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Elements of a Photograph


Basic Elements

I have often heard photographers describe their work as 'writing with light'.  While this certainly distinguishes us from other forms of art, light is our medium and must certainly be understood to be a successful photographer.  But as a photographer, light is what we record, it is not what we photograph.  What we photograph is the subject, one of the basic elements.  The other basic elements of a photograph either enhance or distract from the subject.  Besides the basic elements, sometimes we also photograph a sixth element: problems.

The six elements are as follows.

  1. Subject
  2. Composition
  3. Lighting
  4. Tone, or luminance
  5. Color (hue and saturation)
  6. Problems

Not all photographs will have all six elements.  But there is one element that every photograph has.  Do you know which one?

  1. Show/Hide the answer
    1. The answer is Tone.  I have see photographs where not even the photographer could explain the subject, and without a subject, there is nothing to compose.  Black and white photographers know that not all photographs have color.  And even though many photographs have some kind of problem, not all do.  Tone is how light or dark something is.  A photograph that has been totally over or under exposed may not have lighting, but it at least has one tone.



The subject of a photograph does not have to be a person, place or thing.  The following are valid subjects: form, line, motion, pattern, texture, etc.  In fact, it is valid to have one of the other basic elements as the subject, such as a color pattern.  Therefore, when photographing, do not limit your subject to physical objects.

  1. Show/Hide other possible subjects
    1. Action or behavior - The activity or conduct of a being or natural event.
    2. Color
    3. Depth - The impression of distance.
    4. Form - Shape with depth.  It is three dimensional.  It is best shown using sidelight because sidelight creates shadows which are essential for depicting three dimensions in a two dimensional image.
    5. Line - A line is a series of objects, edges, true lines, etc.  Hard, straight lines usually indicate artificial objects.
    6. Motion - The impression of movement.
    7. Pattern - The repetition of lines, shapes, forms or colors.
    8. Place - A general or specific sense of place.
    9. Scale - A reference to size, distance or proportion created by including a known shape or form in the image.  Depth is a particular scale referring to the perception of distance.
    10. Shape - The outline of an object.  This is the characteristic of recognition.  It is best shown using front or back light.  It is two dimensional.  A silhouette is a shape without texture or color.
    11. Specimen - This is an actual object, such as a particular flora, fauna, mineral, etc.  It can be either an individual specimen or a group of them.
    12. Texture - The structural characteristics of a surface.  It is the characteristic that affects the viewer's sense of touch.  It is best shown using sidelight.
    13. Other subjects used in other types of photography, such as photojournalism, include people, involvement, emotion, event, etc.



In simple terms, composition is how we arrange the subject, foreground, background, and lighting.  More importantly, composition is how we get the viewer's attention, pull them in, keep them there and not let them wander away until they have experienced what we want to show them.  This is the dimension where the viewer's experience occurs.  Composition is how we attract, invite and retain the viewer's attention.  Attract: What is it about the image that will get the viewer's attention?  Invite: Where does the viewer's attention enter the image?  Or will their eyes wander about trying to figure out where to begin?  Retain: Does the image keep the viewer's attention?  Or does it confuse the viewer and cause them to leave?



Lighting is the quality, direction and quantity of the light being photographed.  Quality is the difference between the color balance of the light being photographed and the color balance desired by the photographer.  The closer they are, the higher the quality.  Direction is described as front light, back light, side light, overhead light, etc.  Quantity, quite simply, is how much there is.

Lighting is how we use light to compose tone and color in a photograph.



Light is composed of hue, saturation and tone.  Tone is how we describe how bright or dark an object is.  A black and white photograph only has tone.  It does not have hue or saturation.  A color photograph has all three.  Because tone is in all photographs, it is a very important element to understand and control, but it is often overlooked by color photographers.



For purposes of this discussion, color consists of hue and saturation.  (As mentioned earlier, light consists of hue, saturation and tone.)  Hue describes the base color, regardless of saturation and tone.  We use words like red, green, yellow, blue, etc. to denote hue.  Saturation is how pure hue is.  If a color is 100% red, it is fully saturated.  If the color is a brownish red, it is less saturated.  If you fully desaturate a color, you remove all hue and the only thing left is tone.



Problems can happen anywhere in the entire photographic process.  In the field, in the studio, and in the darkroom.  The best solution for fixing problems is not to have them.  But we are all human and prone to error.  Unfortunately, not all problems can be fixed in the digital darkroom.



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