Six Classic Design Elements for Outstanding Photographs

by David Peterson

What’s the difference between a snapshot and a photograph? Between an ordinary photograph and a great photograph? It may surprise you to hear that even in modern photography, the answer to those questions can be found in design principles that are centuries old. All great photographs contain at least one of six elements that great works of art also contain. Keep these design principles in mind, and your snapshots will become great photos almost without effort. No photography rule is set in stone, but for the most part, chaos does not make for good photography. I’m not saying you can’t photograph a chaotic scene, but you must be able to find some order in it, or the typical viewer is not going to enjoy looking at it. So the trick is to bring a sense of order to chaos, or to find order in the ordinary. If you remember this, you will be able to turn any scene into a visually striking photograph.

Find the lines

Line is one of the most important photographic elements. Line draws the viewer’s eye into the image. It gives a photograph a sense of depth and distance and a feeling of potential. Lines don’t have to be straight, nor do they have to vanish (like those seen in the classic road or fence image). Lines can be curved, parallel or crossing, they can be long or short or thick or thin. Different kinds of lines convey different emotions–straight, vertical lines like those in a skyscraper convey power, while curved lines like those found in the path of a river are soothing.

Shape and Form (they’re not the same thing)

Shape is basically the two-dimensional version of form. When you focus on shape, you are primarily concerned with the outline of your subject and its two-dimensional qualities. The subject itself doesn’t have to be two-dimensional, of course, but its outline is typically more important than its depth. Form, then, is the three-dimensional version of shape. When you focus on form, you are more concerned with the subtle variations in light and shadow that make an object stand out from it environment. There are countless ways to use shape in your images. For the most pure form of shape, you can use backlighting to silhouette your subject (also see my video on the Golden Hour which also talks about silhouettes), which will remove all of its three dimensional qualities. But you can still focus on shape when three dimensional elements are present, simply by looking for the geometry in your composition.

Almost everything you see can be broken down into a series of geometric shapes. The next time you photograph a flower, see if you can find the circles in it. Look for the squares in a skyscraper, and then point your camera towards the top that building to find the triangle. Photographs are two dimensional, but skilful use of form will make a photo appear to have depth even when it doesn’t. When shooting an object for form rather than shape, pay attention to light and shadow and how they give that object a sense of depth. Move around the subject so that you get a better sense of it in three dimensions, and shoot from different angles until you find the one that best captures the object’s form. You will often hear photographers talk about the “magic hours;” shooting in the early morning or late afternoon will give you the best light for capturing form, because the shadows are longer and objects are more defined at those times.

Space

Space can be either positive or negative. The area within a shape can be referred to as space, but in photography we generally think of the negative version of space. Negative space is the area that surrounds a shape or form. You can find geometric shapes in the negative space just as you can find them in the positive space. Space is also a useful tool for creating drama; you can use a small negative space to make an object appear towering or overwhelming, or you can use a large negative space to make it seem smaller than it actually is. For example, with careful use of space an otherwise large boat photographed against a vast ocean can be made to look diminutive or even vulnerable.

Texture

Texture is generally associated with touch, which is not something you can convey literally in a photograph. But the right lighting conditions can highlight texture in a way that will make your viewer feel like she might be able to feel the texture if she touched the image. Like form, texture depends on shadow, so shoot your subject at the right time of day, when light and shadow combine to best recreate the object as it appears in three dimensions. Many of the best texture-based images are shot at close range in order to reveal the detail in the surface of the object. Contrasting smooth objects with rough ones is another way to make an impact using this principle of design.

Color

Color conveys emotion. Vibrant colors make a viewer feel energetic and happy, while muted colors are more soothing. Blues and greens are relaxing, while reds and yellows are more emotionally intense (and stimulate hunger, if all those fast food restaurant logos are to be believed). Careful placement of color in an image can add a lot of impact. Have you ever seen a black and white image with one colored element in it? It’s hard not to be drawn to that type of photograph, because color tends to bring the eye into an image. So too will a splash of bright color on an otherwise muted scene. Color is one of the best ways to create mood in photography; images shot at dusk, for example, will convey a sense of calm and relaxation by virtue of their cool color palettes, while those shot just after sunrise will feel warmer and more exciting.

Pattern

Pattern is not one of the six classic design principles, but it is one of the more important visual elements in modern photography. Finding a compelling pattern is almost a guaranteed way to capture an amazing photograph. Patterns appear everywhere in our world–in the bark of a tree, the honeycomb in a bees’ nest, or in a neat row of products on a store shelf. A pattern is any repeated object, color or shape – which sounds pretty basic until you start paying attention and then realize that you’ve been looking right past them for most of your life. Whenever you’re out with your camera, start training yourself to find patterns. In many cases, simply zooming in on a pattern will create the illusion of infinite repetition. You can also add interest by breaking up a pattern; a neat row of oranges, for example, will look much more interesting if you place a single lemon at one of the “rule of thirds” intersections. Of course photographs don’t need to contain all of these elements–if they did, they’d fall right back into that trap of chaos we’re trying to avoid. But using at least one of them in each of your photos will go a long way towards improving the overall quality of your photography. Train yourself to look for these design elements whenever you are in the field, and whenever you are studying the work of other photographers. Before long, your quest for line, shape, form, texture, pattern and color will become second nature, and your ordinary photographs will become great ones.

Basic sharpening

by Reg Caldecott

At almost all judging sessions at the club mention is made of “sharpening” or to be more precise, “over sharpening”. I think it would be extremely difficult, make that …impossible, to try to attach concrete values as to how much an image should be sharpened and at what limits an image would be considered over-sharpened. There are just too many variables as well as different methods that can be used to sharpen photographs.

As a first step I think we need to understand a little of the background of some of the methods of sharpening and how to apply them. The most common method, according to Google, is using the “unsharp mask”. Not wanting to re-invent the wheel and more importantly not being able to write it better myself the following article is used verbatim with acknowledgement to www. photojojo.com.

The biggest problem I have with this method is that the entire image (Including the “grain”) is sharpened and this often results in parts the picture appearing “noisy”. This can be countered by applying a layer mask or using high pass sharpening, but more about that in Part 2.

Unsharp Mask: How Do You Actually Use That Thing?

Until recently, if someone said the word “sharpening” to us, we’d whimper and hide under the table.
We mean, what the #$% is a threshold anyway?

Well, we finally got fed up with it, so we did some research. And you know what? Sharpening’s actually not that bad, and it makes a HUGE difference on digital images.

Here’s our no-nonsense, jargon-free guide to sharpening your photos using Unsharp Mask. It’ll change your life. We promise.

Why Do Digital Pictures Need Sharpening?

You never had to sharpen your photos when you were using film, so why do digital photos need it? Because film and digital cameras record images differently, young padawan. Read on…

Digital cameras have a fixed grid of pixels, each of which can only capture one colour or shade at a time. Say you take a picture that has a sharp edge between black and white. The razor-thin boundary of that edge would look half black and half white to the human eye. But the single pixel that records that hairline edge can only record one colour, so it renders it as grey.

What we think of as sharpness is actually the contrast we see between different colours: a quick transition from black to white looks sharp. A gradual transition from black to grey to white looks blurry. So when we look at the picture you just took of that sharp black & white edge, the grey pixels along the edge will make the photo look blurry.

Sharpening your picture increases the contrast along the edges where different colours meet. This tricks the eye into believing that the photo looks sharper, better, stronger.

What if I don’t want to Sharpen?

The good news is, most digital cameras include a sharpening feature. They sharpen your photos as part of the recording process, so you never see that blurry image at all. If you don’t want to worry about sharpening your pictures, make sure that feature is turned on in your camera, and you’re all set.
The bad news is, your camera isn’t as smart as you are and it may sharpen your pictures too much or too little. Plus, if your camera has already sharpened your images, you shouldn’t sharpen them again yourself. Twice-sharpened images just look crummy.

If you want the most control over your images, look for the “sharpen” or “sharpness” feature in your camera’s menu and turn it down as low as it will go. Turn it off if you can. Then you can control the sharpness yourself in Photoshop.

Some Basic Rules

Although there are no one-size-fits-all rules, we can give you a couple of rules of thumb.

  1. You can’t add detail that wasn’t already there. If the image was out-of-focus to begin with, sharpening won’t help. Sorry Charlie.
  2. Don’t sharpen until the last step of the editing process. Crop, make all your colour adjustments, mess with the contrast, resize. THEN do your sharpening.
  3. When you’re sharpening, view your images at either 100% or 50%. Other viewing sizes will trip you up because of anti-aliasing weirdness.
  4. Printers and monitors are based on different technology, so you’ll always see things differently in print than you will on the monitor. If you’re planning to print, the monitor will help get you into the right ballpark. You’ll still need to make a test print, though, before you set your final sharpness levels.

The Almighty Unsharp Mask

We’re going to teach you how to use the Unsharp Mask filter. There are lots of other ways to sharpen, but this one works just fine and it’s a good introduction to the concept. We’re also going to use Photoshop as our example, but plenty of image editing programs have features that work the same way.

Pick a digital image you want to edit. Make a copy of the background and edit on that layer. That way if you screw up it’s no big deal. In the Filter menu, go to Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask. A window will pop up with three different sliders.

What the Sliders do:

Amount: When you sharpen an image, Photoshop takes the edge between two colours and makes the light pixels lighter and the dark pixels darker. Amount determines how light the lighter pixels get, and how dark the darker pixels get.

If you set the amount too high, your picture will look grainy and overly contrast and you’ll actually lose some fine detail.

Radius: This determines the area that will be sharpened. A low radius means only the pixels right next to the edge will be sharpened. A high radius means a wider area will be sharpened.

Setting the radius too high will give you weird outlines or halos around your edges. Yech.

Threshold: Threshold determines how much contrast there needs to be between colours for them to be sharpened. A higher threshold means higher contrast areas will be sharpened, but low-contrast areas will not. Sharpening low-contrast areas (like a baby’s smooth skin) makes them look rough and speckled.

Setting the threshold too low will give you a grainy look on low-contrast areas, and will make noise stand out. Not so good.
OK, So What Do I Do?

In a nutshell, you want to set the radius first, then the amount, then the threshold. Here’s how:

Step 1: View the image at 100%. Set the radius between 1 and 3. Set the amount between 300 and 500. Set the threshold at 0.
This will look like crap. But you’re going to fix it in a minute, so don’t worry.

Slide the radius level up until you start to see nasty halos forming, then back it off a bit. It’s OK if it looks a little bit harsh at this point.

Step 2: Change the image view to 50%. Adjust the amount until it looks grainy and over sharpened, than back it down a little.

Step 3: Move the threshold slider up until the low-contrast areas look smooth, but you can still see fine details.

This is a pretty subtle adjustment.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Congratulations bucko! Now you know how to sharpen your pictures using Unsharp Mask. It’s a good solid tool that should serve you well for most of your sharpening needs.

Of course, the thing about photographers is that we all have our own idiosyncratic ways of doing things. Some folks like Unsharp Mask, and some folks like other methods.

Here’s a taste of the wide world that awaits you:

Smart Sharpening: Sharpen mid-tones, highlights and shadows separately.
High Pass Sharpening: Sharpen on a layer instead of the picture itself. Special filters sharpen edges while leaving smoother areas untouched.
Sharpening Masks: Sharpening for Photoshop Grandmasters. Involves lots of layers and masks, but produces professional quality results.