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Think Like a Photographer: Visual Elements – Lines

Introduction to Visual Elements

Lines, lines and more lines. Look around you they are everywhere. Most of the time we see them without thinking about them unless we see an explicit line like a line on the road or a lineup for a movie. Back when we were young we were introduced to lines and learned what they looked like and how to express them in terms of their direction and length.

As we progressed in our education much of what we learned as young children we have forgotten to make way for more complex ideas. While the title of this series is Think Like a Photographer learning visual design can best be described as Think Like a Five Year Old. All the stuff we learned as young children we need to re-learn and we need to see the world not as adults but as young children.

Learning to see the world again in terms of lines takes a lot of work. This is one skill you will need to practise even when you are not shooting. The reason why lines are so important to us is because they are two dimensional elements that work well in the two dimensional world of photography. After you have learned to start to see lines we can move onto putting them together and they can form shapes. Now we have moved into things like rectangles, triangles and circles.

If you are starting to feel like a child again with this discussion then you are headed in the right direction. Thinking Like a photographer means learning to see the world again like a 5 year old child and capturing what you see to make it new and exciting again. One of the best parts about learning to master visual design is with a solid understanding of how it all works you can take boring subjects and make them exciting again.

Explicit vs. Implicit

One of the hardest concepts to grasp is the difference between explicit vs. Implicit lines. While we can agree on what the shape of a triangle looks like many of us would have trouble finding it in a model’s pose or a family portrait. If you know how to look for them they are there and they are referred to as implicit shapes.

Explicit shapes are easy to understand. We can all agree on what a single line looks like and what it’s direction is but when shown a photograph of a model many of us would be hard pressed to find lines or even shapes in the pose. As children we learn all about explicit lines and shapes but thinking in terms of them implicitly is what separates the 5 year old child from a photographer.

Observe some of the implicit and explicit lines in photograph. Explicit lines are marked in blue and implicit lines are marked in red. I have used the example of a landscape shot of the city and a shot with two models. Hopefully it will get you thinking in terms of explicit and implicit lines and shapes.


Lines come in three basic shapes. Horizontal, vertical and diagonal. Of course we can move beyond that and dray free form lines or curve them in weird in wonderful ways. For the most part we will concern ourselves with with straight lines. The two that we are most familiar with are horizontal and vertical lines.

Both lines when put together can create two dimensional objects which help us to create our images. The problem with both of these lines is that for the most part that is all they do is create two dimensional objects. If you remember from the prior discussion we take a three dimensional world turn it into a photograph and then when other people look at it they attempt to turn it back into a three dimensional world.

If all you have are horizontal and vertical lines then your image is flat. If you have ever heard an image referred to as flat it means an image that looks and feels two dimensional. The line that solves our problem is the diagonal lines. Diagonal lines are the photographer’s best friend because they allow us to see three dimensions even when there is not one to be had. The following (crudely drawn) diagram illustrates the differences.

Even though both shapes are two dimensional shapes the inclusion of diagonal lines in the second shape allows our brains to experience it as a three dimensional object even though it is not. Another important lesson can be learned from the following diagram. If we put 100 new photographers in a room and asked them to photograph the block, I would hazard a guess that at least 90% of the photographs look like the first one. Most of the photographs will end up being flat.

The best place to look at an object is usually not the best place to photograph it from. When we want to look at something we usually stand in front of it. We do not need to worry about it looking flat because we are seeing it in a three dimensional world. However if we stand to one side and photograph it in such a way that we start getting diagonal lines suddenly it will start to look three dimensional in our photograph.

Next time you are getting ready to photograph something remember this diagram and ask yourself if your camera position is best for a human viewer or a camera. If your camera position favours the human viewer you need to move your position.

As another example observe the photo of the Elvis busts at Honest Ed’s Store in Toronto, Ontario. The busts themselves were neatly lined up on a shelf in rows. By rotating the camera and tilting my camera phone I introduced diagonal lines into the photograph which makes it look a lot more interesting.

Convergent and Divergent Lines

Lines in addition to running parallel can also converge and diverge. If I was to use the expression “the whole wide world” you will probably imagine a whole lot of lines that diverge and spread out in all directions. On the other hand if I say “a door at the end of the hallway with restricted access” you will probably think of a bunch of lines converging on a spot where they converge and then abruptly end at a door with restricted access..

We can use converging lines to draw the eye to a certain spot in the photograph or we can use divergent lines to convey a sense of openness. We can use divergent lines to draw the viewer into the photograph or take them out the photograph. Generally we want to favour divergent lines that make viewers want to look at our photograph as away from it.

The converging lines in the staircase and the walkway all serve to draw your eye to the top of the stairs where they all come together at an imaginary point. The use of convergent lines in this photograph serves to bring you into the photograph and draw you to an imaginary point.

Lines Tell Stories

One of the best things about lines is that they can tell stories. Since photographers are visual story tellers, lines represent a way that we can use to help tell our visual stories. Some convergent lines can make for a warm inviting photograph that brings the viewer into the photograph and wants them to keep looking.

An abundance of lines could indicate a natural disaster. The absence of lines after a natural disaster could indicate a violent and devastating disaster. The absence of lines could indicate newly fallen snow while a lot of lines after a snowfall could point to a place where children have been playing. The smooth lines in a baby’s skin vs the hard lines in an elderly person’s skin. A lot of lines can denote age while a lack of them can indicate youth.

You need to pay attention to the lines in your surroundings and ask yourself if they are adding to your story or taking away from it.

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Think Like a Photographer: Be a Failure

How do we learn to compose?

We learn to compose by taking lots of pictures. It seems simple enough, the more you do the better you get but we need to realize it comes with a caveat. Simply taking lots of pictures is not good enough. We need to take pictures and constantly evaluate them. Taking lots of pictures will be of little use if you keep making the same mistake.

Why do we take lots of pictures?

Because you will fail and you will fail a lot. A lot of your shots will be terrible. There is no nice way to put this but you are going to do a horrible job of it. Being a failure at photography is actually a great thing. Once you learn to accept you are going to fail then you can begin to think as a photographer.

SO WHAT?!?!?! Consider a magazine cover shoot. We could shoot 100 photos and how many photos do we need for a magazine cover? 1. Think about it for a moment. We shoot 100 photos and only use 1 that would mean we have a 99% failure rate. Despite a 99% failure rate our shoot would be a success because we got our magazine cover. I do not think that most people would jump out of an airplane with a parachute that had a 99% failure rate yet we gladly accept only using 1% of the photos.

I think that on average the average photographer will only show about 1% of the total photos they have ever shot. That means we need to accept failure as a part of the process. Even the world’s best photographers take photos that go horribly wrong. The secret is they do not show them so we never know about them.

Knowing that we will fail means that when we do fail we need to know why we did fail. Sometimes we know what we did wrong and other times we do not. We learn photography to reduce our failure rate and also so that when we do fail we know what we did wrong. We need to learn from our failures. So many times we are told to go out and take pictures without a clear idea of why we are doing it.

Your composition can only improve if you are honest with yourself as a photographer. One of the hardest things to do as a photographer is take a photograph you are proud of and reject it because it fails on its technical merits. That also means being open to criticism. I see it all the time where a new photographer shows a photograph and invites criticism and when they get a comment they disagree with their retort is “I don’t follow the rules.”

If you read my previous introduction then you will remember that the rules of photography ultimately exist to enhance our ability to tell a visual story by helping our brains to interpret the photograph. If you are a photographer who is out to “break all the rules” without learning the rules and mastering them then you are a failure as a photographer and your photography will suffer a 100% failure rate.

Remember a 99% failure rate is acceptable however we can and should do better then 99%.

How do you work knowing 99% of your photos will fail?

You only show your best work. Many new photographers tend to take lots of shots and show them all and the problem is that your good shots get mixed in with your bad shots and then your work will suffer as a result. If you take 100 shots then just pick one and show that. The less you show the better off you are. The reason is that picking just that one photograph will force you to be super critical of your work and you will find mistakes and flaws you can use to learn from.

Why go to all this time and trouble?

Learning photographic composition will help you in so many ways such as firstly it will allow you to take better pictures. Photography is like a two sided coin. On one side we have photographic composition and the other we have photo editing. Knowing how to compose a photograph will help you with editing your photos. When I say edit your photos I mean look through all your photos and decide what to keep and what to throw out.

As well knowing photographic composition will allow you to evaluate other’s work. If you are capable of editing your own work then you can edit others as well. I would encourage you to look at the photography that surrounds us and when you see a photo take a look at it and decide what you like about it and what you do not like about it.

Finally knowing photographic composition will allow you to express yourself to other visual artists. As your photography develops hopefully you will be able to take on a collaborative project with another visual artist and you can use your knowledge of composition to communicate your ideas as well as understand what is being communicated with you.

Where can we learn photographic composition?

We can learn it from the Internet, books and other photographers works. It is all out there waiting to be learned. Learning it will take some time but once you start to learn it and you notice the improvements that will motivate you to want to shoot more and do more.



You may of noticed that I have spent a lot of time talking photography without referencing any photographic gear or technical terms. Why am I not talking gear? For one simple reason. We don’t need it! When you talk about photographic composition with the aim of using to develop a photographic vision we need to understand that photographic gear is simply the tools we use to recognize our vision.

A vision that is defined by gear is not a vision or even photography! Stop worrying about the gear you do not own and worry about the gear you do own and how you are going to use it to learn photographic composition.

When we talk composition we need to understand that there are two parts:

Visual. This involves elements such as lines, shapes and colours.

Technical. This is things like exposure, lighting, white balance.

The remainder of this discussion will focus on understanding visual composition.

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A Great Way to Think About Exposure

I found this diagram and it’s a great way to think about exposure if you are trying to learn it.

(Source: Understanding Exposure – ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed Explained)

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Think Like a Photographer: Introduction

What is a Photograph?

The question may seem like a a simple one but if you are going to think like a photographer you first need to start with the basics and work from there. A photograph is a still image of a subject captured with a camera and rendered in a print form. What I just said would be a good definition of a photograph if you are a scientist. However we are interested in thinking like photographers not scientists so let’s try a better definition.

A photograph is a visual story. That is the definition of a photograph we will concern ourselves with. Typically many new (and even experienced) photographers get so hung up on the technical side of photography that they forget what they are doing and that is to tell a story. Photography at its core is an art form and an art form seeks to engage the senses. We can buy all the gear we want, learn every Photoshop command and take all the photography courses in the world but at the end all we want to do is tell a story.

Best selling books will sell books because they tell compelling stories with a mastery of their language. Compelling photographs tell compelling stories with their compelling subjects, composition and technical details. If a photograph is done properly people will be remember it without having to see it again. Some of the most compelling photographs are not the best technically but present subject matter so compelling we can remember it because of the stories they told.

I would urge you to remember this little bit of wisdom: a finely composed and technically superior photograph of a boring subject is still a boring photograph.

What is a Photographer?

If a photograph is a visual story then a photographer is a visual story teller. A photographer needs to understand all the different elements of a successful photograph and how to bring them together. Ultimately we not only want people to understand our story but why we are telling it in the first place. We as photographers need a purpose for doing what we do and our photographs should answer it.

If you are a portrait photographer then your photographs should say this photograph was taken to capture the subject and make them look good. Good photographic journalists take photographs that make viewers understand that the event and subject captured was captured because it was significant. Because there is always more to be done to tell a better story photographers always need to be improving their knowledge and understanding of the craft so they can put it in practise with the visual stories they tell.

How do we tell a story with a photograph?

We compose it. Composition is part visual design part technical. We need to understand both and bring both together to make our photography work. If you have spent any time practising photography then you know that this is easier said then done. Composition involves the basic shapes and colours and placement of subjects. The technical side of photography involves things like lighting, exposure, depth of field, digital editing etc etc.

For the most part this discussion is going to be limited to the visual composition of photographs and how to organize them to make compelling photographs. Most new photographers tend to skip the visual composition education and jump into learning about subjects like how to expose photographs and use their flash. As they start to get good at these subjects they start to notice their photographs are missing something they can not quite figure out and that is the visual composition.

Why do we compose a photograph?

In order to understand why we do it we need to understand the two largest limitations about photographs. The first is that a photograph is two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world. Imagine a big mountain range and now imagine it compressed into a piece of paper. The second is that the photograph is a cropped version of the world. If you want to see what is around the corner of a hallway you simply walk around the corner. In a photograph we do not have that ability.

We have to remember that when others see our photographs they are going to see them and attempt to see them as the three dimensional world we captured so we compose photographs to present things to the brain in a visually stimulating fashion. We spend a lot of time constructing photographs but we need to remember that people are going to look at them and try to deconstruct them again back into the original scene.

A good photographer is not only a visual artist but a cognitive psychologist who understands how the brain sees and interprets photographs and attempts to manipulate it into things the brain will find visually stimulating.

What makes a successful Photographic Composition?

There are a few basic elements that go into composition. The first is the placement of the subject. Do we put our subjects in the middle of the photograph, the side, top etc. The second is paying attention to the foreground and background of the subjects. The third is the visual elements such as colours, lines and shapes. All of these will be explained in greater detail later on.

Why do we need all these elements?

Because we need to add visual cues for the brain to interpret. Remember that the brain will attempt to deconstruct our image back into a three dimensional world and we are looking to give brain some cues to help it out and see the world we captured. You may find the foray into cognitive psychology a little daunting but keep in mind the ancient Greeks figured a lot of this stuff out many centuries ago. In fact a lot of what we know about visual composition is derived from the ancient Greeks.

The one thing we need to remember is that 99% of the population probably knows nothing about the elements needed to properly compose a photograph yet they know a good photograph when they see it. We can write an essay in poorly written Italian and get away with it as long as we have an audience that does not understand Italian. Photographs on the other hand transcend cultures and education levels. A well composed photograph by a Chinese photographer can be understood and interpreted by a German viewer.

What happens if we neglect these elements?

The brain will misinterpret the cues and the wrong visual story will happen. A poorly composed photograph in the pianist’s equivalent of playing Mozart with boxing gloves. So therefore we need to remember this one simple rule: No composition means no photograph.

Of course if you take enough photographs, you will eventually get lucky and end up with a happy accident (the writer’s equivalent of a million monkey’s on typewriters attempting to write Shakespeare). Ultimately we would like to move away from the happy accidents and get more into composed photographs.

Where Does Photographic Composition Happen?

It happens in our minds. Before we take a photograph we need to see something we want to photograph and have an idea of how we want to do it.

Where Do we refine our composition?

The viewfinder of the camera. We take a look at what the camera is seeing and make the proper adjustments.

Where do we enhance our composition?

Photoshop or whatever your favourite photo editor is. Even if you shoot film there is still an enhancement phase at the photo lab.

What happens when we combine our mind camera and photo editor?

We develop our photographic vision. A photographic vision is what will make you an artist and separate you from 99% of the people running around with cameras.

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Look up


I am showing this photo to illustrate a point. Frequently when we shoot all we do is look in front of us. We miss out on what is above us and at our feet.

This was a fun lighting experiment because the ambient light inside old City Hall in Toronto. It was lit with an off camera flash with. Honl grid attachment. By no means impossible to do but it takes a little work and patience

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Cloud Computing for Photographers

Unless you have been living under a rock (and I envy those who do) you have probably heard the term cloud computing mentioned at some point. Maybe people told you they store their images on the cloud or their website is hosted on the cloud. Unless you have a degree in computer science you may find the concept totally baffling. As a photographer with a degree in computer science allow me to try to explain things.


Instead of telling you what cloud computing is I will start with its opposite because it is what you probably understand. The desktop or laptop computer you use is not an example of cloud computing. The pictures you take and transfer to your computer go on your hard drive in a directory. To find them you need to get on your computer and go to the appropriate directory. The directory path of your hard drive points to the physical location of your pictures on your hard drive.

Your files are available regardless of whether you have Internet access or not. As long as your hard drive does not crash or your laptop gets stolen then you know where to find them. That is how we have usually done things.

Cloud computing in a nutshell basically means we do things on the internet without caring about how its done or where it is done.

If you use a cloud storage service like DropBox to store your files you store them on the Internet without caring or needing to know how its done. Your picture file could be stored on 5 different computers across 2 different data centers. Either way you do not need to care or worry about it.

On the cloud as long as you know what your file is called then you can find it. You do not need to know where it is actually stored. It works the same way your cell phone does. When somebody calls your cell phone the cell phone company looks up what cell phone to make ring and it does. You can upgrade your cell phone and it still works. The person calling you need not worry about the fact you changed your cell phone as long as that when they call your number you answer it.

When people talk about running data services on the cloud it just means they are setting things up without caring how they are actually implemented. When you open your Facebook page you are quite literally accessing thousands of servers across the world. The thing is that you do not need to know how Facebook is doing it to access your Facebook page. You plug in http://www.facebook.com and Facebook’s servers do all the magic.

So what?

I think this is a fair question to ask if you are a photographer. The best reason I can give is that when you take advantage of cloud computing services it means you get to spend less time playing system administrator and more time being a photographer.

Using cloud storage services means you can backup and retrieve your files from anywhere without having to figure out exactly where they are located. If you use multiple computers no more worrying about what is stored where since things are in a central repository. Also if you suffer some form of data loss then your files are stored safely offsite.

If you take advantage of a cloud computing service for hosting your website then it means you do not really have to concern yourself with how the actual website is setup and hosted. Most cloud computing services are setup in such a way to minimize their computing requirements which means they become cheaper for you to use.

I hope I have better illuminated the subject of cloud computing and you can get a better feel for what it can do for you.

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Self Portrait

One of the hardest things to pull off is the self portrait. Here is my last attempt at it.

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Elvis Busts at Honest Eds

One person’s junk is another person’s photograph. It is a saying I coined and this photograph illustrates it. This photograph is a camera phone photograph of Elvis busts for sale at Honest Ed’s in Toronto Canada.

The photograph when originally shot contained a lot of muted colours. One of my favorite workflows for camera phones is to edit things in LAB colour mode. I can make the photo pop with one adjustment layer.

All I do is create a new curves adjustment layer. Steepen the A and B curves in both directions and increase contrast in zones 4 & 7 in the L curve. Easy stuff. I also did a little Gaussian blur of the background to put emphasis on the Elvi? Elvises?

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Bay Area Sunset

As photographer’s as we advance in our knowledge and craft our tastes in our previous work changes. This is one of those photos. Its a sunset on the Bay Area of California. I took it 12 years ago with my Olympus OM-10 camera on Kodak E100VS slide film.

I always regarded it as one of my best photos but recently I looked at it and decided I did not like the composition. The rule for horizon lines is either top third of the frame or bottom 1/3 of the frame not the middle as so many amateurs do (like me at the time).

I am still posting it as a lesson for photographers as well as its one of the few memorable film photographs I did.

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Remember the Fallen

I do not do a lot of digital artwork. Mostly just enhancements and adjustments. That being said this one of my forays into digital art. The two photos were taken at the Toronto Hall Remembrance Day ceremonies on November 11, 2011.

The photo is actually a composition of two images I took. The first is of the aging veteran and the second one is of a soldier at the same event dressed in a World War 2 uniform. The soldier was originally facing camera right so I inverted the photo and converted it to black and white. I merged the two images and reduced the opacity on the soldier to create the image presented here.

Lest we forget.

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