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Shape and form


Photographing two- and three-dimensional objects.


We perceive objects in a picture to have three-dimensionality (form) because of tonal change. Shadows they cast add to the illusion.
We perceive objects in a picture to have three-dimensionality (form) because of tonal change. Shadows they cast add to the illusion.

WHAT IS MEANT BY SHAPE AND FORM IN PHOTOGRAPHY?

“Shape” in photography refers to the two-dimensional outline of an object, whereas “form” refers to the apparent three-dimensionality of objects. We use the word “apparent” because photographs are two-dimensional representations of the three-dimensional real world, but they can be pretty effective. Although photographs are flat, objects in them are perceived to have three-dimensions - form, in other words.

EMPHASIZING FORM

Many beginning photographers do not give a great deal of thought to the form of their subject, and how they can enhance its three-dimensionality. Using flat, frontal lighting is probably the most common shooting problem. It shows minimal three dimensionality, particularly in a portrait.

You can add much more interest to your pictures by using light that strikes your subject at an angle to emphasize its form. Watch the contrast, though. It can be caused by a single, strong, directional light source. Diffused light produces gradual tonal change, resulting in more emphasis on the subject's form. Pure shape without any form can be found in a silhouette.

There are several ways in which form can be shown in a photograph, sometimes involving something as simple as changing your viewpoint, switching lenses or moving the light.

Shape and form can also, by themselves, be the subjects of photography, particularly abstract photography in which design elements combine to make the image.

Here are some guidelines for capturing shape and form on film or your digital camera's sensor:

SHAPE

Emphasize shape by:

  • contrasting it against a plain background (the sky or water, for example),
  • placing it against a background of an opposing tone or color,
  • using back lighting,
  • surrounding it with contrasting shapes,
  • avoiding side-lighting, or
  • close-cropping.
  • FORM

    Emphasize form by:

  • using rim-lighting or side-lighting,
  • using hard light and strong shadows to bring out starkness, or
  • gradual tonal change to bring out softness.
  • WHAT ABOUT THE SHAPE OF YOUR PICTURES THEMSELVES?

    You may come across a rule of composition that states that you should avoid square pictures because they are "boring." There is an element of truth in that, but you should not consider it a hard and fast rule that must be followed.

    There are many delightful and interesting photographic compositions found in square-shaped frames. There is one at the top right of this page, for example, that seems to work just fine without appearing to be boring. Having said that, though, many photographs tend to look better composed if they are in a rectangular shape, especially like that of a 35mm negative or slide, or the "golden mean."

    It is a wise idea to consider the shape of your picture frame when cropping, and choose one that best suits the composition. Don't be surprised if you find that the best shape for most of your photography is a rectangle.

    Strong side-lighting causes distinct tonal change from bright to dark, giving form to the model and lending a night-time feel to this misty, fantasy image.
    Strong side-lighting causes distinct tonal change from bright to dark, giving form to the model and lending a night-time feel to this misty, fantasy image.

    We know this is a bear even though it has no three-dimensionality because we recognize its distinct shape in silhouette on a light background. Against a black backdrop, it would be unnoticed.
    We know this is a bear even though it has no three-dimensionality because we recognize its distinct shape in silhouette on a light background. Against a black backdrop, it would be unnoticed.

    A silhouette displays shape. but there is enough light on the model's face to provide a hint of form in this picture that adds interest.
    A silhouette displays shape. but there is enough light on the model's face to provide a hint of form in this picture that adds interest.

    Camera angle, strong shadows and tonal change from one side of these forms to the other contribute to the illusion of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional picture.
    Camera angle, strong shadows and tonal change from one side of these forms to the other contribute to the illusion of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional picture.

    Form is emphasized by sidelighting. If this egg form had been backlit, you would only see its shape.
    Form is emphasized by sidelighting. If this egg form had been backlit, you would only see its shape.

    Shape is emphasized by contrasting it against a plain background like this brightly-lit water.
    Shape is emphasized by contrasting it against a plain background like this brightly-lit water.

     
    Further information...
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