Making your photos suck less: introduction to the organising principles and elements of design.

As a learning photographer and an artist in general, I believe in having strong foundation in the principles and elements of design.

The organising principles of design are a set of particular ideas that can help compose an image, realising an aesthetically pleasing result. These principles, or rules, are quite intuitive in nature – but can be often difficult in discovering and placing them in photography, just as they are difficult in developing and applying in other more traditional media.

Here are some theories, also known as ‘the basic principles’ that are popularly discussed and implemented:

  • Contrast
  • Harmony
  • Unity
  • Balance
  • Movement
  • Emphasis/dominance
  • Rhythm/repetition

Although not universally considered an organising principle, I like to think that in photography, perspective (focal length/lens characteristics/distortion) is a crucial aspect in the organisation of the composition.

Movement is often considered one of the most powerful theories in photography.
Movement, unity, colour variation is employed in the image. The negative space in the grass gives nice isolation and contrast to bring all the business of the image towards the tail end of the Lion, and ties things up at the centre.

As you may notice, these principles are quite intuitive things that you often recognise and probably at least vaguely compelled you in using them while making some kind of visual art.

The elements of design are categories of different ideas that can be placed within the frame. Think of it as a collage: the elements are the pieces, and principles are what guides in placing the pieces. The following are some of the elements of design that are popular particularly in photography.

  • Point
  • Line
  • Shape
  • Direction
  • Size
  • Texture
  • Colour
  • Value

I personally like to think that the intensity, direction, and colour of lighting to be a crucial element of design within the realm of photography that can potentially impact all of the other elements.


Black and white photography helps you understand form and space. Seeing the pure luminance only also helps you understand value and its transition/contrast. However, colour adds another depth to an image that allows the photographer to create even more powerful images.

The elements are – as they are defined – things that are present in most/all things we see with our eyes.

The essential point in the understanding and using the principles and elements of design is knowing the patterns and features of items/objects our brains use to perceive to create an image that is, when perceived by your audience (au contraire to being observed by the artist) a pleasing, ‘interesting’ image. This is why an artist often cannot see the merits of their own work, and must use tricks to identify their compositional strength. After devoting enough thought and time into producing an image, the artist can no longer perceive the picture, but rather observe. This is also why you are often ‘your worst critique’.

In photography, however, this phenomenon is greatly reduced because photos are very quick to produce: the way you perceive a quick snapshot of your own is not very different from that of your peer’s. The more and more you look at it, however; the more and more you see that the picture really, really, really, sucks. This is why photographers invest time and thought in working their shot and, even more so in post-processing, because by the time they are both (partially) satisfied and utterly sickened of the image, others viewers will be seriously impressed.

I do not believe that the elements are principles provide a theory, a secret sauce, or a ‘magic formula’ for producing mind-blowing images. However, it is a strong tool for understanding our perception and human visual experience. It gives insights in how our brains interpret the visual world, leads us to what humans are inclined to see, and help us decide what elements to discard. One thing is for certain: it is a very strong palette of tools that can help artists of any level.

I intend to go through these elements and principles -in a series of posts- in a way that is most applicable to photography and hopefully help producing better images.

Once you start shooting after understanding these foundational theories, you will realise that there is no way you can keep all of these theories in your mind and constantly look for them to take your shots. However, understanding the theories, seeing how they are evident in works of self and others, will train your eyes to recognising them as strong visual cues – without you necessarily knowing why – ultimately aiding you in the photographic process.

Unfortunately, I am unable to comment much about lighting because I am still a novice in understanding how lighting can affect the composition and the ‘feeling’ generated by the visual experience. It is something I do not have as strong of confidence on, and I will refrain discussing it too much for the time being. In the future, when I learn more, I will be sure to make a plethora of posts: it is what makes the difference between a snapshot and a great shot.


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