Principles of Design: Learning to discuss your work

This lesson will give you the concepts and vocabulary you’ll need to discuss your work (and that of your classmates) in class this year. For every assignment you complete this year, you will be required to write comments about your work when you post it for grading. In addition, for each lesson you will also be critiquing one other student’s work.

The purpose of this lesson is to teach you the concepts you need to know in order to be able to discuss and critique photographs in an intelligent and knowledgeable manner. At the end of this lesson you will critique a series of three photographs and then submit that critique for a grade. Remember, You must obtain a score of 95 on your critique in order to show mastery. If your score is less than 95 you must resubmit your revised critique for a second (or third!) grading. Once you have received a score of 95 on this assignment, you may THEN (and only then) move on to the first photo assignment.

Note: The principles of design are the same for photography  as they are for other forms of art, therefore, this may be a review for some of you who have had an art or design class.  Moreover, some of the concepts you’ll learn in the first few lessons will re-emphasize this material as it applies to photography. Thus, I will be modifying the descriptions of these principals to make them applicable to our discussion of photographs.

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The Principals of Design

ShoesBalance is the distribution of the visual weight of objects and space in a photograph. In the photo on the left, the picture is well balanced, as one shoe is on a higher plane than the other.  Also, they are both the same size and are distributed evenly in the shot.  (Click on the photo to see a larger version.)




Emphasis is the main object in the image that catches the viewer’s eye.  In photography we refer to this as Focal Point.  In this picture, the focal point is the camera lens, as this is where your eye goes first. Identifying the focal point in a photo will be an important skill in this class.


Rail StationMovement
is the “path” that your eye takes through the picture.  Another term for this is “Leading Line”. In the photo on the left the leading line is fairly obvious. In some photos, however, the leading line is less obvious.  We’ll cover this more in a future lesson.



Photo by Dwight TanPattern is the repetition of shapes throughout a work of art.  In the picture on the left, the pattern is obvious, but it’s how the lighting affects the texture of the pattern, that makes it seem something more than just a collection of diamonds.   (Photo by Dwight Tan)



repetition_SantosRepetition works with patterns to make the photo seem active. In this photo the repetition of the shapes, along with the circular pattern and the water all give the picture a feeling of motion and depth. (Photo by June Santos)



Jade_TanProportion and Scale is how the size of the different objects in the photo relate to one another. In this photo the proportions are so different and out of scale that they add humor and interest to the shot. (Photo by Jade Tan)



Spinning fireRhythm is created when one or more elements of design (see below) are used repeatedly to create a feeling of movement.  Even though the rhythm in this picture is slightly irregular, the feeling of movement is prevalent. (Photo by Carlos Leyva)



Quad TablesVariety is when several elements of design are combined in a photo to hold the viewer’s attention and guide their eye through the work.  In this photo we see examples of color, line, space and form all coming together to add interest to the photo.



UnityUnity is when there is a feeling of harmony between the elements in a photograph. This helps to create a sense of completeness within the photo and gives it an overall cohesiveness. In this photo the columns and the steps blend well together. They have opposing shapes and forms, but the design of the area brings them together in a harmonious manner.


Figure-GroundFigure/Ground in the simplest sense the relationship of figure/ground can be thought of as foreground/background.  It is very close to the idea of positive and negative space as well.  In the picture on the left, the sculpture, the tables and umbrellas, and the building are the figure, and the sky is the ground.

• The elements of art and design are the building blocks of the photos you’ll be taking.  Click here to see a description of these elements.

• Information for this page accessed from This Site.