If you've never studied classic art appreciation, the principles of design may make your head spin. At first glance, they're a tedious academic exercise, but for working professionals and amateurs looking to improve their photography, understanding these design principles can be a great help in their work.
These design principles roughly layout the foundational theories that make a piece of visual artwork appealing. They are usually discussed in art classes and studied in detail in graphic design programs. But unfortunately, they are too often breezed over in photography class. And that's a shame because these design principles can help photographers nail their compositions.
It's important to differentiate between the elements of art and principles of design. Elements are objects that appear on the canvas, like lines and shapes. Principles of design in art include elements that are less easy to identify but are essential to creating a pleasing composition. Things like contrast, pattern, and space are principles. Remember, while they are usually discussed with fine art or graphic design, these principles relate to any two-dimensional art form.
What are the Principles of Design?
There is no agreed-upon number of principles of design in art. All of the textbooks and websites are custom lists, written from what the author knows best and thinks are the most important. Some can be grouped, and some broken apart. Don't get hung up on numbers; just embrace the concepts.
The top seven design principles include–
What binds all of these principles together? They are all about how an artist puts the elements of art on canvas. Principles are not easily pointed to or even readily noticed. The elements, in contrast, are the things that the artist puts on their canvas. For example, color, line, point, shape, texture, space, and form are all elements of art. They are obvious components of the work.
The elements of art are slightly harder to incorporate into photography. They are just as applicable, but most photographers don't think in terms of lines, shapes, and forms when they capture an image. Of course, they are all there, but photographers tend to take the world as it is rather than create it from scratch on paper.
The principles, however, are extremely handy to know in photography. They help us understand what makes a good composition and how to achieve it. Do read our article on 12 Amazing Photography Composition Tips and Techniques.
Seven Principles of Design in Depth
Contrast in design refers to how different things look, and yet how they go together to create a cohesive scene. Contrast of tone is black versus white, while contrasting colors are in opposite positions on the color wheel.
Contrast is all about making sure your subject contrasts with the rest of the image to help bring focus. When visual elements are placed in your composition, contrasts help draw attention to them. Things that don't contrast tend to blend together, while things that contrast pop out. Other things in your image can be used to create contrast. The scale or size of the objects can be changed to show a contrast between big and small.
Emphasis is how apparent things are made in the composition. Hopefully, the parts you want to be prominent are made clear and impactful. When the emphasis is done right, it's not noticeable. The viewer walks away with the message the photographer or artist intended. But when it's not done well, it's clear that something is wrong. The viewer received a different message– the thing that was supposed to be noticed was missed.
Emphasis is a foundational element in the composition that needs some planning and forethought to get just right. To do it, you use the other elements of art and principles of design to make your point.
One example of this in design is a movie poster that makes a strong emotional reaction on the viewer but doesn't impart the name of the movie or the release date. They liked the look of that movie, if only they could remember what it was called! If the viewer walks away without the intended message, the emphasis in the composition was in the wrong place.
In design, emphasis can be created several ways. For example, the scale of an object can be changed to give it greater emphasis. You can use contrasting colors, or add elements like lines or shapes.
In photography, emphasis can be created by changing the camera angle or framing of the subject. Another great tactic is to change the lighting on the subject or background, which can draw the subject out and increase emphasis.
The human eye is naturally programmed to notice patterns. Patterns occur everywhere in the natural world, and we're pretty good at detecting them even if we don't realize it. As artists, we can incorporate this mental trick into our artwork.
Patterns are made by repeating an object throughout the composition. By including patterns, we can use them to draw focus and emphasis on our subject. They make the composition as a whole stand out and make it memorable.
When we think of patterns in photography, we usually think of things like textures. We can incorporate these in our images, especially when architecture or other artwork is concerned. Patterns are all about repeated elements throughout a design, so wallpapers, textiles, and backgrounds are great examples of where they pop up most often.
Repetition can refer to any element of art, like color, line, shapes, or forms. Think of designs you may have seen that use minimal color palettes. It's usually striking because the repetition of one element catches the eye. Repetition creates consistency in a composition, which brings the entire frame together to make it more meaningful.
In design, repetition is usually used to make something seem predictable or endless. A repeating wave on paper will make it seem like that goes on forever, even beyond the canvas you can see. Repetition is also useful in user interface design, where menus or control icons will have the same elements repeated to help the user find what they're looking for.
In art and design, movement might not mean what you think it means. Instead of being about objects in motion, it is all about the movement of the viewer's eyes over a composition. Artists and photographers carefully control the movement of the eye around the work. There are all sorts of tricks to make it work.
Designers use diagonal or curved lines to control movement and to keep the eye engaged. Shifting between high-key and low-key colors is another trick that makes a canvas appear in motion.
Compositional rules and tricks, like the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio, are ways for artists to generalize the habits of viewers and predict how movement will occur. Leading lines are powerful tools to direct movement in the direction you'd like it to go.
Of course, showing motion in your work also affects the design movement. Human eyes are attracted to things in motion, so a model's hair flowing behind her or her dress blowing in the breeze is a great way to capture attention in a static photo.
Of all of the principles of design, balance is the most obvious one to apply to photography. Balance refers to the visual weight, or the impact, of the elements of the composition. One common type of balance is symmetry, where parts of the image mirror itself. It isn't just about reflections–imagine a formal dining table in a palace, with all of the place settings perfectly aligned. The scene is beautiful because each side is a mirror image of the other. In design, this is known as symmetrical balance. The two halves of the scene balance once another.
Equally important, however, is the concept of asymmetrical balance. An asymmetrical balance occurs much more commonly, and it is up to the artist or photographer to make it happen. Different objects can balance an image. For example, a standing figure may be balanced in the composition by white space. Designers use this concept to find the right layout to make their elements work best.
Asymmetrical balance is a bit of a trial and error game. When two dissimilar objects are balancing one another, their visual weight will determine how far apart they should be and how they should be arranged. It's almost like making a teeter-totter balance in a schoolyard. You can make a substantial object balance with a smaller one, but you need to play around with the spacing between them to get it to work.
It's also possible to have balance around a central point. This is called radial balance. If you shoot photography with or design graphics based on the Golden Ratio, you may already be familiar with the concept. Circular or hub-and-spoke designs are other examples.
Space is divided into positive and negative space. They're both essential components to understand, and they're closely related to and affect the balance of an image. Positive space is that which is occupied by objects. Positive space is the space filled, and it's where you put your important stuff.
Negative space, in contrast, is the space between objects. It's sometimes called white space, and it's a critical element in design. It is closely tied to balance because areas white space can balance "heavier" areas of the composition. Don't conflate white space with copy space. Copy space is a term used by photographers sometimes to denote empty areas of a composition where designers and advertisers could place their text. It's not the same thing, because theoretically if you placed copy in your image's white space, you would throw the composition out of balance.
Other Design Principles
There are plenty of more theories and design principles to think about. Another design principle is the idea of unity. In an artwork, unity means that all of the elements and components go together in some way. They can't all be the same, but they also can't be dramatically different. The viewer needs to see the connection to understand why they are placed together. There needs to be balance between the unity of the design and the variety of the elements within it to create a visually pleasing work. Talking of aesthetics, you must read our article on what is Aesthetics in Photography and how can one take aesthetic pictures.
Hierarchy is the idea that the elements should be ordered and organized so that the viewer identifies them in order of importance.
Scale or proportion is closely related to balance. It refers to how large things appear in the image. In the physical world, we are used to seeing things based on a known scale. We usually use our body as a comparison for scale. The proportions of the human body are known to everyone, and they are readily identified as looking right or looking wrong.
Finally, rhythm is another design principle that is closely related to pattern and repetition. Both of those principles had to do with the placement of elements within the work. The rhythm goes further by including the feel and the tempo of the work. It's one of the not readily identified elements, but when it's present, it works for the design. When a rhythm of organized elements is repeated, it will give the feeling of movement.
Incorporating the Principles of Art and Design in Photography
Photographers might fail to realize the importance of these elements and principles of design in art. For the photographer who is used to approaching a scene and capturing things as they are, it can seem like a trivial exercise. Can you imagine a photojournalist worrying about white space and balance in the heat of the moment at a political rally or major news event? It's probably the last thing on their minds.
But in reality, these are the things that make the works of a great photographer recognizable. Some people say you have an eye for photography, which is true. Some people are born with talent and the ability to produce a stunning photograph. But professionals want to learn why some photos are better than others. What makes one work stand out from others? Here are 25 Simple Photography Tips to help you get better at your craft. Learning the elements and principles of design goes a long way to understanding how the magic happens.
One of the best tips for incorporating principles of design balance, in particular, is to step back from the artwork for a moment. The farther you remove yourself from the three-dimensional scene, the better you will see it. The live-view LCD screen mode of modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras is an excellent tool for this. With it, you can see your composition in real-time in two dimensions. You can immediately see the balance, contrast, and use of space. Is the subject emphasized the way you intended?
If you don't have a live-view LCD or are shooting on film, you have to mentally step back from the artwork and look on it with fresh eyes. As the creator of the artwork, it's often tough to figure out how the end viewer will see it. Backing away will help blur the elements together and give you a better idea of the overall composition.
Long before the camera was invented, artists worked hard to translate the world around them onto the canvas. They developed tricks and techniques that you can see improve over the centuries if you walk the halls of any fine art museum. The modern techniques of graphic design and photography have pulled from this extensive history to make their work better. In the end, all visual arts are working to communicate the three-dimensional world with two dimensions. When done well, viewers are drawn into the canvas or image powerfully.
An understanding of the Principles of Design will help you create a well-balanced photography portfolio. We had earlier put together a comprehensive guide on tips to create a portfolio website. It is important to invest care and attention to the elements and principles of design explained above and using them in your photography portfolio website. You need to think out of the box, uncover your creative genius, find your expression and figure out how to present your work in the best way possible. Photography websites need to go beyond just showcasing your talent and images. It needs to present your vision for the future, with respect to the work you want to do, reflect your personality and your style and approach to work.
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