The Secret Power You Can Use to Elevate Your Photos

The Secret Power You Can Use to Elevate Your Photos

There are two powerful areas we can use to take our photos to the next level. Yet, they are rarely written about in photography articles.

In this second collaborative article co-written with Polish artist and photographer Maya Kot, we discover the power of using the elements and principles of art in our photos.

Working in tandem, the elements and principles of art evoke emotions in the viewer. The elements of art are the fundamental components or building blocks that artists use to create and analyze visual art. Meanwhile, the principles are the fundamental guidelines that artists use to bind the elements together and create visually compelling work. They shape how individual elements work together to evoke emotions and guide the viewer’s experience.

In photography, understanding these helps us build upon our compositional skills and create more enthralling images.

The Elements of Art

Let’s start with the elements that comprise a photo. These are the components that make up an image.

  • Points are single dots. They have no direction. It offers infinite possibilities alone or together with other points.
  • Lines, on the other hand, have both length and direction. It may be straight or curved, thick, or thin. The line defines shapes, contours, and outlines, and it can suggest movement.
  • Shapes are usually two-dimensional, enclosed areas defined by lines. However, they can also be suggested by changes in color or value. Some shapes are geometric (like squares, triangles, and circles) or organic (like most things in nature).
  • Form refers to a three-dimensional object that has both volume and thickness. Like shapes, forms can be geometric or organic, and they are often created by combining shapes.
  • Space gives the appearance of depth within a photo. Positive space is occupied by objects. Meanwhile, negative space is the emptiness around and between those objects.
  • Value is the lightness or darkness of a color. It gives a sense of depth and intensity to the photo.
  • Color is produced in the brain when light strikes an object and is reflected to the eye. It has three main characteristics: hue, which is the name of the color and in photography is usually defined by an RGB or Hex value; saturation, which is the purity and strength of the color; and luminance (lightness or darkness) of the color, which artists call value.

    Color (or the lack of it) is of paramount importance in all art projects. Its choice is a fundamental method to achieve a goal, to convey a message. It has its own symbolism, reflects emotions, the nature of the work, or its location in time.

    Knowing the rules of interaction between colors is very important if we want to be proficient in understanding their value in art and operate them even more freely in our works.
  • Texture is the quality of a surface in the image. It’s how the viewer would imagine how an object may feel. Humans' eyes can identify surfaces by small and subtle variations in color and luminance even when seeing them only in two-dimensional photographs. For example, we can determine whether a surface is metallic or matte, fluffy or smooth, sharp or soft, etc.

The Principles

The artistic principles we use in photography are fundamental guidelines that describe the ways we combine the above elements to make our photos work artistically. When we compose a shot we are applying these principles and when a photo does or doesn’t work, it can be because one or more of these principles are out of kilter.
  • Balance is the most obvious of these. It’s the distribution of visual weight in a composition. When we look at the rule of thirds, symmetry or asymmetry, or the golden section, we are applying balance or imbalance to a photo. It’s important to understand that these are rules that would almost always work miracles but it’s always worth experimenting and thinking out of the box.
  • Contrast is created by grouping different elements to highlight their differences and create visual interest. For example, placing complementary colors such as orange and blue side by side, or having a smooth organic shape next to a geometric one. 
  • Pattern is the repetition of an element or motif throughout the photo. The pattern can be regular, like the slats of a Venetian blind, or irregular, such as tree bark. Patterns surround us in nature as well as in man-made objects. They give things uniqueness, like fingerprints.
  • Rhythm is what a pattern can have. It’s the visual equivalent of a musical tempo or beat, usually created by repeating elements in the photo. When we look around we are surrounded by things that are connected and “chained”. Rhythm can be used just in the background or to portray a whole story, as the main character of a photo. Works really great in artistic and abstract photography.
  • Emphasis is the technique we use to make a part of the photo stand out to draw the viewer’s attention. There are numerous ways of doing that, such as having a large, dominant object in the frame, showing a single object amongst a lot of negative space, having a bold color stand out in the frame, breaking a pattern, etc.
  • Movement in a photo is the suggestion of motion. This can guide the viewer’s eye through the composition. Lead-in and leading lines help the viewer’s eye to move into the picture. Similarly, deliberate movement blur works in the same way. It is sometimes used in sports photography where it is necessary to capture a dynamic moment. To achieve such results, I often find it helpful to use extended exposure, or positioning the subjects photographed to reflect motion.
  • Harmony and Unity are related concepts but not quite the same. Harmony is the pleasing combination of elements to form a consistent and cohesive whole. It’s about creating a sense of togetherness in the photo.

    Harmony can be achieved through the consistency of colors or the arrangement of the composition. When used skillfully, it creates a feeling of calm, and relaxation in the viewer and usually, we can tell by seeing such, that it was the artist’s aim. It’s mainly based on the emotional and psychological experience. On the other hand, unity is much more about visual coherence. 

    Meanwhile, unity is the sense of overall oneness of a photo. Unity is achieved by effectively using the elements together to create a whole. 
  • Variety uses different elements to create complexity and thus avoid monotony. Differentiation can be seen in color, shapes, light, and shadows. It tells a story, it makes the viewer curious, and it makes us start to be fascinated not solely by the whole photograph but by its components too. 
  • Proportion is the size relationship between parts of the photo and its elements. 

Bringing the Principles Together

The way these principles work together and use the elements produces a vast array of opportunities. The old saying that the whole is more than the sum of its parts becomes true. With color, the proportion between warm and cold tones is important. When these are balanced then there is no effect of visual temperature dominance. Change the balance and the result is a dynamic composition that goes beyond us perceiving the photo as just the spectrum of its colors.

To illustrate this, by using blue as the dominant color and less red in the composition, we get the impression of space and distance, and our red becomes even more intense and gives the impression of being more protruding towards us. This effect can be reversed when we choose heavily saturated cold tones and the warm tones we use are muted, or take the form of a mere glow.

Such a phenomenon is called the kinetic effect. The easiest way to achieve this is by juxtaposing cold and warm shades with high contrast.

Using Principles to Create Your Style

Photographers have their own style or styles and, whether they realize it or not, that style is based upon the principles. Your style is derived from the way you combine the elements in your photographs by applying one or more principles.

You may have more than one style. If you, say, photograph landscapes and wildlife, your approach to the two may be different, and different again if you also shoot portraits.

Adding a Meaning to Your Photos

Although it is all very well talking about the importance of the principles and how you use them to apply the elements, remember that they should add to the narrative of the photograph that you want to convey. So, a wide, open expanse could be highlighted by the object with the most visual weight being small in the frame. Alternatively, the clutter of an environment can be emphasized using patterns.

Expanding Your Approach

A useful exercise is to examine your photos and critique them, maybe with a fellow photographer, and consider what elements exist within them and how they are used according to the principles. Think about what you were trying to achieve with the shot and whether you have managed that.

Over time, the application of the principles will become second nature, and you won’t even think about it, which links to Ivor's previous article about flow.

This is a very brief introduction to this fascinating topic. It’s well worth reading up on it to find out more and your photography will benefit.

What Do You Think?

Do you ever consider the principles when taking a photo, or what you are trying to achieve when you press the shutter button? It will be great to hear your thoughts on the topic and hopefully see some of your photos with an explanation of how and why you applied the principles to make the photo compelling.

Points, lines, shapes, form, space, color, value, and texture.

Please do also read the first article we co-wrote about color.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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"take our photos to the next level"

NOOOoooooooo! Not "to the next level"! How many levels are there in this game?

Photography is not a video game, and the notion that progress in this field is linear is mistaken. To get better at their craft, photographers should not be climbing up a level hierarchy, they should be thinking outside the box.

NOOOooooooo! Not "outside the box"!


You clearly object to figures of speech. Perhaps I should take them down a notch!

The "to the next level" one has been seriously overused for the past several years, particularly on photography-themed sites. Notch away!

When I read a photography article, I think its factual content about the topic is more important than the idioms used by the writer. I did laugh at the irony in your objection to my writing style and then typing "NOOOooooooo!"

Of course. Your articles are always thoughtful and informative. It's just that this particular cliché is a pet peeve of mine. Seems like every week I'm seeing it in an Fstoppers headline. A quick search reveals the phrase was used here on April 14, in two separate articles published on April 8, April 2, April 1...

All very good information, and a great question is asked at the end of the article: "Do you ever consider the principles when taking a photo, or what you are trying to achieve when you press the shutter button?" Even if we all have different answers, just the simple act of thinking for a moment before pressing the shutter would improve most people's photography.

I feel like all of the elements and principles detailed in the article are well suited to being used as the basis for a photo critique... at home, looking at the image on the computer or, even better, in print. However, consulting a long list of principles while taking a photo is a little like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk. If I tried to remember all of that information before clicking the shutter, my head would explode. But by critically examining our pictures as we progress as a photographer, most of this, as you say, becomes second nature. Getting feedback from people who can connect the elements and principles with your pictures is really helpful in improving one's images. If someone says they like your picture, ask why. Most people have difficulty articulating a response, but underneath the veneer you might find some of the principles shared in this article.

In looking at my own thought process before clicking the shutter, I tend to consider how the main subject relates to the secondary elements. Picking a main subject is generally pretty easy. It's how much or little additional stuff you want to include that gets challenging. That's where "distractions" enter in... which is one of the most common criticisms in photography. And after deciding what to include, I consider how changing the camera angle changes the perspective or relationship between elements. Will that camera position create big spaces between the elements, or cause them to overlap? The better composition usually boils down to balance, and that's something that I have more of a feel for, than an overtly analytical or logical reason.

Thank you for that insightful comment. Super pictures too.

I feel like I'm back it art school. Revisiting the foundations is always a great reminder. Great piece Ivor

Minus the lesson on rainbows. :-)

Thanks, Michelle.