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Design Elements

Lines, Shapes, Perspective, Texture, Pattern, Rhythm


These concepts are key elements of compositional language.



When the concept of line is discussed in connection with composition, it can mean several things. In may refer to real lines (a shape with little width) such as overhead powerlines but more often they are either mental contructs (a row of rocks or trees are ‘connected’  into a line) or are really edges between different tones, textures or colours (although, of course,  no line actually exists). The horizon is one of the most common visual lines but it doesn’t actually exist – it’s an edge where the shape of the sky meets the shape of the sea or land.   One powerful implied line is the eye-line – if a person in an image is looking at something or in a specific direction, the viewer tends to follow this line of vision. If the image contains a moving person or vehicle, the eye will normally travel just in front of the moving object in the same direction.

A line is one of the most  effective elements of design because it can lead the viewer's eye. ‘The scaffolding in most images is the arrangement of the real and visual lines in the frame.’  (Harald Mante, ‘The Photograph’, page 70)

Lines imply motion and suggests direction or orientation. A line represents a ‘path’  between two points and can be straight, curved, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or zigzag. Lines also vary in length, thickness and regularity (for example they can be of uniform thickness or taper). ‘Lines are an active means of organizing an image. If one follows the progress of a line in a composition with the eye, one clearly feels a movement within and beyond the edges of the image plane. ’  Harald Mante, ‘The Photograph’, page 46-7

It is argued that the direction and orientation of a line can also imply certain feelings. Horizontal lines theoretically imply tranquility and rest, whereas vertical lines imply power and strength – especially if repeated closely.

The edges of the frame themselves are important structural elements in an image as other lines in the frame make angles with the frame edges – for example diagonal lines introduce dynamism into an image – Freeman suggests that diagonal lines are ‘unstable’ in relation to the vertical – representing falling.  So oblique lines imply movement, action and change.

Lines that converge imply depth, scale and distance - a fence or roadway converges into the distance provides the illusion that a flat two-dimensional image has three-dimensional depth. Use of a wide-angle lens emphasizes perspective diagonals.

David Prakel explodes a ‘myth’ about lines – the idea of lead-in lines – ie that the eye commonly enters an image through an implied or real line that leads us to the main subject. He says that experiments have shown that viewers spend most of their time looking at parts of an image that have most detail, contrast or curvature and commonly go directly to an element of the picture that catches their eye.

See R. Berdan  below as well as other references quoted – this article was the original basis for my text:



Lines commonly form shapes (which like lines are created by contrasts of tone and colour) – for example triangles (often two lines will suffice, together with the base of the frame. A line that runs from the top left to bottom right divides the image into two equal triangles.

Primary shapes are squares, rectangles ( a line running from top to bottom creates two rectangles of varying proportions) and circles and they provide structure to an image.

Recognising shapes means, ‘means removing the names or labels from objects and spaces. It means seeing a tree not as a tree, but as a triangle … It means being aware that a particular human face or rock is essentially an oval’. (Freeman Patterson, ‘Photographing the World Around Us’, p21)

Freeman says that triangles are the most useful shape – they are common, they are simple to construct as they only need three points and can be in any configuration and convergence is common in photographic images. They are both dynamic because of their diagonals and stable because if one side is a level base. To imply a triangle, any three points will do as long as they are similar in content, size, tone or colour. The classic, three person portrait is triangular in shape. So, an implied triangle is one method of bringing order to an image where there is a need for clarity – professional documentary photographers will often instinctively employ this compositional structure.

Rectangles abound in man-made structures and are very useful in subdividing the frame – commonly aligning rectangles in the image with the edges of the frame.



‘Perspective is the appearance of objects in space, and their relationship with each other, and the viewer. More usually, in photography it is used to describe the intensity of the impression of depth …………. A heightened sense of depth through strong perspective tends to improve the viewers sense of being there in front of the scene’ ’ (Michael Freedom, ‘The Photographer’s Eye’, p52).

Choice of viewpoint and lens focal length are crucial. The closer the viewpoint is to the subject the larger it will appear in relation to smaller objects and the wider the focal point of the lens the greater the sense of perspective while telephoto lenses flattens perspective.  Linear perspective is most common and is characterized by converging lines – parallel edges of a road converge at the vanishing point on the horizon if held at 180 degrees to the ground and if the camera is pointed upward the sides of buildings converge. This introduces visual tension and a sense of movement. The movement adds to the perception of depth.

‘Diminishing perspective’ is related. Identical trees lining a road will converge and appear successively smaller. Tonal perspective is created because dark tones appear to recede and light tones advance and warm colours advance and cool colours recede. Objects  in sharp focus advance, those out of focus or in soft focus recede.





The term texture can be used in various contexts commonly relating to touch but visually, texture relates to surface appearance regarding the  roughness or smoothness, hardness or softness of a surface. Texture is enhanced by the intensity or direction of light – indeed it may only become obvious or prominent with intense and/or side-lighting. Texture can be important in images varying from portraits (the texture of skin) to nature and science (rocks, animal scales). Texture – often at micro level – can be the subject itself and  Freeman Patterson suggests that when working with texture it is best to fill the frame with only one texture because the point of the image is to emphasize the texture not an individual object.


Texture appearance will change according to the closeness of viewpoint and lighting - for example side lighting will produce some solid blacks and increase the contrast and depth. Altering the shutter speed can also change the result – Patterson gives the example of photographing a cornfield in windy conditions, if a shutter speed of 1/125th or over is used the movement will be frozen, whereas with a slower shutter speed an impressionistic blurred effect will be achieved.


‘Texture, the weave or fabric-like nature of surfaces, can be very compelling both visually and emotionally ………….. by carefully avoiding every line and shape that tends to act as a point of emphasis or centre of interest, a photographer can make the overall tapestry of a field or other surface the dominant visual element of an image’ (Freeman Patterson, ‘Photographing the World Around Us’, p61).




A pattern is a repetition of shapes or objects and also commonly involves elements of colour and contrast. Pattern depends on scale, so - for example - seen from high,   neatly laid out restaurant tables assume the profile of a pattern.


Breaking the repetition – in the example of St Mark’s Square below – can be an effective way of drawing attention to an object – in this case a boy taking a photography.


By definition, a pattern covers all or most of the framed area and the strongest patterns extend edge to edge of a picture frame partly because the eye assumes the pattern extends beyond the age. The more objects make up the pattern, the  more it seems that the image is a whole rather than a collection of individual objects. The individual elements effectively become a collective texture.





Visual rhythm – in contrast to pattern - is a harmonious flow (implying movement) – so waves seen from above will characteristically produce a rhythmically composition and a row of ‘uniformed’ dancers or cheer-leaders will. The order in rhythmic patterns comes from the innate balance of recurring lines and shapes without any one element being strong enough to dominate. Rhythmic patterns can be used in conjunction with a line or shape for example the rock in front of waves or insects on bark or growth rings, trunk.


Freeman says that rhythm is strongest when each cycle in the beat encourages the eye to move. There is a natural tendency to move sidewards and the rhythm has momentum because of this and a sense of continuation.



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