Shape Photography – Everything You Need to Know

What is Shape Photography?

In basic words, shape defines a flat, enclosed area of space. Shapes are constructed with colors and lines, but all shapes are limited to two dimensions, i.e., width and length.

Shape photography is the two-dimensional appearance of objects as your camera captures them. For instance, if you look at an image of a ball, you’ll find its shape as a circle. Likewise, if you look at a picture of a cube-shaped suitcase, you’ll find its shape like a square. It doesn’t matter if it’s a toy, a plane, or a human; it is a two-dimensional representation of something we recognize.

Note that all of these shapes – as a with all shapes in photographic composition! – are two dimensional. They have a width, and they have a height, but they have no depth.

Now, as photography is a two-dimensional medium, photographed objects naturally have a shape. With the inception of modern art, shape photography gained momentum in minimalist and abstracted artistic movements.

What are the Characteristics of Shapes?

Shapes are two-dimensional that can be measured by height and width. Shapes can be the sketch/outline of an object—familiar or unfamiliar.

Sometimes a familiar shape can change into an unfamiliar or undefined form based on the photographer’s viewpoint. For example, while the shape of a standard lightbulb is identifiable and constant from the horizontal viewpoint, viewing it directly from overhead or below shows an undistinguished circle.

Different shapes can combine to create a new shape when they intersect and overlap. For example, a shape surrounding an area can create another shape.

The purest essence of a shape in a photograph is a silhouette—no form, texture, or color. Due to its high contrast with its surroundings, a silhouette is also most visually apparent.

Shapes are visually defined by the intersection and/or closing of lines. They can also be visually represented by their value—brighter or darker than their surroundings. Differences in color, pattern, and texture surrounding an area are additional distinguishing markers. Finally, shapes can be defined by other shapes surrounding an area, such as the arrow in the logo of a famous shipping company. The area containing a shape is often related to positive space, and the outside area is called negative space. However, sometimes, the negative space creates a shape of its own. 

Shape and Form Photography

Surrounded by shapes and forms, photography can tell a different tale of the objects through the camera lens.  To nail the effects, you must know the difference between shape and form photography. Suppose you find the shape of the object more interesting. In that case, your focus should be on the angle, the subject’s position, and your point of view. On the other hand, suppose the subject’s form demands your attention. In that case, you will prioritize light, its shadow, and how efficiently you can utilize the 2-D shape of the subject.

To keep it simple, shape photography considers the two- dimensional aspect of the object and considers flat and silhouetted lighting. On the other hand, form photography views the three-dimensional part of the object. Therefore, it allows light that accentuates shadows to create depth of the object.

What are the Types of Shape in Photography Composition?

In photography, the shape has several different elements, not the different forms you learn in school. Shapes in photography can be categorized in a few different ways:

  • Geometric: Geometric shapes have straight and defined edges. This type of shape is most common in artificial structures, like architectural photography.

Geometric shapes are those we usually think of, such as:

  • Circles
  • Squares
  • Triangles

Geometric shapes, like buildings, are generally man-made, and each shape creates a different atmosphere in an image.

Because circles never end, they add energy and movement to a photo. As a result, the eye is constantly directed around the image.

Squares and rectangles offer stability and solidity, especially if they are large.

Upwards facing triangles also deliver stability because of the solid base of the triangle. However, downward and sideways facing triangles don’t bring tension but still direct the eye in the direction they’re facing. Like diagonal lines, triangles are dynamic and add energy to an image.

  • Organic: Organic shapes are full of curves and may not be geometrically perfect. These shapes are mostly found in nature, like the curve of a flower petal.
  • Positive: A positive shape is what we think of first when we think of a shape. It is the shape made by an object.
  • Negative: A negative space is a leftover space or where the objects in the photo aren’t. For example, negative space is the crack in a canyon wall or a shape formed from the outline of two positive spaces.

How to Use Shape Effectively?

When looking at the subject to photograph, decide what makes the object more interesting. Suppose the object’s outline dominates its three-dimensional qualities. In that case, you need to approach the scene with an eye for shape rather than form. Alternatively, if the object seems more attractive because of the way the light strikes it or because of its volume, then your shot should focus more on your subject’s form. It’s essential to make this distinction because shape and form make for two very different images. If your subject is more appealing because of its shape, focus more on the angle, perspective, and placement of other objects in the picture. If your subject is interesting because of its form, you’ll be more concerned with light and shadow and how you can properly emphasize the object’s two-dimensional shape.

The shape can be found in a single object or a group of things. To avoid overwhelming your viewer, try to find objects with a similar form, like a stack of boxes or a bunch of grapes. Adding multiple types of shapes like circles, triangles, and squares can be confusing and may create chaos.

Where Are Shapes in Photographs?

The shapes in photography are EVERYWHERE. The physical photograph is a shape, usually a rectangle or square, sometimes a circle, oval, or random shape. Inside that image are shapes captured in the scene by the photographer.

How Shape Photography Gets Influenced by Light, Depth of Field and Perception?

Focusing on aspects like light, depth of field, perspective, and color/black and white will help coax out shape in your photography.

Depending on the light source angle, light can either elevate or flatten a subject. So, if you want an image made up of dramatic forms, aim for angled lighting to boost shadows.

On the other hand, Silhouettes render subjects as dark two-dimensional shapes. To create a silhouette, photograph a subject positioned against a light background with little or no front lighting.

The photographing forefront of a subject can flatten forms into shapes. Approaching your subject from an angle displays shadows that cultivate form.

Depth of field influences the way shapes are read. A shallow depth of field isolates the subject from the background, sometimes the foreground of an image, conveying a more dimensional picture.

The borderless nature of blurred forms also creates a sense of activity within a photograph, contributing further to the perception of form.

Organic Shapes vs Geometric Shapes 

Organic shapes frequently occur in nature. They include curves, like the petal of a flower, and irregular shapes, like a rock face.                           


On the other hand, geometric shapes are straight and symmetrical. These shapes are found more often in the man-made world than in nature, such as buildings, roads, and bridges.

Positive Shapes vs Negative Shapes

Positive shapes are found in invisible objects. For example, a bird has a flattering shape. On the other hand, negative shapes are shapes made by the things around them having no tangible form of their own. For example, this shape might be observed in an archway or in the heart shape made when two birds face each other.

Image source: digital-photo-secrets.com

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