The science of shapes: Learn the psychology behind basic forms and figures in photography

Chad Verzosa

We all know how colors alter how we feel when looking at pictures, but shapes and figures are just as potent in affecting us psychologically. They not only provide the framework for the physical world, but they also influence how we perceive the space around us.

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr

For example, triangles can represent success, and squares can symbolize balance and security. By understanding the science of shapes, you can effectively utilize them in your photography.

In this article, we’ll talk more about the symbolic significance of common shapes and figures and how to use them to create more meaningful and emotionally engaging images.

01. Triangles

Photo by Sandro Katalina

Because of its structure, the triangle is often used to represent perseverance and achievement. Its wide base alludes to the struggle or the journey, while its pointy tip, or the peak, embodies the goal. That’s why when you search for images of "success," it’s not surprising to see hundreds of photos of people on top of hills or mountains that are, of course, shaped like triangles.

Photo by Joshua Earle

In graphic arts, this versatile shape symbolizes balance and stability. Apart from the rule of thirds, many photographers (as well as artists)  like to use what’s called the golden triangle rule in their composition. It involves arranging elements in a triangle to create a harmonious and symmetrical image.

Photo by Sebastian Unrau
Photo by Sebastian Unrau

The lines in the photo above form a triangle, converging towards the tree, which is the focus point.

You can also use the triangle to draw your viewer’s eyes to the image’s main point of interest. People are so used to seeing it as a symbol for direction that they instinctively follow where it’s pointing—that's why you often see them on things like road signs and elevator buttons.

Photo by Frank Veschi

02. Squares

Photo by Erol Ahmed

Squares and, similarly, rectangles are the most common shapes you see in man-made objects. You find them everywhere from picture frames to large buildings. People like them because they’re simple, balanced, solid, and secure.

Photo by Steven Wei

The square’s positive attributes aren’t just limited to physical entities; it also works well in adding emotional and aesthetic layers to images. Its lines and angles make it perfect for framing a scene in a photo. When stacked together, it also creates a pattern that feels orderly and industrial.

Photo by Simone Hutsch

Additionally, it can be used to isolate different components present in a photo. If your composition looks a little disorganized, placing them in squares would do the trick. Just think of it as putting stuff away in boxes—it makes everything look neat.

Photo by Dylan Nolte

The square’s hard angles can also symbolize masculinity and all the admirable characteristics that come with it such as strength, stability, and dependability. However, its rigidity can also be interpreted negatively, especially since its inability to flow visually prevents it from connecting emotionally with people.

Next time you go out with your camera, don’t take photos with too many squares or it may end up looking dull and uninteresting. If you do, try to include something that would interrupt the pattern as demonstrated below:

Photo by Loic Djim

03. Circles

Photo by 301+Kim

While the square is ubiquitous in man-made structures, you can often find circle in its various forms in nature. Needless to say, many consider it as the symbol for the cycle of life.

Photo by Mateus Bassan

Circles are pleasing to the eyes because they’re smooth and don't have sharp angles. Consequently, their presence make an image feel youthful, happy, and carefree.  

Photo by Timothy Paul Smith

The circle has many uses in photography: When arranged in a pattern or other formation, it makes the photo feel synergetic due to its calming qualities. And when an image has a lot of lines, introducing a circle in the scene helps make it more balanced.

Photo by Samuel Zeller

You can also use the circle to frame an image in a more organic manner. As opposed to deploying a square which boxes in the subject, the circle draws in the eyes more naturally towards the main point of interest.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka

04. Polygons

Photo by Klaus Tan

The polygon is all about strength and structure. When stacked together to form a honeycomb, it creates a robust framework. It's such an impressive engineering feat that even bees use it to build their beehives.

Photo by Jez Timms

The complexity of this shape also conveys a futuristic aura. That’s why we see them featured in sci-fi movies every now and again. Of course, real scientists and engineers also use them for various purposes from creating silicon chips to constructing experimental structures.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

If you want to make a photo that looks different, then better start hunting for structures with polygons. Since they're not as common as other shapes, incorporating them into a picture would help capture people's attention quicker, especially since they're easily drawn to the unusual. Additionally, the intricate geometric patterns they create also keep the eyes busy, providing the illusion of infinity at certain angles.

Photo by Silvio Kundt

05. Curves

Photo by Sergio Smirnoff

Humans are known to respond more positively to a curve than a straight line. While a straight line is rigid and immovable, a curve is smooth and flowy. Subsequently, seeing curves makes us feel calm and relaxed.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi

Most of us know that a curve is also often used to represent sensuality, but what’s surprising is that this association goes beyond the human figure. Even architecture and automobiles can be considered “sexy” if they have a curvy design. Additionally, since there are plenty of artificial structures that have far too many hard edges, in contrast, objects that feature curves also often look more stylish and contemporary.

Photo by Simone Hutsch

For visual purposes, the curve can be used to help direct the eye to the focal point of the image. Because of its smooth visual quality, it allows the viewer to explore the picture casually without straining the eyes. Moreover, if a scene looks too boxy with hard angles everywhere, you can incorporate curves to add a sense of fluidity to your image. Straight lines, circles, and curves complement each other visually, so don’t be afraid to put them together in one photo.

Photo by Stephen di Donato

06. Spirals

Photo by Ludde Lorentz

Looking at the spiral feels like being tricked by an optical illusion. Because of how it leads the eyes towards the center of the photo, it feels hypnotic and makes you feel dizzy at the same time. Through the centuries, it has come to represent so many different things, and we'll discuss some of the most popular ones here.

Photo by Aaron Burden

Since it’s found everywhere from the galaxies to seashells, it has become a good metaphor for life. Due to its configuration, it has also interested mathematicians, scientists, and artists alike. In fact, the golden spiral ratio (a.k.a. Fibonacci’s ratio)—which features a spiral—has been used by artists and even photographers since the Renaissance to create a mathematically perfect composition.

Photo by Chandler Hilken
Photo by Chandler Hilken

The “Golden Spiral” can be used to create well-balanced compositions such as the photo above.

However, the spiral also has a sinister side to it. Sometimes, looking down into it feels haunting and dangerous. Furthermore, it can also evoke mystery, especially if we can’t see what lies in the middle or at the bottom. When it's moving, it can cause dizziness or even vertigo. It's so effective, movies use it as a device to elicit disequilibrium.

Photo by Natalya Letunova

If you want an image that compels people to look, then use a spiral (either a physical one or by applying the golden spiral ratio). People just react viscerally to it because, after all, it’s been mathematically proven to embody perfection and beauty—or evoke panic and distress. Either way, it works.

07. Lines

Photo by Frank Holleman

Lines may be quite common, but they’re also incredibly versatile as visual tools. Different lines have different effects on the viewer. For instance, the horizontal line, which aligns with the Earth, makes a viewer feel grounded. On the other hand, a vertical line feels more celestial since they’re pointing upwards. Then there's the diagonal line, evoking precariousness with its unstable angle.

Photo by Julien Rocheblave

Lines are commonly used for dividing various elements in an image to create a more balanced composition. By breaking down an image into different sections, viewers can more easily take in a scene. Subsequently, they also give order even to what would otherwise be considered messy layouts, as demonstrated by the photo below:

Photo by Ryoji Iwata

When used in patterns, lines can drastically alter how we view an image. For instance, a row of horizontal lines makes an area appear more expansive, while a column of vertical lines makes it look taller. Meanwhile, diagonal lines create the illusion that an image is off-kilter.

Photo by Nicolas Kwok

Now that you know how elements affect how people perceive an image, you can be more meticulous about what you include in the frame. There’s always more to a picture than meets the eye, so don’t just think about the visual quality of your work, but also its emotional impact. Use shapes and figures strategically in your work to lock into your viewer’s subsconscious.

Photo by Daniel Fazio