Improving your photos with principles and elements of design: points, lines, and shapes

This is truly exciting. The days of making your photos suck less is behind us. Today, we are going to take the next step in improving our photography by understanding the principles and elements of design; and we are going to start by going over the general visual elements that are prominent in the world of photography.

Admittedly, discussing the principles of design and the strategies in finding creative solutions for composing an image is often more exhilarating. However, in order to discuss the organising principles, we must be able to know what it is that we are manipulating on the frame. This post will cover the three most essential elements: point, line, and shape.

Please know that although I cannot provide an example for the application of every principle and elements of design for every subfield of photography, these theories can be applied in most visual scenarios regardless of the subject matter. I will do my best to pull examples for different kinds of photography, but I am sure you will soon find out which ones I am better at, and thus have more examples from.



In photography, or in general 2D design for the matter, point is not always a single dot on the frame. In a more traditional and technical standpoint, point usually only exists so that a collection of them forms a line; and a collection of which forms a shape.

In photography however, the principles and elements should not be taken so literally. It can be argued that a point is an area or subject matter that has strong presence or isolation in the image.

Spatially, the person becomes a shape that occupies the frame. However, it can be argued that our friend’s face, particularly his eye(s), is a visual element of strong isolation – a point of interest.

A portrait photographer applying the theories of elements and principles would be treating the face or any prominent feature of the face such as the eyes, the nose, lips etc. as points, and utilising organising principles to compose an image.



Line is defined as ‘continuation of points’. It can be literal, as line going through the frame, or continuation of many different photographic subjects (points) forming a sense of line in the frame.

Vertical lines promote gravity and affirmation. Portrait orientation can help reinforce presence and grounding.
Horizontal lines promote calmness and stability. Like this shot, however, they can also make images boring and uninteresting if not used wisely.
Curved lines are very effective at creating a sense of movement. Due to their nature of being able to change directions, they are also very effective in filling the frame. The verticality of the trees and the couple standing upright suggests a fictional idea that the couple is in a very strong, stable relationship. Evidenced by this, proper use of principles and elements of design can be very powerful tools in ‘telling a story’ -as fabricated as it may be- in a photograph



Shape is made when a series of lines make an enclosed figure. With the right size, they can implicitly occupy a significant area of the frame without necessarily having to fill the shape with elements of relevance. Right application of shape can help you establish negative space – where things within are no longer considered important to the brain. A masterful artist will take it further by using the shape/form of the negative space to sculpt a more powerful image.

The subject has a fairly long head. I aimed to take a more flattering portrait by taking an angle where the camera would be a few feet above the subject. The head still felt a little longer than I liked it to, and I decided to let it get cut off a little bit at the edge. At that process, I discovered something remarkable.

The edge-to-edge verticality of the shape bestowed a very strong sense of presence of isolation for the subject. What is more important though, is that the fact that the shape went edge-to-edge divided the image into three big spaces. This can be considered another application of rule of thirds. Having only one positive space and one negative space – a common compositional process in portraiture – can become almost irritating because while two feels weird, three of something usually feels right for our brains. Having three separate spaces actually helped create a more comforting composition that even helped maintaining the focus to the subject.

The background bokeh balls are fairly distracting, and it is a mistake from my end for forgetting to use live view to watch the bokeh before shooting. Nonetheless, the spatial division has helped immensely in producing a pleasing portrait of my friend.

What next?

I will be talking about more subtle elements which will help us connect into using the organising principles for composing images. Said elements are direction, size, texture, value, and colour.



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