(Last updated on July 27th, 2022)
We see everything in three dimensions. But photographs are only two-dimensional. Everything can appear very flat unless the photographer understands how to make the best use of form in photography.
Making three-dimensional elements appear to have depth in a photograph depends considerably on the light and point of view. Our perception of what we see and how we expect it to look in a photo also has a lot to do with how three-dimensional forms look in our photographs.
Form in photography is all about the appearance of depth. It’s the art of making a flat image appear to have a third dimension.
In this article, you can learn everything you need to know about what form is in photography and how to achieve images that have the appearance of depth.
- What is Form in Photography?
- Why is Form Important in Photography?
- How Light Affects Form In Photography
- Tips for Using Form in Photography
- Frequently Asked Questions
Form in photography is the three-dimensional appearance of objects in a two-dimensional space. Photographs are flat, and two-dimensional. Often our subjects are three-dimensional forms. Making them appear to have depth so they appear as forms rather than flat shapes is an important photographic technique.
We know that many things we see in photos have depth. People, buildings, trees, and any common three-dimensional thing we subconsciously know has depth. But photos are flat, so depth is an illusion. A skillful photographer mindfully uses certain techniques to stimulate form and depth in photographs.
Think of a photo of a round ball with soft light coming from the front. There’s little or no shadow cast, the ball looks like a flat circle. If the light is moved so it shines on the ball from the side, we perceive it to have depth. In reality, the ball always had depth, but it was not apparent initially because of the lighting.
Photographs that do not effectively produce the effect of depth often lack interest. This is because they make a scene look unnatural. The challenge to the photographer is to make a three-dimensional scene look as realistic as possible. Much of this has to do with form and creating the illusion of depth.
This is not so difficult because our brains are preprogrammed to expect to see depth when everything in a photo looks realistic. There are techniques photographers use to enhance the sense of depth.
Careful use of light and composition helps to turn otherwise flat photos into realistic, lifelike images. This added depth in a photo makes it easier to look at because it appears to be more realistic and less two-dimensional.
Light is one of the main tools you can use as a photographer to help add depth to your compositions and form to the elements in them.
Both quality and direction of light affect the appearance of form in photography.
A subject photographed with the light behind it often lacks the appearance of depth. In situations where there is extreme contrast between the subject and a bright light that is behind it, a photographer can make a silhouette.
No matter how much depth the subject has in reality, it will appear to be flat in the photo. The lack of light on the front of the subject renders its appearance as a shape that has no form.
Bringing the light to the side of the subject, or changing your position so your subject is side-lit, adds a greater sense of depth. Side lighting a subject produces shadows on the side of it that faces away from the light. This shows a viewer the thing is, in reality, three-dimensional.
Often when I am making portraits I will position my subject so the light is to one side and in front of them. This creates a more interesting picture of them because the light adds depth to their face.
Placing the main light in front or behind a person will result in a flatter-looking portrait.
The difference between using hard and soft light to illuminate a subject has an influence on the appearance of depth.
Hard light produces shadows with clearly defined edges. This undiffused type of light creates higher contrast photos. They often have less depth than photographs taken using soft light. Shadows can appear as blocks of tone having the appearance of flat shapes no matter how much depth a subject has.
Details in highly textured subjects are afforded more depth when lit from the side with undiffused, hard light. The lower the angle of the light to a textured subject, the greater the effect of depth in the photo.
Soft light is diffused and creates less shadow. Shadows are more subtle and have fuzzy edges. Because the change of light from bright to dark is more gradual, there’s a greater sense of depth created.
Natural light on a cloudy day is soft light. It helps to create form in photos, especially when it lights a subject from the side.
Tips for Using Form in Photography
It’s one thing to know and understand the importance of form in photography. It’s another thing to practically implement a greater sense of depth when you are making your compositions. Here are some practical tips to help you succeed.
When you find an interesting thing to photograph, move around it. Even before you bring your camera to your eye, look at your chosen subject from different angles.
Study the light and how it appears to change the look of your subject depending on where you stand, sit or lie down. Think about the shadows the light makes on the subject or the lack of them. Does your subject appear to have more depth when the light is coming from the side?
When the light is flat and dull or coming from behind my subject, I’ll often add a pop of flash. Well-controlled light from a flash can help to add depth because it creates more of a shadow on the subject.
I’ll not have my flash mounted on my camera, but held off to one side. With the flash on the camera, it produces a very direct light on my subject and does not add much depth. Held at arm’s length to one side, the shadow it produces enhances the form of my subject.
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Many digital cameras include the option of switching the monitor to black and white. When you do this the form of an object becomes more obvious. Without the distraction of color, you’ll look more at the light and how it falls on your subject.
The highlights and shadows are emphasized. You can see more clearly how tonal variations in your compositions produce form.
Golden Hour is a favorite time for many photographers to pick up their cameras. In the morning and evenings when the sun is lower in the sky it casts longer, softer shadows than in the middle of the day. At these times the light will be your friend when you want to add more depth to your photos.
Position yourself so the sunlight illuminates your subject from the side. Look how the shadows fall across your subject and the surroundings. Use them to add more form to your photography.
When only a little portion of your composition is in sharp focus, the illusion of depth in a photo is enhanced. Careful control of the depth of field adds perspective to the elements contained within your composition. It also has some effect on the relationship between them.
If you use a nifty fifty or another fast lens, you can be more flexible in using this technique. But don’t be tempted to photograph everything you want to add depth to using your widest aperture setting, like f/1.8 or f/1.4. Often you’ll create more of a sense of depth with a nice balance when the background is not totally blurred. This can often be achieved using f/4 or even f/5.6 depending on how close you are to your subject and the focal length you are using.
Where you view your subject from also has some effect on how much depth it appears to have when you photograph it. Standing in front of a building without being able to see either side of it, the structure will appear to be flat in a photo. We know it is not because we subconsciously understand it has depth. Photographing it so you show some of one side reinforces the idea of it having depth.
A frame within a frame, leading lines, and other compositional techniques can be used effectively to help create depth in your photos. Combine them with the best point of view, depth of field, and lighting and you’ll create the most realistic-looking photos possible.
As you find a subject to photograph, think about the rules of composition. Choose one that will help show form in your photograph.
Photographs are flat. Whether they are on your phone, a computer monitor, or printed out. They are always two-dimensional.
For your photos to capture and hold people’s attention, add form to them using the techniques outlined in this article. Always look at the light. Think about its effect in more ways than how you set your exposure. Consider too how the direction and quality of light influence the sense of depth and form in your photographs.
Give your photos more life by consciously using the techniques you have learned to add more form to them. Get creative and think about using these tools to make your pictures look more captivating and realistic.
Frequently Asked Questions
In photography, shape is something that appears as being two-dimensional and form is something that appears as three-dimensional.
Form in photography is an element in a composition that appears as though it is three-dimensional. This is often due to how the element reflects light. This is because everything in a photo is two-dimensional and light creates the illusion of a third dimension in the flat surface of the photo.
The form of an object in a photograph refers to the apparent length, width, and height of the thing as it appears to be three-dimensional.
In photography, the difference between shape and form is a shape is an element in composition that appears to be flat, or two-dimensional. A shape has zero depth. A form in an element appears to have depth as well as height and length. Elements that are three-dimensional in reality can appear as though they are flat in photographs.
Light and shade on an object in a photograph create the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional image. When a photographer uses light well to create this illusion of depth it helps to bring a photo to life because it looks more realistic.
Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and author. He has been passionate about photography for as long as he can remember.
Kevin began his career in newspaper photography in the late 1980s and worked in editorial photography for many years. After this he interned with a commercial photographer, learning many new skills. From there he freelanced, covering many different genres of photography ever since.
He ran his own award-winning photography business before moving to Thailand in 2002. Since then Kevin has continued to work in photography and also moved into video production. For the first ten years of his life in Thailand, he focused on producing media content, both photos, and videos, for non-profit organizations. He funded these efforts primarily through the sale of his stock photography and videos. In more recent years Kevin has discovered a great enjoyment in teaching photography.
He also runs in-person workshops, develops online courses, writes, and creates videos about photography.