Getting Familiar With Basic Shapes

If you were to walk into a design school tomorrow, it’s highly unlikely that they would begin teaching you Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and inDesign. Instead, they’d probably spend at least six months teaching you basic drawing skills, composition, and the elements that make up great design. This is called “foundations” and it’s essential to becoming a master designer, illustrator, or grossly overpaid creative director.

In a similar vein, I’d like to take some time to strip photography to it’s essentials before I bother talking about F-stops, ISO, and shutter speeds. We’ll get to that stuff later. For now, let’s talk about the basic shapes that make up our world.

The Basic Shapes

In painting, drawing, and other forms of visual art, design can be defined as the planned arrangement of shapes. This is equally true in photography. Great photographic compositions are designed, using the angle and position of your camera to include/exclude and even create certain shapes. The trick is learning to “see” these shapes every time you shoot.

Try looking around your environment right now. The objects, designs, and patterns you see probably look complicated at first glance. However, almost any of them can be distilled into their basic geometric shapes. In doing so, you can better translate your three-dimensional world into an effective two-dimensional photo.

These shapes are:

  • Squares
  • Rectangles
  • Circles
  • Triangles
  • Arches

You’ll notice, as we look through the following photographs, that shape can either be implied or actual. Actual shapes would be shapes that have hard, clearly-defined edges. Windows, doors, etc. Implied shapes are created by softer edges such as a visible change in contrast, color, value, or texture. (Note: That’s pretty much all the art terminology I want to go into in this post, check out this vocabulary list for more shape-related terms.)

This photograph by Oliver Cole is an excellent example of actual shape. Here, the photographer uses rectangles, squares, and circles to make an visually interesting composition:

Fantastic example of actual shape


On the other hand, here’s a great example of an implied circle and triangle in an image by Mike Wilson.

Original, implied circle (contrast/color), implied triangle (line).


Here, the circle isn’t actually created by a single hard edge. Instead, it’s suggested by a difference in contrast and color. Similarly, there’s a triangle shape created by the hard line of the window and the angle of the subject’s body. These are subtle shapes, but are important to notice. In later articles we’ll learn to use these shapes to make our compositions more effective.


The Magnetic Pull of Geometry

As a photographer, it’s your job to guide a viewer through your photograph. This is why understanding the geometry of your world is so crucial— these basic shapes are so recognizable, they naturally draw the eye. And, if you can learn to see them consistently, you can use them to create powerful images, balance your composition, draw attention to different areas of your images, or help make it clear who your subject is.


Further Reading

For more on the power of geometry in photography, check out any of the following articles:




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