The elements of design exist in abundance in nature. Lines, shapes, patterns, and textures appear in both the intimate scene and in the grand landscape. These design elements are the core of a graphically pleasing photograph. They help to create an expressive image, often bringing movement, structure, balance, and visual contrast together in one outstanding photograph. By artfully including existing design elements, you can create a photograph with higher visual impact, regardless of whether it’s a wildlife, landscape, or close-up subject.
Frequently, the design itself can become the main focus of the photograph, and many times, more than one design element (e.g. lines, patterns) will exist in a scene you are photographing. How do we translate these elements into successful photo images, and how do we “find” them? Let’s begin by looking at each element.
Lines are perhaps the most common element in nature. When used effectively, they lead us into and through the scene, moving us along a visual path. Three types of lines exist – horizontal, vertical, and diagonal – and all of them create a different amount of movement or energy in a photograph and therefore a different effect.
Horizontal lines produce a stationary, pastoral feeling. Fields, gentle rolling hills, lakes, rivers and ocean scenics are just a few subjects that often exhibit strong horizontal lines. The most common occurrence is the horizon itself, and if unbroken, it creates a rather static composition. Incorporate objects (mountains, rocks, trees) that break up the line and add visual interest, and place your horizon off-center for more impact, unless you are aiming for absolute symmetry. For this autumn image of the aspens along a lake in the Eastern Sierra, CA (Figure 1: Aspens, Grant Lake, California), I placed the horizon line in the upper third of the image. The still reflection also helped to reduce the impact of the shoreline and the results were a tranquil scene, in spite of the saturated reds of the aspen leaves. Watch for those subtle, implied horizontal lines, such as pastures and gently rolling fields. If you want to emphasize the calm, pastoral effect of your horizontal landscape, choose horizontal framing. If you want to de-emphasize it, select vertical framing. etc.
Vertical lines add movement and energy to an image. They often have an implied direction. They help to make an image expressive and often more powerful. The trunks of trees, grass blades, flower stalks, – these represent just a few vertical lines in nature. I was drawn to the cypress trees in fog because of the powerful lines that the trunks created. (Figure 2: Cypress Trees in Fog, California) I selected a tight composition to accentuate them, eliminating unwanted grasses below and branches that would lead the eye astray. The fog enabled me to produce a graphic image with depth. Even vertical lines can be subtle: you’ll find them in the markings of an animal’s stripes, or flower petals. When working in macro mode, vertical lines can become visually overpowering, because you are working with so few elements to start, such as a flower stalk. Choose your compositions carefully when using vertical lines, and be sure that they don’t lead you away from the main focal point of the image.
Diagonal lines produce the most energy or movement of any type of line. Like vertical lines, they pull us in and direct us through a scene, yet they do so more aggressively, creating visual tension as a result. Diagonal lines are found in the same subject matter as vertical lines. You can also find diagonal lines in the form and shape of mountains, hillside meadows, in sunbeams and shafts of light in a forest. The image of the fan palm shows diagonal lines in a graphic manner. (Figure 3: Fan Palm Frond, AnzaBorrego S.P., California) You can create implied diagonals with the use of a wide angle lens, a strong foreground subject, and allowing the distorted perspective to imply the diagonal. A vertical line can often be made diagonal by angling the camera. This is a great technique in macro photography, when the stalk of a flower or branch of a tree is a strong line.
Form is the three-dimensional quality of an object, and it is photographically defined by light, even though translated onto two dimensional film. Trees, rocks, shorelines, mushrooms, wildflowers, or animals, these objects can depict dimension. This form is portrayed by the gradual shading of highlight to shadow, as on this image of a California Quail. (Figure 4: California Quail) The side light (from the photographer’s position) shades the bird and shows the roundness of its body.
Shape is the two-dimensional definition of an object (height and width). Lacking any definition or light shading that would give them form, the geometrical shapes of objects can create graphic, dramatic results if used effectively. Shape is often portrayed as a silhouette. Trees, sea stacks, animals – all of these and more can create interesting studies of shape in the natural world. On a more subtle level, shapes can occur as triangles, circles, and squares in the image. The beached iceberg represents a strong shape, being light in color against the darker background. (Figure 5: Iceberg, Ford’s Terror, SE Alaska)
When colors, shapes or lines repeat themselves, a strong pattern can emerge. Fallen leaves, branches on trees, and flowers in a meadow all create visual pattern. On the larger scale, trees on a hillside, and eroded rock hoodoos can represent pattern. You can create stunning photographs by incorporating pattern. To be understood,however, you must include enough repetition to establish a pattern. In most cases, pattern only begins to emerge when there are at least three similar elements in the frame, and becomes much stronger with five or more. In the image of autumn leaves on dried mud, the pattern is striking due to the repetition of both the colors and the shapes (and the repetition of texture didn’t hurt either!) I framed this image tightly, cropping some leaves at the frame edge, to suggest a continuing pattern, which was true in this case. (Figure 6:Maple and Oak Leaves in Dry Wash, Zion N.P., Utah)
We can translate a tactile effect onto a two-dimensional piece of film by creating implied texture, . Curling, dried mud, weathered wood, soft grasses, and sandstone all have textures that can be photographed. Texture is most commonly brought out with an oblique angle of light, (sidelight) which, in skimming the surface of the object, records the pockets of contrast, and picks up the hairs, cracks, curls, and ridges to create the textured effect. Soft, diffuse light also works well, if there is enough contrast to define the texture. In the image of cholla cactus in Joshua Tree Natl. Park, I chose a backlit position to bring out the “fuzzy” edges of each cholla segment, thereby creating a strong texture in my image. (Figure 7: Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree N.P., California)
Perspective is the representation of depth in photography. Depending upon how you arrange the design elements, – lines, shapes and textures- within your frame, you can increase or decrease perspective. Wide angle lenses increase perspective, telephoto lenses decrease it. If you wish to express a vastness, to exaggerate distance in a scene, three things can work: choose a short focal length lens, move in closely on some foreground object in your scene, or lower your camera and tilt it downward. Each of these can increase the perception of depth or distance in your photograph. In the image of Long Lake in the Eastern Sierra, the dead snag in the foreground, coupled with a 24mm lens, created the distance I wanted to express. (Figure 8:Long Lake, Eastern Sierra, California) The relationship of the snag to the background defines the depth. This near/far relationship is a technique used by many landscape photographers.
To decrease depth in a scene, you need to take the opposite action – use a longer focal length lens, or raise your camera (to avoid foreground object relationships). I often use this technique to compress rolling hills and mountain ranges.
These are the building blocks, the raw material, of designing an image. Learn to incorporate these, and you’ll soon be making more graphically pleasing images. To begin, you need to develop the ability to see these design elements. A tested way to do that is to give yourself assignments – that’s right, homework, or shall we say field work! Select one design element at a time, and go out and look for that element in nature. Do this for a day, a week or a month, with every chance you have to get out into nature. I can guarantee you will hone your vision and begin to pick out that element in a scene more readily than ever before. When you feel you have successfully practiced with one element, take on another and another, until soon you can see all the lines, textures, patterns, and rhythms of nature everywhere you look! It will change the way you see and how you create nature images, and you will find yourself producing better photographs than ever before.
by Brenda Tharp, Wilderness Photographic Workshops