Elements of a Photograph: Form

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There are seven basic elements of photographic art: line, shape, form, texture, color, size, and depth. As a photographic artist, your knowledge and awareness of these different elements can be vital to the success of your composition and help convey the meaning of your photograph.

What separates form from shape? Form takes shape from the two-dimensional and brings it into the three-dimensional. And, speaking of form, it is the next part of our Elements of a Photograph series.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

More than shape, this Douglas DC-3 has form. A beautiful form.
More than shape, this Douglas DC-3 has form. A beautiful form.

Definition:

The Merriam-Webster definition of “form” comprises 12 parts, 27 sections, and 4 subsections. As photographic artists, the part we are concerned with is:

1 a: the shape and structure of something as distinguished from its material

Characteristics of Form

Form is three-dimensional. Form has overall height, width, and depth.

Subtle shading gives us a sense of the form of the DC-3.
Subtle shading gives us a sense of the form of the DC-3.

 

Types of Form

Just as with shapes, there are two basic types of form—geometric (or regular) and organic.

Geometric forms are the familiar sphere, cube, cone, cylinder, and so on. We are also, of course, familiar with organic forms—they are the objects that surround us in our three-dimensional world.

Like shapes, forms can be simple or infinitely complex.

And, again, like shapes, forms create positive and negative space. In a photograph, positive space is basically that which is occupied by forms; negative space is what remains.

This building has a famously beautiful form.
This building has a famously beautiful form.

Where Are Forms in Photographs?

Often, everywhere.

A photograph captures all the forms in the field of view of the lens.

Three-dimensional forms are rendered in two dimensions by the photograph. Whether on the print or on the screen, the final image does not have depth. So, how do we perceive three-dimensional form in the two-dimensional photograph? Shadow.

The bow of this battleship has a form designed to plow through the sea at high speed.
The bow of this battleship has a form designed to plow through the sea at high speed.

Painters and draftspeople create the illusion of three-dimensional form with shading. The photograph renders form by capturing the spectrum of tonality from highlights, through the midtones, and into the core shadow on any object. Such gradations help to demonstrate, not simply an illusion of depth, but the actual dimensionality of an object within the image. Cast shadows also reveal depth.

Because we are capturing tonality changes and cast shadows of an object, the direction and intensity of the light relative to that object can change how we perceive the depth of the object in a photograph.

The diffuse light from the overcast sky visually flattens the scene, but the shading gives us a sense of form.
The diffuse light from the overcast sky visually flattens the scene, but the shading gives us a sense of form.

The next element of photographic art we will discuss is texture.

Another famous building and another study of form.
Another famous building and another study of form

Your thoughts on this article are welcome in the Comments section, below!

About the Elements of a Photograph Series

There are seven basic elements to photographic art:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Texture
  5. Color
  6. Size
  7. Depth

It's worth noting that many articles and websites covering this subject list the basic elements of art as: line, shape, form, texture, color, space, and value. My list of seven includes size and depth in place of space and value. I base my list not just on graduate studies of photography and years of creating images, but on the names of basic elements featured in the personally influential Kodak book, The Art of Seeing.

With paintings and drawings, these elements are added to the blank canvas. In photography, they are presented to us in the world before our lens. Regardless of the elements of art that you learn, as I said above, it is your knowledge and awareness of these elements that can become a valuable tool in your compositional tool kit as well as help you deliver a clear meaning to your work. This awareness will generally be subconscious, but, at times, when making a photograph, these elements might come to the forefront of your artistic eye. In such moments, you can create your composition with these factors in mind.

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