Elements of Design – Shape and Form


Shape describes two-dimensional space. The actual defining of shape is done by other elements of design: line, space, value, or color. In combination, these other elements form the shapes we see in a work. Shape occurs when tone or color fills the area between lines. Shape is the brains attempt at resolving an object as recognizable (logical) to one’s experience. In the two-dimensional world, there are three simple geometric shapes – the square, the triangle, and the circle. All other geometric shapes are some combination of these three.

There are also more the more complex organic shapes we see in natural and man-made objects, such as the silhouette of leaves, trees, cars or other everyday objects. Shape is the foundation of form.


Form is the three-dimensional counterpart to shape. Shape is to form as a square is to a cube. In the three-dimensional world, the basic geometric forms are cube, sphere, pyramid, cylinder and cones. Form is shape with dimension or volume. To change a shape to a form, dimension must be created by the addition of tone or color transitions within the shape. This results is the illusion of three-dimensions in a two-dimensional space.

In the first decades of the 20th Century photography was moving away from Pictorialism, the trend of photographers attempting to imitate painterly effects in photos, mostly through soft focus and romantic subject matter.  Some of the influences drawing photographers away from Pictorialism were Dadaism, Cubism and a move toward images in sharp focus. It was during this transitional time that Edward Weston took this early masterpiece of composition, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921. This is clearly a transitional piece borrowing from Pictorialism and touching on elements of gestalt. It also seems to  echo some of the modernist notions of space that were explored in the two decades leading to the production of this image.

This is an image that uses shapes almost exclusively in its design. The framing of the image presents the viewer with an ambiguous space where we don’t know if the central dark form is projecting forward into the space or receding toward the left due to the the figure-ground flip-flops. Is the woman, Betty Katz, leaning against the wall? Or is she looking at it head-on, while being separated from another space on the far side of the projection? A third reading could be of the entire wall being perfectly flat with an abstract design painted on it. The woman’s organic dark form counters the geometric lines and lighter tones of the space. Her size and placement within the frame balance the otherwise expansive mass of shapes and tones.

Edward Weston, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921Tone map of Westons, Attic.

Image Source

In this image, Weston is obviously playing with the shapes as geometric planes in space. Texture is non-existent and  any volume in the image is generated by tonal changes determined by the angle of the surface.  The tone map indicates a simple, yet appealing set of lines and tones.

Below is another famous photograph,  this time by the Master Photographer Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946. Even if you don’t know that Stravinsky was one of the 20th Centuries greatest composers, the shapes within the frame leave no doubt that he was connected to music in some way.

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Tone Map

Tone Map

Image Source

This is a very graphic design and just an outline of the shapes would be interesting. Here is another instance where creating a tone map breaks the image down into a collection of shapes without any form or other information. The arrangement of shapes within the frame is interesting for its own design.

Below is another Newman portrait, this time of Alfred Hitchcock, the famous film director/producer and master of the psychological thriller and suspense genre in the middle of the last century. Newman, master of the environmental portrait, has him sitting quite far forward so that his body seems detached from the head in a way that the head seems magically attached yet ready to roll down front by its own weight. Notice the simplicity of the image with only 3 objects in the frame: the forms of the body and head, and the background shape. The graphic quality of the image being obvious.

Alfred Neuman, Alfred Hitchcock, date unk.Image Source

Returning to Weston, during the middle of his career Edward Weston’s work often concentrated on finding the “essence” of is subject matter. His work by then had evolved from the Pictorialist soft focus image to the sharp, maximum focus practices of the F-64 Group. Now everything possible was in focus and finding the composition leading to a deep connection with the subject was paramount. Form now became important when photographing a subject and the details found in the local contrasts of objects became important. The essence of the object itself became the subject, as well as what the image by itself could elicit emotionally.

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Image Source

In this shot of sand dunes in on the Central California Coast, we see a study of lines, shapes, forms and textures. Weston is using nature’s ever-present design as a subject of its own. This image can be viewed in numerous ways. It can be seen as a realistic study of the land, with all of its details sharply delineated from the foreground to the mountains in the far distance. Alternatively, it might be viewed as a counter-comment to a realistic reading of the image, abstracted into nothing more than a study of shape, form, line, and tone. Still others may see it in a spiritual sense, as an equivalent to a deeply felt personal event or other experience from life. Regardless of Weston’s original intent, he was highly aware of the formal elements of design within the ground glass and used them to his advantage.

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Image Source

The image above, Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern contains some of the elements we have discussed over in the past few posts. See how many of the items you can pick out.  Include any Gestalt elements you might recognize. As a starting point realize the photo is a picture of leaves in front of a white wall and the shadows they cast on that wall.

Don’t think that all of this discussion about line, form, shape etc. is just “old bunk” that no longer applies. Practiced every day, the Elements of Design still hold true and in the worlds of design, publishing, photography and Art. Familiarizing yourself with, and utilizing these concepts, but not letting them control your vision, is one of the best ways to improve your photography. As an exercise, spend the next few photo outings looking for designs in nature or at man made locations, they exist all over. When you find them, spend some time considering the best way to frame them in a way that the design becomes  part of the subject of the image. You will find that over time, your brain will start to connect more with design and you will be utilizing it naturally without effort. The end result will be improved vision and better photographs.


Next Time: Space


Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.


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