Elements of Photography Every Aspiring Photographer Needs to Know

December 22, 2016

When we talk about elements of photography, we are talking about a certain set of rules and conventions that serve as guides in achieving the perfect shot. It is something that came naturally, yet with difficulties for the medium throughout its 200-year history. When it first appeared, the technique posed a serious threat to the traditional canons in art, such as painting and sculpture, because it delivered what they can’t - the most accurate depiction of reality there is. But while there was never any doubt that painting is art, photography struggled for quite a while, wanting the world to acknowledge its ability to capture the moment as it is, yes, but also constantly proving that the camera can be an artistic tool in its own right. This is how we got the set of elements in photography as we know them today, which depend on the technical skill and the creativity of professional or aspiring photographers. What do these visual aspects encompass and how do the artists work to reach their full potential?

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Henri Cartier-Bresson, Hyères, France, 1932, via theredlist.com

Basic Elements of Photography

What is it that makes a certain photograph so striking? Elements of photography essentially represent design concepts that help a photo have great visual impact. These could perhaps be described as the “ingredients” that the photographer can use to make the perfect shot, meaning that the ingredients can be mixed in different ways and combinations. The goal then becomes simple: to turn a simple subject into a striking image. Every photo, whether intentionally or not, contains one or more elements we are about to list, and what makes them so indispensable are their ability to draw the viewers’ attention and to make themselves impressed in our memory for our long time. These factors, as we’ve mentioned, depend on a few technical settings of the camera itself, such as exposure, aperture, shutter speed and ISO, but they also ask for the photographer’s own imagination, the way they observe the world around them, the details they manage to isolate with a sharp eye.

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Randy Olson, Churchgate Station, Mumbai 2011, via nationalgeographic

The Photography Composition - Tips on Cropping and Framing on Site

Composition in photography, as in any other visual art form, is the arrangement of objects within the frame. The truth is that there are various guidelines and artistic conventions as to what makes a good composition, such as the golden ratio and, most famously, the rule of thirds, which involves dividing the rectangular frame of the photo into nine equally sized sections by using imaginary vertical lines and two imaginary horizontal lines. The artist then tries to align the main objects of their scenery along these lines or at their points of intersection, thus creating what is believed to be a balanced and aesthetically pleasing composition. One of the important parts of this element is the symmetry, which could be something to go for - or something to avoid completely, depending on the intention of the artist.

Annie Leibovitz's picture of Scarlett Johansson, divided by the line of the rule of third. Image via Wikipedia

Texture and Depth of Field

The thing that makes us want to touch the photograph within a gallery, for example, is texture. It represents a property of an image that inspires a sense of tactility in the observer and it involved the detail surfaces of objects. Whether it’s the pattern of wood or the materiality of fabric - or even the texture of skin - these will be capable of evoking emotion. An important part in creating textures is the light: photographers mostly use natural light of the sun, especially during early mornings or evenings, when it is “hitting” the object on the side, or when the sun is in a vertical position. In that case, it will create small shadows along the surfaces of tree trunks, for instance, adding depth and a sense of reality to their shots. With texture, the picture is bound to become more alive, and sometimes even almost three-dimensional.

Speaking of depth, it consists of the creation of a sense of space within the frame. It is obtained using focus, framing and angles; focus is the zooming in on particular objects to the point where they are clear and crips while their surroundings are blurry. With framing, the objects get isolated from both its background and foreground, putting it in context and emphasizing its importance on both physical and meaningful level.

Robert Mapplethorpe - Poppy, 1988, via mapplethorpe.org


Out of all elements of photography, line is probably the strongest and most important and influential. Essentially, it all starts with line, which constitutes shape, which subsequently constitutes form, texture, pattern and so on. Lines guide the eyes of the viewer around and throughout the picture, drawing it toward key focal points in a shot and impacting the overall atmosphere of the scenery. In here, we have diagonal, horizontal, vertical and converging lines, each of which carries a certain “mood”: horizontal lines can be used to convey a sense of stability, for example, while vertical ones can suggest power, growth, strength; a diagonal line evokes dynamism, action, and a curvy one could mean change, repetition, movement. Furthermore, lines can be thin or thick, short and long, jagged and continuous… In all, lines can either lead you away or move you forward inside the image.

Arno Rafael Minkinnen - 10.10.10, Fosters Pond, 2010, via edelmangallery.com

Patterns and Shapes

Because they are everywhere in nature, our mind tends to organize the things we see into patterns and shapes - particularly because they are aesthetically pleasing to the eye and because they promote order over chaos. But very often, they can escape our sight, and a good photographer can isolate it and bring it to our attention again, emphasizing on their rhythm and symmetry. In photography, objects can be captured in repetition or mirrored, for instance, if two objects are subverted to look similar but not alike, while in other cases an interesting image can be obtained by breaking a pattern, say of homogeneous plants or bricks of a wall. That being said, we talk about shapes, as they build patterns and represent the principal element of identification which is best emphasized when frontlit or backlit. This is where photographers also master techniques like contrast and depth of field to individualize it or turn it into a three-dimensional form.

Andreas Gursky - Chicago, Board of Trade, II 1999, via tate.org.uk

Light and Color

Because light is essential to this medium, it becomes the basis of all other elements in photography. A photographer needs a deep understanding of how light affects the operation of the camera, as well as the way it interacts with the object itself; the level of light, as well as its angle, affects the level of detail and the creation and depth of shadows. At the same time, light also influences color and its hues and saturation values. These characteristics aside, colors are the ones that can also make or break a photo, depending on the arrangement and of course, the choice of colors, as well as their manipulation and alteration. These can perhaps best be examined in the field of macro photography.

An example of macro photograph guided by mesmerizing color. Image via cgfrog.com

Practice Makes Perfection

These elements of photography surely are a good exercise for anyone who wishes to work on their practice, technique and imagination. They are the basic visual components in any form of art which contribute to the evolution of our own ideas and perceptions of what is around us, and train our eye to see things that it may not see otherwise. They help photographers form a message they wish to send through their artwork, which is why it is important to understand the way the elements compliment and relate to each other, while at the same time helping us to step up the artistic practice. The images will then become meaningful and with a purpose, reaching out to the viewers’ mind and soul - which is what art, essentially, is all about.

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This book provides a wealth of information and guidance to help all photographers improve skills, learn new techniques, and expand ways of seeing. Excellent practical exercises allow you to use the knowledge you'll gain to build a solid portfolio. More than 300 stunning, full-color images including portfolios from over 40 prestigious artists provide visual inspiration and a gorgeous collection of artwork to add to any photography enthusiast's bookshelf. Whether you do fine art or commercial, documentary or editorial, or just enjoy making pictures for yourself, The Elements of Photography will take your images to the next level.

Featured images: A couple taking a picture on top of a landscape, via pxhere.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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