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.
What is a shape?
In basic terms, shape describes a flat, enclosed area of space. Shapes can be constructed with colors and lines, but all shapes are limited to two dimensions – width and length.
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.
Artists like Piet Mondrian, Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Agnes Martin all applied the language of shape to convey a visual experience.
What is form?
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).
Artists from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to Mark Rothko and Georgia O’Keeffe are well known for their execution of form.
Shape in photography
From Anna Atkin’s cyanotype impressions to Grant Mudford’s flattened architectural depictions, shape has had a strong presence in photography since it’s inception.
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.
And Harry Gruyaert and Ed Peters both incorporate bold shapes into their street photography.
Form in photography
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.
Philippe Halsman’s famous Dali Atomicus combines shapes and forms to create a dynamic and surreal portrait of Salvadore Dali.
And Robert Frank’s Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey appeals to our sense of both shape and form in photography to create an intriguing street perspective.
How to use shape and form in photography
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.
Focus on light
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.
Get some perspective
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.
Dive into depth of field
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.
Experiment with color/black and white
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.