Using The Elements Of Visual Design To Create Your Best Photos

I follow a number of excellent photographers across the few photo sharing sites on which I’m most active (Tumblr and Instagram).

Yet no matter how incredible a photo one of these photographers posts on any given day, it almost never fails that I see someone come along and leave a comment along the lines of, “Nice snapshot.”

This annoys me.

Some might presume it’s the brevity of the comment I have a problem with. Nope. Unless I’m specifically looking for a detailed critique, I don’t care how many characters someone’s comment is.

What annoys me is that anyone could see such a beautifully crafted photograph and refer to it as a snapshot. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots — they certainly have their place.

But to consider the creative expenditures involved in making, for example, a great environmental portrait and write it off as a snapshot just seems shortsighted to me?

While I don’t disregard the element of luck in photography, really good photos more often than not contain one or more of the six elements of design.

You may not be able to do anything about insular comments on social media, but if you want the personal satisfaction of knowing your photos are more than snapshots, try incorporating the elements of design in photography…it’s easier than you think.

1. Line

The most basic of design elements, line is also the strongest. Line is the fundamental concept upon which all the other elements of design rest.

Lines can be horizontal or vertical, curved or diagonal, wide or narrow; they can be used to create rhythm, establish boundaries or provide perspective.

While lines most often serve to lead the viewer’s eyes toward the main point of interest in a photo, lines can themselves be an effective photographic subject.

The Shape of Things

2. Shape

A shape is essentially a two-dimensional object and it is the basis of how we learn to identify everything around us — circle, square, triangle, etc.

Moving beyond the fundamentals, we discover that shapes aren’t restricted to basic geometry; shapes can also be free-form and abstract. Regardless of its exact nature, a shape works best (artistically speaking) when its edges are well-defined.

By incorporating elements of design in photography, one of the most effective and creative ways to accomplish this is by creating silhouettes.

When backlighting a subject in such a manner, you create robust contrast between it and its surroundings; no matter the utter lack of detail, that subject will be easily identifiable solely by its shape.

Avian Night


3. Form

In the simplest of terms, form is the three-dimensional progeny of shape; a circle, square and triangle might each find its analog in the form of a sphere, cube and triangle respectively.

Just like shapes, forms can be geometric or abstract.

Forms, due to their three-dimensional nature, are accentuated by side lighting. Side lighting tends to create the ideal balance between light and shadow in such a manner that amplifies the topography of the subject.


4. Space

Shape + Form = Space. That’s a pretty easy formula to remember, isn’t it?

In the terminology of design, there are two types of space: positive space, and negative space.

Simply, positive space refers to the subject itself, the main area of interest. Negative space is the total area surrounding the subject/area of interest.

Take a look at the image below. If you are seeing a vase you are looking at positive space; if you are seeing two faces, you are looking at negative space. Space can be used as an innovative compositional tool.

Image courtesy Michelle Bailey via Flickr

5. Color

Color is distinguished by three central characteristics: hue, intensity and value (or hue, saturation and luminance, as you will more often find them labeled in photo editing software).

Hue is the name of a color (red, green, blue).
Intensity or saturation refers to how bright or dull a color is.
Value is a measure of the relative darkness or lightness of a color.

Colors, depending upon how they’re arranged and what attributes they exhibit, bear significant implications for a photo’s emotional impact and overall visual weight.

Bold colors are typically interpreted as visually striking; subtle colors tend to highlight the softer aspects of an image.

Individual colors can be used to convey a particular feeling or idea:

  • Red = warmth or anger.
  • Green = freshness or tranquility.
  • Yellow = happiness or optimism.

To get even more creative, take the time to study the color wheel and learn about color relationships such as complementary colors and analogous colors.

Ad Time in Williamsburg.jpg

6. Texture

Texture is the “look and feel” of an object in a work of art. Given that photography is a visual medium, texture is a much more abstract concept than in some other art forms.

But that doesn’t mean texture can’t be rendered in an effective fashion in photography. It is important to know that the effectiveness of texture in an image hinges primarily on lighting.

Lighting for texture, however, represents a unique challenge in the sense that both harsh light and soft light can accentuate texture; you will need to learn which objects benefit most from either type of lighting.

Hike Up Pike Street


Good photos occasionally happen by accident. As a rule, however, good photos are the product of forethought, pre-visualization and the application of some degree of design.

Incorporating design elements into your work isn’t difficult; it’s worth taking the time to learn the basics as presented here — how each one impacts another, how each one impacts your photo.

Once you’ve done that you will find it a cinch to put multiple elements together in a wide variety of creative ways to produce work that will enthrall all who see it. Utilizing the elements of design in photography is a surefire way to take your photography to the next level.

Further Resources via

A Review Of The 500px RAW App For iOS Devices

With the release of the Apple’s latest iteration of its mobile operating system, iOS 10, come many changes, upgrades and new features that, as usual, will delight some and frustrate others.

This time around mobile photographers should generally find themselves delighted with the fact that the iPhone can now shoot and process raw image files.

It is by no means a new feature in the wider world of mobile photography (Android phones, for instance, have boasted raw image processing for some time now).

But, as raw file capability makes its splash for iPhone users there is sure to be a rapidly growing supply of apps designed to exploit this newly integrated power. One such app is RAW by 500px.

On the Move with Big Bertha

You probably know 500px as a sleek professional-oriented photo sharing/portfolio hub accompanied by a pretty capable mobile app that allows users to post, view and comment on photos.

But, 500px’s RAW app (a free download) looks to add new dimensions of functionality to their mobile enterprise by introducing an all-in-one camera/editing/marketplace app. So how does it all work out?

Here’s my take on the 500px RAW app, so let’s dive in…

The Camera Itself

Upon opening the open you are greeted by the camera. There are two modes:

  1. Auto
  2. Manual

Mode is indicated by a “switch” to the left of the on-screen shutter button; auto mode is green and manual mode is blue. Calling it manual mode is sort of a stretch; it consists of a focus slider on the left, an exposure slider on the right and toggles along the bottom for flash, timer (3 seconds or 9 seconds) and composition guide (a rule of thirds grid).

This certainly provides more control than auto mode, but not by much. It would be nice to be able to at the very least, dial in shutter speed.

To its credit, the app is intuitive, snappy and relatively quick to focus; all this, combined with the fact that the camera always pops up first when you launch the app, suggests the designers placed great value on getting you shooting as quickly as possible.

And that’s a good thing.


The Model Release Form

The next feature in our 500px raw app review. A right swipe from the camera app will bring up the model release module.

500px already has a standalone model release app, but they have now integrated it into the RAW app, a move that further solidifies the idea of RAW being a one-stop solutionfor mobile photographers.

Simply tap on the large + sign to get started creating your first model release; what you will find is the standard 500px release form, including all the necessary fields for both photographer and model to fill out and a signature box where the model can sign using a stylus or a finger.


The Library & Editor Functions

One left swipe from the camera module reveals the library. Here is where all the images you’ve shot with RAW are stored. You can also import images from the iPhone’s camera roll.

Tapping on an image will bring the editing options. On the bottom left you have a crop tool with several useful ratio presets.

Next, you’ll encounter an icon that looks like a group of sliders; tapping it will allow you to delve into a deeper set of image editing tools — Exposure, Contrast, Color temperature, 
Sharpening, etc.


You can even make individual adjustments with the hue, saturation and luminance sliders, something that should resonate with those accustomed to desktop image editing software.

All of the provided editing features are seamlessly incorporated, easy to use and are highly effective with raw files, particularly when it comes to adjusting highlights and shadows.



You can save your adjustments as a custom preset or use one of the 12 included presets to spice up your photos.

While RAW provides a powerful image editor, those using anything smaller than an iPad will struggle to make detailed edits. Seeing as editing on a small smartphone screen can be tricky to get accurate edits done, 500px could help alleviate this problem by adding the ability to pinch-to-zoom while in editing mode.

Street Commerce



Back on the main editing screen, you will find the sharing option, indicated by the familiar upwards arrow. You can add a title, description, and keywords and upload your photo to 500px.

You can also attach a model release and submit to the 500px Marketplace.

Photos taken with 500px RAW are not automatically saved to your phone’s camera roll; you have to do this via the contextual menu (the last icon on the main editing screen).

Attention to Detail


Assignments Feature

500px, taking a cue from the success of their online Marketplace, has included an “assignments” section in the RAW app.

The purpose of this feature is to put photographers in contact with brands and buyers who might be interested in their work by alerting users of on-demand assignments.

The service isn’t live as of this writing, but if you’re interested in participating all you have to do is tap a button and you’ll be alerted once assignments are available.



Some have championed the arrival of raw file capture and editing on the iPhone as being akin to “having a DSLR in your pocket.”

While this may be overstating things a bit, it’s hard to dismiss the creative implications of having a pocketable yet competent camera capable of capturing and processing raw files.

There is not one specific aspect of 500px’s RAW app that blows away other similar apps (especially when it comes to the camera).

However, taken as a whole, RAW could very well represent a singular solution for many mobile photographers (street photographers in particular) due to its versatility, speed and ease of use.

Take That

 A Few Notes

  • Raw capture is possible only with the rear camera on the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 6S, 6S Plus, 5SE, iPad Pro 9.7”.
  • I’ve been testing RAW on an iPhone 6S Plus; the app will run on older modelssuch as the 6 and 6 Plus, though you may encounter speed issues and won’t be able to capture raw files.
  • Apple’s stock camera app does not capture raw files.
  • Raw files are saved as DNG format.
  • All images included here were captured and edited with 500px RAW.

Further Resources via

New York on the Line

New York City wouldn’t be what it is without its infamous subway system; likewise, the identity of the people of New York is inextricably linked to this peculiar mode of transportation. New Yorkers spend a significant amount of time on the subway, using it not just as a means of getting from point A to point B, but as a place to take a nap, catch up on the latest news, have a snack, groom themselves and just about anything else one can imagine. 1 through 7; ACE,BDFM,G,JZ,NQR,L; local or express. This is New York on the line.

New York on the Line is an ongoing project, presented here as a slideshow. Click here to see the project in its original format.

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A Story to Tell

Love Affair“I live in New York. I love this city; it’s a great city. But I hate when people go, New York City: 8 million people, 8 million stories. There’s three New York stories, alright: There’s ‘I moved here,’ ‘I lived here all my life’ and Ghostbusters.” — Mike Lawrence

The Hand That Feeds

StayMatic“From above, Manhattan is just a lonely arm, squirting and bending from the big body of Brooklyn. It is not until you are inside it that you see it is the vital appendage, the hand that squeezes at the rest of the world, the muscle where everything that’s anything is made.” — Molly Prentiss