Discovering Form in Photography

Close-up photo of the backside of a lavendar Lily by Juergen Roth.
© 2010 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Lily Fine Art Camera settings f/7.1, 1/3 sec.

There are many elements of design, which include shape, line, pattern and texture. When combined, we experience form within a two-dimensional media. Each of these can make or break a photograph. I consider them equally important, but I look at the element of form as the most important element of art.

Forms are defined by their lines, shapes, and volume. Lines define the subject and determine its shape. Volume, from front to back, top to bottom and side to side, along with complimenting light is what makes a photo three-dimensional.

Photographing form can be capturing an overall contour of a three-dimensional object—say, a flower–or composing an image from an unusual perspective and capturing its shape in an abstract way.

Close-up photo of fall leaf in water by Juergen Roth.
© 2010 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Beautiful World Camera settings f/7.1, 1/30 sec.

Writers of light do it as well; they transform shape, line, color, pattern – passionless components – into photographs that grasp, delight, repulse, or inspire. Their work bestows life – Anonymous

Lines

First and foremost, lines border our photographic object and, therefore, define its shape. Secondly, they effectively lead a viewer into and through a photograph.

Naturally, when a viewer explores a photograph, his eyes move along the lines within or along the edges of an object. Compositional lines successfully used in photography pull the viewer into the photograph, either towards the main subject or through the scenery.

Lines can be straight, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, curved or converging. Used effectively, each can have a positive impact, enhancing a photograph and creating a mood. A horizontal line appears static and is passive. It can convey quietness, but also can be boring. Diagonals are dynamic and convey movement, steering ahead and moving forward.

Often a line from the bottom left to the upper right corner is considered positive, from bottom right to the upper left corner negative. Vertical lines appear strong, solid, and vital. A curved line has a converging character that is strongly conveyed by an arch leading from one point to another.

Close-up photos of Lily, Sunflower, Orchid and Globe Thistle by Juergen Roth.
© Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Left to Right: As I Am, 2010 (diagonal), Sunflower after Hours, 2010 (vertical), Orchid Macro, 2010 (curved), Globe Thistle, 2007 (converging)
Close-up photo of reddish mushroom by Juergen Roth
© 2009 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Simply Delicious Camera settings f/7.1, 1/5 sec.

Shapes

Shapes are two-dimensional and while triangular shapes represent magic, creativity, strength, and endurance, squared and rectangular ones indicate integrity, community, stability, and structure. In the natural world, squares and rectangles are not often present and mostly can be observed in the manmade world.

Triangles appear in nature as mountain peaks, evergreen trees, or sometimes in tiny mushrooms. Circles composed of a single, unbroken line represent wholeness and convey a protecting, surrounding character. Circles are seen quite often in nature.

By their enormous size, the planets, the sun, and the moon are the most powerful circular shapes in nature, but many smaller circles can be found in dewdrops, berries, and flower blossoms.

Close-up photo of raindrop on sliver of flower petal by Juergen Roth.
© 2008 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Raindrop Camera settings f/3.5, 1/20 sec. Spiral shapes may convey balance, progress, awareness, or connection and are often recognized in Fiddleheads or in the arrangement of flower petals.
Close-up photo of peach colored Rose with rain drops by Juergen Roth
© 2008 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Innocent Beauty Camera settings f/6.3, 1/40 sec.

What use is having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling? – W. Eugene Smith

MOVING FROM TWO-DIMENSIONAL TO THREE-DIMENSIONAL: CREATING FORM

Close-up photo of Hydrangeas flowers by Juergen Roth
© 2010 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Hydrangeas Camera settings f/7.1, 1/25 sec.

 

Close-up photo of Tulip by Juergen Roth
© 2010 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Noh Mai Camera settings f/3.5, 1/160 sec.

 

Close-up photo of purple flower by Juergen Roth

© 2011 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved.

Open to Happiness
Camera settings f/5.6, 1/100 sec.

Close-up abstract photo of Calla Lily by Juergen Roth
© 2011 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Zantedeschia Camera settings f/4.0, 1/50 sec.


Volume

Although a photograph is two-dimensional, we can convey a sense of volume–make it appear to the viewer as three-dimensional.

When we successfully add volume to a photograph, we succeed in creating a three-dimensional impression within a two-dimensional medium.

The best way to achieve this is by inserting elements in different planes of the image. For instance, the hydrangea flower photograph presents the viewer with a feeling of a three-dimensional area through the use of depth, because the nearer blossom dominates the foreground of the photograph.

Another example of conveying depth that fools the eye is the use of two or three similar subjects at different distances. In the case of my tulip photograph, I reproduced the blossom at different scales and I composed the tulip petals of the main subject in a way that gives the blossom volume and ensures that the element giving the sense of depth is in focus.

Light

Another attribute that establishes form and a three-dimensional feeling in a photograph is the use of light. Light can be dull and boring during midday, but can transform a photographic subject beautifully during the morning or evening.

Especially when the subject is lit from the side, light paints it beautifully and brings out its texture. Depending on the source and direction of the light, parts of the object remain in shadow while others shine, which adds contrast. Light from above and the side creates edges and depth, providing the viewer with a feeling of volume and form.

Nothing is repeatable especially the light – Bob

Flowers make fantastic photographic subjects. I’m almost always drawn to the color of a floral blossom first, and then I get lost in exploring the other compositional elements.

Colors usually dominate and demand a lot of attention, but form (consisting of the subject’s lines and shapes) has become even more important in my compositions. In order for a photograph to successfully show form, the volume of the subject needs to be conveyed.

Practice Your Technique

Throughout the last few years I have barely added to my camera equipment. Instead, I made it a priority to learn how to use my existing gear to its fullest potential, challenging myself with every composition.

More important than saving money on camera upgrades, this approach taught me to compose an image carefully, while unveiling form with the use of lines, shapes, volume and light. Now I isolate shapes and lines within abstract photo compositions while still communicating a sense of form.

Sharpness is a bourgeois concept. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

When approaching abstraction through my lens, I follow formal composition to add a sense of mystery or sensuality to my images. What I leave out of a composition has often become much more important than what I decide to include. If I decide to include too much, the essential message may be weakened, and I may lose the artistic tension of the composition.

Not unveiling everything and holding something back, not being an open book, is considered by many an attractive quality in a person; the same holds true for my macro flower photography.

Close-up photo of pink rose by Juergen Roth.
© 2010 Juergen Roth. All Rights Reserved. Innocent Beauty Camera settings f/6.3, 1/40 sec.

Two of the biggest challenges in photography are often controlling the use of color and enhancing form. Unlike creative people working in other media, we photographers are not in total control of our color destiny; we must accept what nature provides.

But with practice, we can learn to enhance nature’s form and present the photo subject as three-dimensional. Only through trial and error have I been able to create a photographic style that, for me, is beautifully balanced between heart and head, the emotional and the rational.

by Juergen Roth

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1 Comment on Discovering Form in Photography

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your article Juergen, as a budding (pun intended!) macro photographer and attorney with a BFA! I shoot a Nikon D810 and use either a 200 mm or 105 mm lens. Your compositions are wonderful…time to start trying
    Some new techniques! Thanks.

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