Photo Tip of the Month: Elements of Design

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Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson – Magnum Photos

You will forgive us for repeatedly mentioning Henri Cartier-Bresson, but in this month’s photography tip, I can think of no one better than the great master himself when it comes to talking about elements of design.

Bresson said that the greatest joy for him while photographing was looking for Geometry. In other words he looked for structures, saying that it was a visual pleasure, an intellectual pleasure to put everything in the right place.

“It’s a recognition of an order that is in front of you,” he said.

Last month we spoke about the importance of light in our photography, and how different qualities, direction and properties of light affect our photographs, and we will talk about composition in our next month’s blog, but at LSP a very important part of our level II course are the Elements of Design.

Lines, textures, forms and patterns can be used to add spice to our pictures. They can be used to catch the eye of the viewer, or to lead his eye to where we want it to go in the photograph. Imagine a photo of a man riding a bicycle. In many ways it can be a dull photograph. Now have a look at the photo below by Bresson. The elements of design, and his love of geometry are evident in every milimetre of the photo. Circles, triangles, rectangles, spirals it’s all there. And it’s there for one reason alone: To lead you to the cyclist.

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson – Magnum Photos

So let’s start with Bresson’s favourite, geometry. Geometrical shapes can be found all around us, in architecture and in nature. Using geometry makes the images more visually pleasing to the eye, and can improve an otherwise dull photograph significantly.

Photo by Alex Webb – Magnum Photos

We see objects in three dimensions, but when we photograph them we see them in two dimensions, and that can lose a very important part of the whole experience of viewing the image. What does it feel like? Is it soft or hard to the touch? We can provide that feel by emphasizing textures using oblique lighting striking that object from the side.

While teaching, we often say that 10 photographers photographing the same scene at the same time will come out with 10 different ways to show you that scene. As a news photographer, I often find myself photographing the same subject or story as my colleagues from other agencies, and the problem here is that we all have to find a more creative way to tell the same story than the others. So you will often see pictures of the same event, photographed from different angles, and the clever use of natural props by photographers to make their photos more visually pleasing. The use of patterns left by shadows on the stairs for example. Magnum photographers like Alex Webb have turned the use of elements of design into an art form.

Photo by Alex Webb – Magnum Photos

Lines are also extremely important as capture the viewer and guide them through the image. Leading lines for instance grab and hold the viewer’s eye and draw it through the image effortlessly. This trick can be used if our subject is a little far away from our camera or like in the image below, where the photographer used a spiraling line forcing the viewer to see the whole image while leading him to the centre of the photo.

The eternal question of what makes a good photo is not an easy one to answer. There are guidelines, rules, dos and don’ts, but if there is one thing we all know is that rules are made to be broken. One way we can start training our eye to recognise and effortlessly use these elements of design in our photography is to basically to go out looking for them. Practice photographing geometrical shapes, lines and patterns only to start off with and slowly start adding them and using them to improve your images. Practice makes perfect, and you will find that one day you won’t even have to think about it, you will be able to identify and use the elements of design like a seasoned pro.


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