The Elements of Visual Design – Shape

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Many people will recognize the pictures of photography great Henri Cartier-Bresson, however not as many know he incorporated this week’s visual design element—shape—in much of his work. He was very good at composing his images using shapes because he had trained his eye to recognize them in an instant.

Shape like line, which we discussed last week, is made visible by a contrast in tone or colour. There are three basic shapes: circles, squares and triangles. Your eye doesn’t necessary see them as such because we have learned to recognize objects by their given names. For example, when we see a pine tree, we immediately know what we see is a tree but if we apply our understanding of visual design, what we are looking at is essentially a triangle.

Here’s an example of the use of another basic shape in an image.

samburu girl kenya

There are a couple of things to note in this image. First there is only one basic shape in this frame although it repeats by the contrast in colour. By using the circle as the predominant shape we establish order in the image. It is best to limit the use of basic shapes within an image otherwise they will compete with each other. The other shape you may recognize here is the oval. This is considered a secondary shape along with the rectangle. In this picture it defers to the circle but when a secondary shape is used as the main shape, your picture will generally feel less formal and more dynamic.

Sometimes shapes naturally exist within your frame like the circles do in this image. The necklace worn by the Samburu girl is circular in shape and composing the picture with this shape was relatively easy. As a photographer though you can create shape when there is none simply by how you frame the scene in front of you. When you are in the great outdoors with nothing but sky and rolling hills in view, depending on how you compose your picture you can create rectangles of equal size or one dominate rectangle and a smaller one. You might even be able to create triangles depending on the scene.

If you’d like to learn more about incorporating shape to create stronger images or want to practice your seeing, join us for our Travel and Street Photography Workshop on May 5. We’d love to see you there!

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Texture