Using the 8 Principles of Art to Create Photos

In the previous column, you discovered the 7 Elements of Art and how they can help you make your photos. Today, you will discover the 8 Principles of Art.

These essential principles will help you improve your photos. They will spark interest among your viewers. You simply must dedicate some time to making your photos meaningful.

You may even be unconsciously applying some of these principles. This article is intended to help you master them first in the field when you are taking pictures and second once you are in the developing and processing phase.

This article will help you understand how to implement a new tool in your photography toolbox. By implementing it, you will make your photos even more interesting and instill in them true meaning.

A red deer stag in a clearing during the bellowing. This photo is harmonious. It respects the first principle of the art.
A red deer stag in a clearing during the bellowing. This photo is harmonious. It respects the first principle of the art.

The Story Behind This Article

In 2010, when I chose to reorient my professional activity from illustrative photography for magazines or stocks, to artistic photography, I researched the work of many artists. I started to study Rembrandt for his management of light, and Michelangelo for his way of seeing shapes.

But the one who held my attention for many weeks was Leonardo da Vinci. This legend of genius has always intrigued me. I learned that he left nothing to chance. He was a perfectionist artist who did not hesitate to destroy works in order to start them again, trying to reach excellence. I understood above all that he perfectly mastered the codes of artistic creation. His foundations were solid. From these foundations, he created new works or new techniques.

It was his life and his way of creating that inspired me. This is still the case today. I read that he had studied and worked a lot on the principles of art.

In 2010, I didn't know them. I was either making my photos or relying on my method to judge a photo in 5 points. It was just enough to make excellent illustrative photos.

But photography is much more demanding, complex, and difficult. So I memorized the essential principles of the art that da Vinci was using. They have never left me. I thought it would be interesting for you to know them too. They will help you to create better pictures.

I wish you a good journey in a world where everything exists, but yet where everything remains to be created.

The 8 Principles of Art

Here are the principles. They are valid for any artistic activity:

  • Harmony.
  • Balance.
  • Proportion.
  • Accentuation.
  • Graduation.
  • Rhythm.
  • Variety.
  • Movement.

It is obvious that not all these principles are present in every work of art. They constitute the basic foundations on which a work of art must provide unique content to be interesting. These principles are the result of thousands of years of artistic creation. They have been formulated over time. You may not agree with them. That is your choice. But reinventing the wheel which already exists won't do you much good. Your goal is to use these foundations to create, to advance, to develop, and to showcase your vision of the world to others.

Because of all of the artists who took years to compile it, this list will continue to serve you throughout your life as a photographer, even if you practice illustrative photography.

I realized a few years ago that if I had studied, understood, and learned this list of principles of art, I would have certainly made better illustrative photographs. I realized that these principles also extend far beyond art.

Application to Photography

These 8 Principles of Art apply perfectly to photography. They are pillars to help you choose your points of view, the way you frame, and your compositions. You will see that the rule of thirds is only a consequence of one of these principles.

You will read in this article that photographing animals at eye level is only a consequence of one of the principles. You will see that the management of the horizon line is a consequence of the principles of balance and proportion. I could multiply these examples again and again.

If you master the 7 Elements and the 8 Principles of Art, you have in your hands the basic tools to make good photos. All you have to do is master the codes of the language and writing of photography to express yourself.

Principle #1: Harmony

The definition of harmony is as follows:

The quality of a whole that results from the agreement of its parts or elements and their adaptation to a purpose.

If we apply this definition to art in general, we can say that a harmonious work is the way one combines identical or different elements to accentuate their similarity. To achieve this effect, the artist uses repetition or subtle gradations.

If I refine this definition to the field of photography, I can say that a photo is harmonious when it is visually satisfying.

The harmony of a photo results from the fact that you have correctly ordered different photographic elements in a pleasing way. They organize themselves in a natural way and combine to create your picture.

The harmony in photography results from an organization of the lines, the figures, the forms, the colors, the tones, and the textures which result in creating a pleasant vision to invest time into.

This photographic organization ensures that no element is incongruous or dissonant in your composition.

All these years of learning and experience have made me understand that a harmonious photo is just "right" and makes us feel "right” when we look at it.

It encourages us to feel peace and tranquility. We relax. We experience great calmness in our soul just by looking at it, even if it is a complex picture.

The question you are asking yourself now is how to create harmonious photos. My answer is to take care of your compositions. I remind you that composing a photo is organizing the different photographic elements of the scene in a harmonious way.

You have to choose which elements will be dominant and which will be the secondary elements. You must pay attention to the disturbing elements that do not bring anything to the reading of the photo.

You need to make good use of the reinforcing elements of reading that allow the viewer to put their eyes in the right place.

You must pay attention to the attributes of the photographic elements such as color and tones. You must analyze the values of each element (see the article about the 7 Elements of Art).

You need to keep a close eye on the balance of mass, avoiding an area that is too dark or too light to catch the eye of the viewer.

You must also pay attention to the harmony of color. I recommend that you know the color wheel well in order to manage complementary colors that catch the eye. Analogous colors allow for smooth transitions.

If you place a skyline in a photo, ask yourself how high you should place it to give your photo impact. Is the sky important? Is the land part essential?

To create a harmonious photo, you must pay close attention to the tone. That is to say the general rendering of the different tones of the photo. Is it a rather dark or rather light photo?

If you choose a light tone, your dark tones will be small areas in your photo. They should attract the eye without holding it for long. They are just there to highlight the subject. Or maybe it's the subject that is dark. Even if it is small, it will hold the attention because it will be the only one that is dark.

If the tone of your photo is dark, the spots of light must be small and discreet. They constitute the negative space that highlights the subject of your scene.

To create a harmonious photo, you also need to think about shapes. As I explained in the article on using the 7 Elements of Art, shapes are made up of closed lines that define a surface but have volume. Do not, for example, have a beautiful row of trees crossed by a horizontal line. You will break the harmony.

Avoid sharp shapes in a photo where you have a dominant of soft curves.

As you are beginning to understand, the harmony of a photo depends completely on the meaning, the message, and the emotions that you want to transmit. This is the first step: define what you want to translate or say with your photo. Next, do the following:

  • Define the dominant element.
  • Define the secondary elements.
  • Pay attention to the general tone.
  • Study the elements of reading reinforcement.
  • Study the attributes of the main elements.
  • Pay attention to color management.
  • Pay attention to shapes.

Remember that a harmonious photo is a photo that is pleasant to look at. It is a whole. It is a whole. No element should be stronger than the others. A photo is a structure composed of several parts. So, you can also create different types of photographic harmonies:

Une photo est une structure composée de plusieurs parties. Vous pouvez aussi créer donc des types d'harmonies photographiques :

  • Complex harmony.
  • Simple harmony.

Complex harmony is when you arrange many photographic elements together. Since each element has attributes, you need to manage the reinforcing elements well so that a viewer's gaze is directed where you want it to go.

Simple harmony is when you have a single main photographic element with a single tone negative space. The subject stands out easily. It becomes easily identifiable. The photo is easily readable.

To finish with the photographic harmony, I will summarize by saying that it is for you to organize the photographic elements of a scene so that the whole is pleasant to look at. We are in the register of the creation of a photo. We don't just take it.

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But be careful. Harmony is one of the principles of art. It is interesting to apply it in photography. Your photos are well constructed. But will they be interesting? My answer is no. Photographic harmony is a tool, not an end in itself.

Often I see harmonious photos, but I can't find a meaning, to define the message. This is more and more frequent because computer tools are more and more powerful. I look more and more at photos that have perfectly managed colors, very soft tones, and beautiful transitions. But in the end, they are flat and without relief. There is no sense to these photos. Be careful.

Photographic harmony is a tool for your creativity and what you want to say with your photos. Photographic harmony can also be called photographic unity. The difference between the two concepts is subtle.

Photographic unity is achieved when there is a close relationship between the different photographic elements of a composition, but they are not necessarily identical.

Unity is achieved when you make a photo composed of very different elements, but the whole conveys a coherent message, an easily identifiable emotion.

I mentioned here the concept of uniqueness, because I will come back to it in principle #7: variety.

Principle #2: Balance

I Want to Help You to Create Interesting Photos