Elements of a Photograph: Shape


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.

When a line, or more than one line, closes or connects, a shape is formed. This is the topic of this next part of our Elements of a Photograph series.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Lines intersect to form shapes.
Lines intersect to form shapes.


The Merriam-Webster definition of “shape” that we are concerned with as photographic artists is:

1 a : the visible makeup characteristic of a particular item or kind of item

1 b (1) : spatial form or contour

1 b (2) : a standard or universally recognized spatial form

Shapes are formed by lines and shadow.
Shapes are formed by lines and shadow.

Characteristics of Shapes

Shapes are two-dimensional. They can be measured by overall height and width. Shapes can be the outline of an object—familiar or unfamiliar.

Sometimes a familiar shape can transform into an unfamiliar or unrecognizable shape based on the viewpoint of the photographer. While the shape of a standard lightbulb is recognizable and constant from the horizontal viewpoint, viewing it from directly overhead or below shows a nondescript circle.

The overhead of the USS Arizona Memorial has beautiful shapes.
The overhead of the USS Arizona Memorial has beautiful shapes.

Different shapes, when they intersect and overlap, can combine to create a new shape. Shapes can also surround an area to create another shape.

In a photograph, a silhouette is the purest essence of a shape—no form, texture, or color (some of the other elements of art we will discuss in companion articles). Due to its stark contrast with its surroundings, a silhouette is also the most visually obvious.

Shapes are often visually defined by the intersection and/or closing of lines. They can also be visually defined by their value—brighter or darker than their surroundings. Differences in color, texture, and pattern surrounding an area are additional distinguishing markers. Shapes can be defined by other shapes surrounding an area, such as the arrow in the logo of a popular shipping company. The area containing a shape is often referred to as positive space, and the outside area is called negative space—however, sometimes the negative space creates a shape of its own.

Shapes can be geometric.
Shapes can be geometric.

Types of Shapes

There are two basic types of shapes: geometric (or regular) and organic. We all know geometric shapes—circle, square, triangle, dodecahedron, and so on. We are also familiar with organic shapes—the outline of a bird, elephant, flower, tree, etc. Fluids can create organic shapes that cannot be permanently defined—the shape of a cloud or a rain puddle, for instance.

Shapes can be organic.
Shapes can be organic.

Shapes can be as simple as a triangle or infinitely complex. Shapes are two-dimensional.

Shapes are everywhere.
Shapes are everywhere.

Where Are Shapes in Photographs?


The physical photograph is a shape—usually a rectangle or square, but sometimes a circle, oval, or random shape.

Inside that photograph are shapes captured in the scene by the photographer and his or her camera.

Shapes and lines.
Shapes and lines.
Shapes can formed by the lines of shadow.
Shapes can formed by the lines of shadow.

The next topic we'll cover in this series is 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.


Dodecahedron? Lisa Simpson couldn't have said it better.

Ha! Thank you, Anthony! :)