Photography/History Vocabulary: Principles 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.

Principles of Design

  • Balance
  • Contrast
  • Emphasis
  • Focal Point
  • Pattern
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm
  • Scale
  • Unity
  • Variety


  • refers to the sense of distribution of perceived visual weights that offset one another

Balance may be the most fundamental of the principles of design. Most people prefer a balanced composition to a wonky one. This photograph employs symmetry. This means you can draw a line vertically the center and the two sides are a mirror of each other. This makes for a pleasing image.

Here we see radial symmetry. This means you can draw a line through the circle anywhere and there would be a mirror image on either side of the line.

This photograph uses asymmetrical balance. If you draw a line vertically down this image, the two sides do not look the same. There are like objects on either side, however, they are different sizes and are at different angles.


  • refers to the arrangement of opposite elements in a work to create visual interest, excitement and drama

Perhaps the most obvious use of contrast is between colors. Here there is a use of a neutral color (grey) surrounding bright pinks and yellow.

This photograph employs a sharp use of contrast known as chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is typically used to create the impression of volume.

Like the first photograph, this image has a contrast in color. However, it also has a contrast in visual texture. One side of the photograph is smooth marble while the other side is filled with the texture of foliage.


  • refers to the drawing of attention to particular content within a work of art

In this photograph there are two areas of emphasis. The boy is emphasized by his red shirt, while the architecture is emphasized through scale. This creates a nice visual tension which makes the eye bounce back and forth between the boy and the architecture.

The emphasis in this photograph is created through the use of shallow depth of field. This means that only a part of the image is in focus. The out of focus background pushes it to a subordinate position in the photograph causing the eye to study the plant in the foreground.

Color creates the emphasis in this photograph. The yellow draws the eye in first and then the eye travels down to the cyan bucket. The eye bounces back and forth between these objects because we all understand what white shower tile looks like.

Focal Point

  • refers to the center of interest or activity in an artwork

Here the focal point is the woman’s face. She is facing and looking directly into the camera lens. Viewers are automatically drawn to the eyes looking right back at them. Even though the woman’s eyes are in shadow they still draw in the viewers attention.

This photograph uses color and scale to draw the viewer into the minaret. The bright red/orange and the fact that it towers over the rest of the objects in the photograph make the minaret the focal point of the image.

This photograph employs several things to make the lotus flower the focal point of the image. First, it is centered in the frame. Second the magenta and yellow is brighter than the green around it. Third, the lotus is a square surround by round lily pads.


  • refers to the underlying structure that organizes surface or structures in a consistent, regular manner

Pattern is the main theme of this photograph. This image is a form of cheating, as the pattern was already painted on the wall and I just snapped a cell phone image of it.

The pattern in this photograph is created through the architectural screen. The pattern is made through positive and negative space. The positive space is the wooden carved floral elements while the negative space is the wholes in the screen.

In this photograph, the pattern is created through the way the objects have been laid on the ground and hung from the side of a building. Square/rectangular shapes are repeated throughout the composition and punctuated by one circle.


  • refers to the relative size of parts of a whole

The proportion of the fireworks in this photograph is relatively small. The fireworks take up a little less than a third of the photograph.

The proportion of the sign in this photograph is large and total. The sign takes up the entire photograph, meanings its proportion is total.

This photograph has three elements, the ground, the sky and rocks/architecture. The sky takes up a slightly larger portion of the total photograph than the other two elements. The ground takes up the second largest amount of the total photograph, while the rocks/architecture take up the smallest portion of the photograph. Funny, it works out like the real world. Through human perception, the sky bleeds into outer space, an area we can not even comprehend. This is followed by the earth and then our own humanity, man we are small.


  • refers to the regular or ordered repetition of elements in a work

The rhythm in this photograph is straight forward and not extremely exciting. The colors of the spices are of the same conical shape and the work as a color scale of warm colors transitioning from yellow to orange. In front of these spices are bags of chilly peppers. They flow like ascending stairs from the left of the frame to the right.

The boats in this photograph create the rhythm. They go from small in the front to larger in the back. Furthermore, they are the same shape and color. The other element that really pushes the rhythm of the image is the first boat in the row is turned diagonally while the rest are horizontal.

Shape and line are the elements used to create rhythm in this photograph. There are circular signs hanging from an overhang. They are hung in a line and recedes into space. The fact that the signs are not uniform implies they are freely suspended and able to move, emphasizing the feeling of rhythm.


  • refers to the size of an object in relationship to the size of another object in an artwork

This is the most complex play of scale shown here. There is the obvious scale difference between the men and the architecture, as the architecture is not contained in the photograph and towers over the men. The second use of scale in the image is the play of scale between the men and the figurative sculptures on the wall of the temple. The architecture is monumental, the men seem to us as appropriately scaled while the figurative sculpture is small compare to the human form it is imitating.

This photograph contains the most obvious change in scale between two objects. There are two like signs in terms of shape shown here. One is larger than the other, making scale immediately noticeable.

This photograph depicts a confused scale. The foliage in the foreground looks as large or larger than the temple in the background. This creates a contorted understanding of scale.


  • refers to the elements in an artwork combining to make a balanced, harmonious, complete whole

This photograph employs unity through grouping like objects. All of the dentures and a few prescription glasses are both used as substitutes for things in/on the human face. They are visually similar and deal with the face creating a visual unity and an intellectual unity.

Unity in this photograph is created through like objects and color. The objects are cenotaphs made of marble. Though each of them was built to commemorate a different Maharana of Udaipur, they all have the same shape.

The unity of this photograph is complex. The unity is created through the pastel color palette and placement of objects. There is a rectangular door in the center. The tall white gate that runs along the entire left side of the photograph is balanced by a niche in the lower right hand side of the image and a yellow area at the top of the right hand side. The placement of objects of various scale and number on either side of the door creates a balance, which creates a unified composition.


  • refers to the use of different art elements to create a composition

This photograph employs variety through shape texture and color. The left hand side of the photograph is filed with cyan squares framed by white peeling paint that reveals red underneath. The other side of the photograph is a flat wall painted pink, with an image of a man and flowers painted on it. Thus, there is a variation of geometric forms with organic ones.

The variety in this photograph is created through the different writings on the wall. This wall has been tagged by the various people that have visited the space. The writing varies in script, color and size. Some of the writing is scratched into the wall while others have been written with marker.

This is my favorite photograph employing variety. The variety in this image is created through the chaos of the many objects being depicted. The people, bicycle, clothes hanging from the line, electric pole, safety door, manhole, doorways and signs. It represents the visual chaos of India. The best part about India.

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By |2018-12-17T23:24:41-06:00December 18th, 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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