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The words shape and form in photography are sometimes used interchangeably. However, the terms are actually two distinct visual characteristics. In this article, we’ll take a look at the difference between shape and form and their application in photography.
Curves and other irregular, flowy shapes are known as organic shapes, while angular shapes like squares and triangles are geometric shapes.
Early rock art is an early example of the use of shape in visual culture. During the Renaissance (and for many years thereafter), form was the predominant characteristic of two-dimensional art. However, with the advent of modern art, artists returned to the use of shape within abstracted and minimalist artistic movements.
Forms in visual art differ from shapes because they are perceived as three dimensional – they operate on width, length and depth. Forms can be either geometric or free-form, with no specific delineation or visual boundary. In two-dimensional formats like painting and photography, three-dimensional forms are generated with aspects like line, movement and value (darkness and lightness).
Lewis W. Hine’s Steamfitter, an iconic depiction of the 1870s industrial labor, makes use of strong, flat shapes to emphasize the form of the subject.
Form has also had a consistent presence in photographic history.
Carleton E. Watkin’s Sugar Loaf Islands is an example of texture elevating form.
And Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Abandoned Theater series studies the power of light in sculpting form and time.
There are endless photographic opportunities for both shape and form. Focusing on aspects like light, perspective, depth of field and color/black and white will help coax out shape and form in your photography.
Depending on the angle of a light source, light can either elevate or flatten a subject. If you want an image made up of dramatic forms, aim for angled lighting to encourage shadows.
Silhouettes, on the other hand, render subjects as dark two-dimensional shapes. To create a silhouette, photograph a subject positioned against a light background with little or no front-lighting.
Sometimes form can be stimulated with a change in perspective. Photographing front-on to a subject can flatten forms into shapes. Approaching your subject from an angle reveals shadows that cultivate form.
Depth of field affects the way shapes and forms are read.
A shallow depth of field separates the subject from the background (and sometimes foreground) of an image, conveying a more dimensional picture.
The borderless nature of blurred forms also create a sense of activity within a photograph, contributing further to the perception of form.
To place greater emphasis on form, many photographers choose black and white over color. Often you’ll find that depth can be emphasized to a greater extent with the tonal sensitivity of a black and white scheme.
On the other hand, solid colors emphasize the ‘flatness’ of shape. Using blocks of bold color is a way to enhance the immediacy of two-dimensional structures.
Form is often visualized with fluid borders. This effect can be created through intentional camera movement (or ICM). ICM involves moving the camera during a long exposure (usually 1/125th or less). The results are abstracted forms that are unique, engaging and fun to make!
While shape and form in photography play different roles, each cultivates a distinct level of impact and engagement.
Through the use of light, perspective, depth of field, color/black and white and movement, we can use shape and form to enhance the construction of an image.