Unless you count the air, there is really very little in our world that doesn't have shape. Shape is everywhere. It is often the first thing you see when you look at a scene, whether you are consciously aware of it or not.
In art (and photography), shape is one of the six classic design elements, which also includes line, form, texture, color and space. Almost every photograph contains one or more shapes, but great photographs are those where the photographer has used shape in a unique or interesting way.
Shape is concerned only with the two dimensional qualities of an object. (Form, shape's cousin supplies the three dimensional qualities.) It can be found in any object that has a definite outline. For the simplest version of this idea, look at an image where the subject has been silhouetted against a bright background such as a sunset. No three dimensional information has been captured in the silhouetted image, so the viewer is free to focus on shape alone. Silhouettes are appealing because the details of an object are hidden, leaving the viewer to speculate about what the object might really look like.
Shape is not just limited to silhouettes, of course. A three-dimensional object can also have a strong shape. The trick is in learning to find objects with appealing shapes and to capture them in an equally appealing way. Like the other classic design elements, skillful use of shape can give your photograph meaning and interest. Understanding the different types of shape and how to use them in your work is one way you can dramatically improve the quality of your photographs.
Organic shape vs. geometric shape
Organic shapes occur frequently in nature (hence the name). They include curves, such as those you might see in the petal of a flower, and irregular shapes such as those you might see on a rock face.
Geometric shapes, on the other hand, are straight and symmetrical. As you might have guessed, geometric shapes are found more often in the man-made world than in nature--they include things like buildings, roads and bridges.
Positive shape vs. negative shape
If you're just starting to consciously tinker with shape in your photography, you've probably been focusing primarily on positive shape. Positive shapes are found in visible objects. A pumpkin has a positive shape. A bird has a positive shape. But you should also take time to look for negative shapes, or shapes that are made by the objects around them but have no tangible form of their own. This type of shape might be found in an archway or in the heart shape made when two birds face one another.
What shape says
In general, shapes convey a lot of information to the viewer. They suggest size and weight, and the way they interact with the negative space and the other objects in the image tells the viewer something about the object's proportion, how it compares to other objects and how important or dominant it is.
Like line, different types of shapes convey different messages. Regular shapes such as circles, squares and triangles with even sides convey a sense of order and stability. Irregular shapes such as rectangles, skewed triangles, parallelograms and ovals can give a photograph the illusion of motion or simply make it seem more dynamic. Curved, organic shapes suggest relaxation and lazy motion.
Using shape effectively
When looking at your subject, decide what it is about that object that makes it interesting. If the object's outline is more dominant than its three dimensional qualities, you need to approach your photograph with an eye for shape rather than form. (Conversely, if the object seems interesting because of the way the light strikes it, or because of its volume, then your photograph should focus more on your subject's form). It's important to make this distinction because shape and form make for two very different kinds of images. If your subject is more interesting because of its shape, you need to focus more on angle, perspective and the placement of other objects in the scene. If your subject is more interesting because of its form, you will be more concerned with light and shadow and how you can best emphasize the two dimensional shape of the object.
Shape can be found in a single object or in a collection of objects. To avoid overwhelming your viewer, try to find collections of objects that have a similar shape, such as a stack of boxes or a bunch of grapes. Adding multiple types of shapes - such as a combination of circles, triangles, and squares - can be confusing and create chaos.
Putting it into practice
Sometimes you need to become a viewer in order to become a better photographer. A simple exercise you can do to start you on the path towards mastering shape is to go through your own work and examine each photo to see if you can find the positive and negative shapes. Choose your favorite photos as well as those that don't seem to work as well. Look for the ones that have strong geometric shapes and ask yourself what makes them good photos. Now find the organic shapes and determine what kind of mood those images seem to convey. Do your favorite photos contain different kinds of shapes or similar shapes? Do those with varying shapes have a sense of disorder or make you feel uncomfortable?
Once you're done with your own work, move on to mainstream images and collections of photos by well-known photographers. Chances are you'll easily spot the shapes in those photos. Compare them to your own and see if there's room for improvement.
Now take these new skills with you out into the field. Whenever you're shooting a scene that doesn't require you to move fast or lose the shot, take a few moments to carefully examine your surroundings for shape. If you can't find any strong shapes in the scene, try a different perspective or angle. Forcing yourself to notice the shapes in your surroundings will eventually help you develop a natural eye for it.
Not every photo needs to have a strong shape, of course. If you're familiar with all six of the classic design elements, you can effectively focus on any one of them and still end up with a great photograph. But shape is a really good place to start, especially for a hobbyist who wants to approach his or her photography from a more artistic perspective. Shape is the easiest and most natural of the six design elements to find in a scene, and mastering it is a great way to add classical beauty to your portfolio.
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