Everything you photograph has shapes. These shapes each have a life of their own. Some shapes make viewers feel secure, others create a sense of energy.
Becoming more aware of these shapes helps you better control the visual experience, whether you’re going for a pleasing or tension-driven photograph.
Shapes can be effectively used to help you:
- Create movement, texture, and depth
- Emphasize areas of interest
- Lead viewers through specific visual pathways
- Structure and organize your photograph
- Connect or separate areas
So what is a shape?
A shape can be defined as an area with a visually recognizable boundary.
This boundary can be real or fake. Colors can create shapes as can lines, contrast, light, and texture.
The way the boundary is created isn’t of much importance. What’s important is how these shapes combine to create a visual composition.
While seeing the shapes of basic objects like apples and computers is easy, it’s everything else that proves quite the challenge.
As a photographer, the more you can open your eyes to shapes, the better you can use these shapes in your composition.
The first step is becoming more familiar with the overall shape types and their visual influence on design.
There are two main types:
- Primary Shapes
- Secondary Shapes
Primary shapes are the most basic types of shapes in existence. These include:
Secondary shapes are variations of these primary shapes, such as rectangles, ovals, skewed triangles, and complex shapes like stars.
Think of primary shapes as the building blocks to the shape universe.
Because of their importance to all other shapes, let’s look more closely at all three of these.
Of the three primary shapes, the circle is the only one with curves. These curves give circles a feminine, graceful quality. In many cultures, circles are seen to symbolize the eternal whole, or ‘completeness’. They are also used to symbolize warmth, comfort, love, energy, and power.
Circles naturally attract attention and can emphasize movement.
Equal on all sides, squares create a sense of stability and security. The square is also relatively unassuming, easily hiding within plain sight.
Triangles are the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde of the primary shapes. On its base, a triangle can create a sense of stability. Move the triangle off this base and it will give a sense of movement and conflict.
While these primary shapes are the building blocks of all shapes, the reality is that the world isn’t made up of a bunch of circles, squares, and triangles.
Rather, shapes are more a mix of varying primary and secondary shapes.
The way these shapes are mixed is organized into three different categories. The first category, as you’ll see, is the way we were taught about shapes in school.
It’s what most people think of when the topic of shapes comes up.
The other two categories, however, control far more of our everyday experiences.
An understanding of all three categories is highly useful for composition.
#1. Geometric Shapes
All the above examples we’ve discussed fall into this category. These are typical shapes, shown exactly as you would imagine.
When you grab a post-it note and notice it’s a square, you’ve encountered a geometric shape.
Other common examples include:
- Circular balls
- Triangle pyramids
- Oval eggs
- Square buildings
These shapes are easy to recognize and mostly symmetrical.
Composing with these shapes is relatively straight-forward. Extra effort to observe these shapes is usually not needed as they’re already visible.
#2. Natural / Organic Shapes
These shapes are more irregular, although in many ways more natural than geometric shapes.
While these shapes are more complex, they’re the most common shapes we see in nature. This makes this category of shapes more pleasing and comforting to the eye.
#3. Abstract Shapes
This category consists of shapes that are recognizable in form, but not real.
- Stick figures
- Typeface (like the letters on this screen)
- Logos like the Nike ‘Swoosh’
Becoming Aware of Shapes
The more you know what shapes you are working with, the easier it will be to compose. The best way to do this is to try to avoid labeling.
When you see a scene or object, hold off on calling it whatever you’re used to.
If, for example, you see a playground, don’t just call it a playground.
Ask yourself, what shapes are there? Just observe the various shapes.
See how many different types of shapes you can locate.
When you turn off labeling, you can better see what visual contents are actually right before your eyes.
Once you know all the shapes you’re working with, then you can decide what the best composition is.
Less Shapes is More
As a general guideline, fewer types of shapes makes for a more clear image.
When you take an image that has only triangles, for example, your image will have a stronger sense of stability and regularity.
Compose an image with triangles, squares, five-point stars, stick figures, and circles… and you create quite a bit of chaos.
Look through your viewfinder and ask yourself, ‘are all the shapes here needed?’
If you have three shapes when two can do the job, toss the third.
Don’t Forget Background Shapes
Pay just as much, if not more, attention to the shapes in the background as those in the foreground.
These background shapes can easily add more lines (and clutter), easily distracting a viewer’s attention.
A simple, clean background is always a safe way to go.
Improve your photography with the lesson here on background composition tips.
Go Beyond the Obvious
Closing this lesson, there’s one final time I recommend for observing shapes: go beyond the obvious.
Yes, a medicine ball is a circle. Yes, a model’s face is oval-shaped.
What other shapes are there?
Really try to force yourself to observe the scene. Note the lines, colors, light tones… everything.
While these shapes won’t be obvious at first glance, composing based on them will add a subtle but effective structure to your images.