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Spread Out“Nowhere do I feel freer than amid the crowds of New York. This light, ephemeral city, which every morning and evening, beneath the curious rays of the sun, seems a mere juxtaposition of rectangular parallelepipeds, never stifles or depresses. Here you may suffer the anguish of loneliness, but not that of crushing defeat.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

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

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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Check Your Pocket: You Already Own an Awesome Street Photography Camera

Mobile devices rule the world. There’s no judgment of any kind built into that statement, it’s just a slightly hyperbolic expression of something I’m sure we’ve all come to realize and accept.

Cell phones are no longer relegated to actually being used as phones; they’re gaming devices, remote controls, maps, books, compasses, movie screens — everything, even cameras. Especially cameras. Making street photography something more mainstream.

Some might complain about tiny sensors and subpar lenses and proclaim these as reasons they’ll never rely on a mobile device for their photography — totally legitimate reasons, depending on one’s particular photographic needs and standards.

Unfortunately, mobile devices are too often dismissed as being useless as serious cameras. But these devices have plenty of “serious” uses, especially if you’re into street photography.

It doesn’t matter what brand or operating system you’re partial to; your mobile phone has the potential to serve as a worthy street shooter. Here are some tips, ideas and reminders to help you get the most from your mobile device/camera for street photography.

Smaller Is Sometimes Better

Shallow depth of field isn’t generally much of a concern to street photographers, who tend to prefer getting a lot of a scene in focus as means of providing context. Mobile phones are perfect for that.

The small sensor and wide angle lens mean you don’t have to worry so much about f-stops and critical focus. You are essentially free to point and shoot and you’ll likely end up with an in-focus shot with the “ideal” amount of depth of field.

This, however, does not give you a license to disregard the fundamentals — you will still need to confirm focus and you are still responsible for creating a meaningful composition. No camera will do that for you.

I Swear

Don’t Touch The Touchscreen

Touchscreens are awesome, except when they aren’t. Using a touchscreen seems to be second nature these days and many people expect every electronic gadget/device to have one; there are even those individuals who express disappointment in otherwise amazing ILC cameras if they don’t have a touchscreen.

I would suggest, though, that there are times when a hard button works better. Instead of tapping the screen to fire off a shot, you can use one of the physical buttons located on the side of your phone (usually the volume buttons).

  • First, and most importantly, using one of the side buttons often provides more stability; this may not be as much of a problem on smaller phones, but if you’ve got smallish hands and a bigger phone you may find trying to reach the onscreen shutter button to be a shaky experience.
    Using a physical button will eliminate much of that shakiness.
  • Second, using a physical button provides a tactile experience; the benefits of this could be entirely illusory, but that doesn’t really matter. Does it? Occasionally, how something feels is the only thing that counts. If clicking a button on your cell phone in some way makes you feel like you’re having a more traditional photographic experience, then why not go for it?

Peace in a Page

Use Apps And Add-Ons

I’ve covered a number of great mobile camera apps in the past. Apps are a great way to expand the functionality of your mobile device’s camera; the stock apps and functions are certainly useable but downloading a couple of third-party apps can really boost the user experience.

There are camera apps that provide manual controls (ProShotCamera+); there are apps to shoot exclusively in black and white (Black and White CameraBlackCam).

Additionally, using an image editing app will allow you to take your mind off trying to get the perfect shot in-camera; now you can just shoot and edit right on the spot if you wish. There is a healthy selection of editing apps to choose, including top entries such as Lightroom Mobile (see Jason Row’s review here), EnlightSnapseedVSCO and the ever popular Instagram.

If you’ve ever felt left out while other photographers talk about what lenses they’re going to buy next for their DSLR/mirrorless bodies, you will be happy to know that there are lenses available for cell phone cameras (Schneider OpticsOlloclip and Photojojo produce some of the more popular mobile device lenses).

Yes, you can get telephoto, wide angle, fisheye and macro lenses for your mobile device. Not all of these will be relevant for street photographers (but then again they might if you’re the creative sort) but it’s good to know you have these options at your disposal.

Spidey Sees You

Final Thoughts

If you always have your phone with you, that automatically means you always have a camera with you. No, it’s not going to outperform a dedicated camera in most technical aspects but you don’t necessarily need it to for street photography.

If street photography is about capturing candid moments in public spaces while remaining inconspicuous, then your camera phone fits the bill perfectly: it’s small, lightweight, easy to handle and blends right in with everyone else and their cell phones.

With thoughtful, refined technique and the right apps/accessories, your camera phone just might become your go-to street photography camera.

(All images taken with an iPhone 6 Plus and edited with Lightroom Mobile and Enlight)

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