Photography/History Vocabulary: Elements of Design

Welcome to Photography/Photo History Vocabulary, a section dedicated to the understand of the verbal communication of photography. Some words and their meanings can be hart to decipher from one another or theoretical words can be hard to grasp all together. This section will help readers understand each word in an easy manner.

Elements of Design

  • The basic vocabulary of art
  • What artists use as the building blocks for their artworks

These include:

  • Color
  • Form
  • Line
  • Mass
  • Shape
  • Space
  • Texture
  • Time and Motion
  • Value
  • Volume


  • the property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way the object reflects or emits light

Here color is used to make a small object in the photograph the focus. The small bright pink, blue and white ball stands out among the darker neutral color that surround it.

This photograph employs a color scheme known as monochromatic which means that all of the colors in the photograph are the same. Here all the colors are brown.

Perhaps the most used color strategy is to use complementary colors, these are colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel. Here the complementary colors being used are purple and yellow.


  • an object that can be defined in three dimensions
  • relates only to dimensional works, so does not really apply to photography, unless talking about a photographic object


  • a mark, or implied mark between two points

This photograph is structured with lines. The lines created by the stones and the mortar between them.

This photograph uses actual lines, meaning lines that can be seen. The lines crisscross through the photograph making them compete for attention with the statue behind them.

While this photograph does use actual lines, it also employs implied lines which are suggested by elements in the artwork. In this case, the implied line is created by the stylized bushes that lead the eye back to the Taj Mahal.

Line is also used to create perspective. This photograph exploits lines to create two-point linear perspective. Thus, the eye follows the lines at the base of Humayun’s and the implied line along the top of the building to two vanishing points on either side of the monument.


  • a volume that has, or gives the illusion of having, weight, density, and bulk
  • this is another element that deals with three-dimensional objects, so it only applies to photographs if talking about a physical photographic object


  • a two-dimensional area the boundaries of which are defined by lines or suggested by changes in color or value

Shape can be used in may ways. It can be obvious our more subdued. Here the use of shape is overt. Rectangles are the dominant theme of the photograph. The male body is also a repeated shape within the image. Thus, the shape helps highlight men’s underwear packaging in India.

This photographs depicts an object that has combined the shapes of a circle, squares, triangles, rectangle and organic shapes. This photograph is monochromatic, it is these shapes that differentiate the space and express the information in the image.

Here the shapes are perhaps not as obvious. The triangular roofs of the structure are straight forward. However, they have been balanced by the circular shape of the plant in the middle ground.

The primary shape in this photograph are the circles of the vessels. They are balanced by organic shapes in the lower left-hand corner and a curved line in the upper right-hand corner.


  • the distance between identifiable points, planes or objects

Photographs as objects do not take up much space as they are pretty flat. However, they can depict a variety of spaces within them. This photograph shows very little space as there is a wall in the background which cuts off any possible depth in the image.

This photograph explores space through layering. The structures overlay one another letting the viewer know which one is closest to them and which ones are furthest away.

In this photograph, there is a little layering among the buildings. However, the buildings create an implied line of one-point linear and recede into space. As the buildings recede into space they get smaller which is also an indication to the viewer that the buildings are further away from them.


  • the feel, appearance, or consistency of a surface or a substance
  • in photography, we consider visual texture, this means the texture of a surface or object is visible in the photograph

In this photograph, the way the paint was applied to the wood and hinges has created texture. Since a photograph is a flat smooth object, the texture in this is visual even though in reality it may be actual texture. Here the thick paint and the paint brush strokes give the viewer a sense of texture.

In this photograph, the viewer can recognize several textures. The text on this prayer wheel is raised from the surface giving the viewer the overall impression that the totality of the object has a varied texture. In addition, the tops of the letters are smooth. The viewer may surmise that the letters were smooth through both polishing and regular human touch. Furthermore, the viewer can see small scratches into the metal. These scratches are a visual texture only, as they are so small the human finger would not perceive them as texture.

This photograph depicts the backside of an architectural feature. At first glance the back of the architectural element seems smooth. However, with a closer examination of the photograph saw tooth marks are visible. This provides both a visual texture and a slight physical texture.

Time and Motion

  • Time – the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole
  • Motion – the action or process of moving or being moved

Time is essential to photograph. Most people understand that a photograph usually depicts a sliver of time. However, at times a photograph expresses longer amounts of time through long exposures or time-lapse. This photograph seems to suspend motion. There is a man peddling a bicycle, however, there is no visual motion. However, the viewer knows the man is in motion because it is impossible to balance on a bike for a period of time without moving.

In this photograph, the motion is palpable. The viewer can see the spinning motion of the wheels on the sugarcane press. The movement of the belt is also visible as it is blurred. However, the photograph also employs what is referred to as stop motion (which is also express in the bicycle photograph). Stop motion happens when the shutter speed of the camera is set really high (at 250, 500 or higher). These times are fractions of seconds, thus the digital sensor or film does not have time to record any motion. In this photograph, the motion of the people is stopped. It is obvious that they are not being static but that they are in mid-motion.

This photograph is crazy. Most people would not consider it a good photograph. I disagree. I love it, as it reminds me of the chaos of the bicycle tour I was on in Delhi. The motion in this photograph is from the movement of the camera while the shutter was going off. As I pressed the shutter release button I started to fall over on my bike. Thus, it really records the motion of the photographer as opposed to the motion of the subject/s in the image.


  • the lightness or darkness of a plane or area

This first photograph shows the extremes of value showing black text on a light grey background. The contrast in value makes the reading of the text possible.

This photograph show the changing value of a single color as it wraps around a column. The color gets brighter as the side changes and has more direct sunlight.

This photograph shows change in value in a more modulated way. The previous photograph shows a change in value through a color value scale. Here, the color green goes through value shifts on the lily pads. However, the value shift is not contained within one lily pad but in the totality of lily pads.


  • the amount of space that a substance or object occupies or that is enclosed within a container
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By |2018-12-17T14:06:48-06:00November 6th, 2018|photo/photo history vocabulary|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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