy way of balancing your photos.
The golden ratio (with the Phi grid) is an alternative method of balancing elements.
In other words:
It’s not all guesswork! You can create balanced compositions even if you’re still struggling to grasp the visual “heavyness” of elements.
When you combine multiple elements that fit together…
…you get a united, harmonious image.
For instance, you can combine several similar colors for color harmony (e.g., green and blue).
Or you can combine several similar textures for textural harmony (e.g., a river and a waterfall).
By creating harmony in your image, you end up with a peaceful result.
Of course, images with many harmonious elements will feel more united than images with just a couple of harmonious elements.
So by including or excluding harmonious elements, you can create more peaceful or more intense photos.
Pattern and Repetition
A pattern in photography refers to a group of repeating elements (or nearly repeating elements).
So you might have a series of snow-covered trees fading off into the distance.
Or you might have light reflecting on water all around the frame.
Now, patterns aren’t just confined to physical elements – they’re also constituted by colors (for instance, if you have the color red appearing throughout your photograph), shapes (for instance, if you have curves all around your shot), textures, and more.
You can even have tonal patterns; for example, you might have the same deep shadows and bright highlights all around the frame.
In general, patterns lead to harmony.
But it’s also possible to create chaos or intensity through patterns, especially if you include several patterns and contrast them with one another.
Speaking of contrast:
You create contrast when you combine elements that are different.
The fact is that most photos will have contrast of some type, but by including lots of contrast, you can create a very bold, in-your-face image (though you’ll have to work hard to prevent the viewer from being overwhelmed). And by including very little contrast, your image will often be very harmonious (though you’ll have to work hard to prevent it from becoming boring).
You can have color contrast by juxtaposing colors opposite one another on the color wheel, like yellow and blue.
You can have textural contrast by including smooth objects and rough objects side-by-side.
You can have tonal contrast by including stunning highlights and deep shadows.
You can have spatial contrast by including negative space and positive space.
Often, noticing contrast is the start of a great composition. So it’s a good idea to train your eye to see contrast in the elements of photography; that way, you notice when a stunning photo opportunity comes along!
The best photos tend to offer some sort of flow, or movement, that leads the eye from one area of the composition to another.
And this movement is what creates rhythm.
Now, it is possible to capture some great images without much movement. But a bit of movement can do a lot to spice up your compositions, because it keeps the viewer engaged and looking all around the frame.
But how do you create movement?
Fortunately, photographers have developed a few useful methods for identifying movement and including it in photos.
First, there are leading lines, a staple of landscape photography; these move the eye along the line and into the photo. They’re a great way to keep the viewer on track and direct them toward your main subject.
Second, there’s the golden spiral, which gives you a nice guideline for creating compositional flow.
You can also look for curves, which naturally move the eye along, and are especially powerful when pointing toward your most important compositional elements.
Plus, there’s another easy way to create rhythm that many photographers don’t think about:
By including similar items throughout your composition, you beckon the viewer along; they’ll feel compelled to finish the pattern, and they’ll engage with your entire photo in the process!
Proportion refers to including a mix of large elements and small elements in your composition.
For instance, you might find a scene with a small flower in the foreground, a lake in the middleground, and a huge mountain in the background.
But by changing how much you include each of these elements in your photos, you’ll end up with different types of images.
For instance, if you get down low so the flower takes up a lot of the frame and the mountain recedes into the distance, the flower will seem unusually bold and in-your-face.
On the other hand, if you back up and use an ultra-wide lens, you’ll have a small flower, a medium-sized lake, and a large mountain, which makes for a more traditional scenic photo.
Note that you can use proportion to create scale; by putting a small person next to a huge mountain, you emphasize the size of the mountain and create a breathtaking scene (and you’ll also make the person look small).
Or you could put a large mountain next to a huge cloud, in which case neither element will seem especially large because the viewer won’t have a sense of scale.
If you want to take great photos, then you need to understand the elements and principles of photography.
If you can master them…
…then you’ll be able to take gorgeous photos in pretty much every scenario, no matter the light, the color, or your compositional elements.
So make sure you remember these elements and principles!