How to Make Stronger Photographs Through the Process of Visual Design


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Photography is an art that relies on light. It also relies heavily on the visual message. You have no way of communicating anything to your viewer except through the visual language you use. If you use strong visual elements, your images will be effective and people will stop and look. If you want to convey a message, use the most powerful visual imagery you can: color to enhance your scene, light to punctuate it, and use shapes and texture to fill in the details. Doing this will not only be more satisfying for you as a photographer, but will make your visual language stronger and your message more compelling.

It is right to assume that photography is about being able to see a scene, and then photograph it. I am going to challenge that assumption, and say that there is something vastly more important that comes after you “see” the scene, and before you photograph it. Most often, the next step is called composition.

Loosely defined, composition speaks about how the image is put together, what the components are in the scene, and how they work together. Very often, the first thing that we think of when we hear composition is, you guessed it, the Rule of Thirds. I truly believe that the Rule of Thirds is a good place to start, but it is by no means the only compositional tool. In fact, some of the most iconic images of our time have broken this very rule. So, the next step after you have decided on a scene is not to just snap away. Put some serious thought into how you will visually design your image, and then capture that scene photographically. After that, grab the camera!


What is visual design?

Visual design sounds like a fancy word for composition, but in reality it takes composition to the next level. It is not simply about making sure everything is aligned on a grid à la the Rule of Thirds. Rather, it is about working with the flow and dynamic elements in your scene. In this article I will discuss the nuances and tools you can use to improve your composition to get the most out of any scene.

There have been many times when I have looked at a photograph and I could almost feel the wind in the scene or smell the salty sea air. The photographer captured the image in such a way that when I looked at the scene, it evoked my memory of similar scenes I had witnessed in real life. At a very high level, people relate to images in a few different ways.

Waterfall 600Photographs evoke emotions, memories or feelings based on what the person sees in the image. In many ways, the viewer’s perception is their reality. So, if the image is of a loved one, the person looking at the photograph will immediately be transported to a memory of that person, good or bad. That memory could cause them to be quite emotional. The reaction to the image could be utterly visceral depending on what emotion is recalled. The same is true in a landscape scene or a seascape scene. The goal of every photographer should be to visually translate the scene in such a way that the viewer can either relate to the scene or would like to be in that scene.

The goal here is to change your perception on composition, to help you break out of the mental constraints of the Rule of Thirds, and open up new pathways to explore in photographic visual design. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the Rule of Thirds is bad; it is still a very relevant and useful tool. All I am saying is that it should not be your only tool.

What do we have to work with?

Light, color, and shape all play an integral role in visual design. Using these tools is a good start; however, now we will discuss some details about making more powerful visual design choices. The idea here is to move your images from good to spectacular. The new elements we will be talking about are:

  • Form
  • Color and color relationships
  • Texture
  • Unity
  • Coherence
  • Balance and rhythm
  • Space (positive and negative)

Form and texture

Form is similar to shape, but in this context I am referring to form in a more three-dimensional sense. Form is enhanced when there is side light to emphasize the shape of the object in the image. When the sun lights a rounded, polished rock from one side, the rounded form of the rock is emphasized. This gives the viewer some critical information about the object. Side light also emphasizes texture and that too is a key piece of information. With side lighting, you can emphasize the object’s shape and form to the point that the viewer can almost “feel” the three-dimensional aspects of the image. This is a really strong way to communicate visually.


At a higher level, when you want to communicate form and texture, side lighting is your best friend; soft side lighting is even better. The important idea to remember here is that side lighting adds dimensionality to your image. Try this on your next photo shoot: take a look where the sun is and take a photo of the subject with the sun over your shoulder. Then move to the side of the subject and take another shot. The difference will astound you. If you do this in the soft glow of sunrise or sunset, your results will be that much better.

Using color in your design

We all know how important color is. Think of your favourite image in color, then strip that color out and somehow it is not necessarily as impactful. That’s not to diminish the fact that black and white photography can be equally impressive – it absolutely is, however, to keep this article in context, we’ll leave black and white for a future article.


color gives the viewer crucial information about the scene. The warm colors of a fiery sunset or the cold blues of a glacier convey critical information about the scene. The overall color in your scene can determine how the viewer interprets it, so be purposeful with your use of color. If you want to convey warmth, choose reds, oranges, and yellows for your scene. If you want to convey cold, use blues, grays, and greens in your scene. You can see which colors are warm and which colors are cold if you look at the visual color wheel.

Colour Wheel

Certain colors draw the viewers’ eyes into the scene. Reds and yellows in particular cause the viewer to look at those colors (it’s not arbitrary that emergency vehicles are painted red and yellow warm colours,as they demand your attention). Be careful when you see anything that is red or yellow in your scene. It can either add value to the scene, if it is the subject of your image, or it could be distracting if it is not the subject of your image (in the background).

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Let’s talk about color theory briefly. This is by no means an exhaustive guide to color theory, rather a quick introduction into it. Your camera can “see” three colors: Red, Green and Blue (RGB). These three colors are the primary colors in the visual color wheel (different to the color wheel used when painting). There are secondary colors too, namely, Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. These six colors and their combinations make up the visual color wheel. The hue (color) and saturation (richness or intensity) of all of these colors give us multitudes of combinations of colors. Understanding this aspect color theory will help you make better choices about color when photographing.

Using primary and secondary colors together makes your images compelling. So, looking at the color wheel, images that have red and yellow in the scene make very interesting photographs. Images with red and green in the scene work well too. The next time you look at a scene to photograph, try and look at what predominant colors are in the scene and try to photograph those colors only. This alone can make your images much more striking and visually interesting.

Take some time to practice intentionally composing your images using these techniques.

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The preceding article is a full-length excerpt from the CLARITY eBook series. Join other dPS readers today and dramatically improve your photography by learning the step-by-step process of visual storytelling and techniques for making stronger photographs. Get your CLARITY photography eBooks today!

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Barry J Brady is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here. You can also join Barry on a photography workshop in Canada. Click here to find out more.

  • Wouter J. van Duin

    Why is there only an ordering link to the Clarity-ebooks and no link to info on these ebooks so there is some insight in what to get here?

  • Dave, Editor-in-Chief CLARITY

    Hi Wouter! The link has now been updated. You can refresh the page if you’re not seeing it yet. Enjoy! 🙂

  • Joanna Hayes

    Great article Barry! It’s true so much emphasis is placed on rules but if we don’t know how to really see, how can we apply rules right?

    I just grabbed the Clarity deal, and loving your series! Cheers!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Joanna, enjoy the magazine and thanks for reading! Yes, the rules are guidelines at best, but seeing is where is all falls into place!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Dave!

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Are those rules have assumptions to be met before we could successfully apply those rules? For instance, when we should apply rule of third, when not to apply rule of third.. ? Who set the rule of third, and what assumptions the creator of the rule has in mind when setting the rule?

    Even I suggest the use of color wheel to selecting clothes / background in the forum, some disagree..

  • walwit

    If you don’t feel it naturally It is hard to get it by intelectual understanding and this reminds me tha last episode of the tv serie The Actors Studio in wich Hugh Jackman answer a question about how get better every time, he said: by going deeper (inside oneself).

  • Photoshop Tim

    I love your comment. I do believe that all creativity comes from introspection, but learning how to look inside yourself is also a skill that can be refined with experience. I often wish I were as creative as others, but then I look back and see how far I’ve come and the progress that I’ve made. 🙂

  • That was my bad, all fixed

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Photoshop Tim, I truly believe we are all creative, we have just forgotten how to be creative. As children we all loved drawing, painting, making up stories and playing with our imagination. As we became adults, we were told that we need to behave like an adult and all that fun stuff was to be forgotten. Once we tap into our inner child and our creativity we soon realise we can all be artists. Keep tapping into that creativity, it will only get better and better!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Walwit, it is about tapping into that inner creative, take a look at my comment to Photoshop Tim below!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Choo, the rule of thirds is more of a guideline. I like to use it when I first look at a scene. I take a few shots using the rule of thirds and then I become more creative in my composition using other methods (Golden mean etc) You can use other tools as I mention in this article, colour, texture and so on. Really, it is up to you, most importantly, keep experimenting, try new things. See what works and what doesn’t that is the best way to discover new techniques.

  • Rhonda K

    Thank you, Mr. Brady, this article was very informative and educational.

  • Cal

    what I like to add: …. your creativity will change as you mature in the arts, as a child grows to play with other toys, until we call it.. material items to live with. elaborate and extend your learning, to never stop the evolution… be happy.

  • Thanks so much Rhonda!

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