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Composition Special pt.1: Shapes and Lines

Every week I introduce several artists that inspire me on inspired by 7188my visual diary on tumblr. This blog post is a distillation of the good stuff.

This month is a bit different than the other parts of my monthly “inspired in…” series, because this is going to be all about composition and visual elements that make a photograph.

Now, I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve been learning more about some definable elements in photographs these days, which is actually more fun than I would’ve thought! So far I never really had the vocabulary to describe a photograph and to see how certain elements and colors evoke certain emotions in the viewer – all I had so far were the emotions when viewing a photograph, and I was – and still am, for the most part – fine with that, because I’m used to act on my intuition.

Nevertheless, this month I’ve been looking more into composition, lines, shapes, colors, texture and what they do, and very simply summarized my findings on inspired by 7188 together with a photo each to illustrate the element in question. Here, I will summarize all of that even more to give you a nice little overview. Needless to say, if you want to know more about one thing or the other, you might want to check out the more detailed descriptions on tumblr, or just write a comment under this post and let’s have a conversation about it.

The main elements I want to make you aware of are shapes, lines, color and texture.

Today in part 1 I am going to write about shapes and lines, and later this week in part 2 about color and texture. Let’s start with shapes:


Every composition consists of either one of or a combination of any of these shapes: rectangle, triangle, circle. If you develop an eye for these, you can use this knowledge more effectively to structure your frame.

Rain Silhouette by Jason Benning

Rain Silhouette by Jason Benning

Here, you can find a composition made of basically 3 triangles – one black, two grey. Triangles create dynamics and tension in a photograph.


Nostalgia… by Ewa Frye

Nostalgia… by Ewa Frye

This photograph is composed mainly of rectangles. At least 5. Rectangles create order in an image and stabilize the composition – which works very well here as a counterpart to the very unstable rain and water and creates some interesting visual tension.


Sheikh Zaiyed Mousqe by bohindi abdulla

Sheikh Zaiyed Mousqe by bohindi abdulla

You’ll find many shapes in this one, mainly one big circle, three big triangles and many small rectangles. It’s like a geometry wonderland 😉 … which gives it a nice graphical, abstract quality.



To become more aware of the lines in a photograph, you can mainly think about 3 concepts: vertical, horizontal and curved lines. Each with their own purpose and effect.

Brave Elephant by Marsel van Oosten

Brave Elephant by Marsel van Oosten

gloomy silence by Ronny Engelmann

gloomy silence by Ronny Engelmann

Vertical lines often convey a feeling of formality or power, like in this breathtaking photograph by Marsel van Oosten. Add to this the scale of elephant compared to waterfall and you have a very powerful image.

The photograph by Ronny Engelmann doesn’t show any indicator of scale, like the elephant, but it still feels very strong and awe-inducing due to the many vertical uninterrupted lines created by the trees.


Lost in Serenity … by Ahmed Abdulazim

Lost in Serenity … by Ahmed Abdulazim

Horizontal lines convey a static feeling, a feeling of stability, of restfulness. This is pronounced in this photography by placing the line of the horizon in the very middle of the frame, and by placing the subject vertically in the middle, as well. Do you feel the serenity, the restfulness?


Michael Kenna - Sari Island, Heuksan-do, Shinan, South Korea, 2012

Michael Kenna – Sari Island, Heuksan-do, Shinan, South Korea, 2012

The Serpent of the Valley by Lijah Hanley

The Serpent of the Valley by Lijah Hanley

Curved lines often make the viewer slow down, eyes wander along the lines, ponder… Like here in this photograph by Michael Kenna with the curved lines of the island and the black clouds.

Especially when they go into the distance, curved lines create a very strong feeling of depth in a photograph, like in the photograph by Lijah Hanley.


If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

This concludes today’s part 1. I know this seems like very very basic stuff – it is! – but I believe just being aware of these basic elements in a photograph help you use a more powerful composition in your own work, and gives you a vocabulary to describe and understand photographs better. I encourage you to keep your eyes open for these elements next time you look at pictures you like. This small exercise helped me a lot to sharpen my vision. Maybe not completely unrelated is this quote by Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”



I guess that I an a formal person then because I seem to use vertical lines a lot 🙂

haha, true, a couple of your photos are very vertical 😉 Don’t know if this is the reason for it, but I always thought many of your shots look formal indeed, which goes well with the humor that’s in them often times. I like that.

I agree Andrew, many of your pictures have a consistent “formal” look, maybe it is because of vertical lines, and also the use of repeating patterns. You have a unique style, I could probably identify your picture from a group of 50. 😀

Hey I really like what you’re doing with your blog holger, keep it up!!

How about diagonal lines? HCB (for one) used them a lot, and I find it gave his pictures a very dynamic feel.

Thanks Ali, very happy to hear that! 🙂 I was thinking about the diagonal lines, and you’re absolutely right: They definitely usually add a dynamic feel and a sense of movement to photos, e.g. when you put your camera at a weird angle when taking the shot. You seem to be very familiar with HCB’s work – I like that 🙂

P.S: I also didn’t mention imaginary lines that form automatically either between two subjects that are somehow connected by content, or purely visually, e.g. when you have spots or dots aligned. I’m sure I forgot a million other things! haha

Haha I must admit I’m a bit of a HCB fanboy 😀

I agree with what you said about imaginary lines too — sometimes they can really make a picture, like glances between subjects, or even looking outside the frame of the picture — as you said the list can be endless!

Yeah there’s so many details… that’s why there’s whole books only about composition I guess! (never had one in my hands, though :P)
But diagonal lines probably have their place among the basics I was writing about here!
Also, don’t forget that when there’s a diagonal line you can probably find a triangle, too… 😉

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